What Works: The Y, Fred Rogers and Lessons in Leadership

shutterstock_681472885 1000x667I’ve been going to the YMCA since I learned to swim there as a kid in Newport, Rhode Island.

Now I go to a YMCA near my home in the Boston area. Normally, I go late at night – a habit I got into when my children were little and I worked out after they went to sleep. Today, it’s just a habit. Most of the people I see at night are high schoolers or college-age kids. A pick-up game of basketball and pounding free weights are the main attractions.

Today, I went in the mid-afternoon. The vibe was completely different. Babies napped on yoga mats in the nursery. The after-work crowd had not yet arrived. It was almost peaceful. I moved freely between the free weights and machines. I wasn’t long into my routine when I noticed, next to me, a lady, probably in her mid-to-late seventies. She was a bit frail, but holding her own on the leg press machine. Working with her was a guy probably in his twenties, a YMCA personal trainer named Kevin. Kevin was teaching her how to work each of the machines, moving progressively from legs to chest to shoulders.

For each exercise, Kevin would walk over and wipe off the machine. He’d explain what the machine did, which muscle group it worked, and how to perform the exercise safely and with proper form. She was quiet and spoke in a low voice. I’d catch her saying something funny; he’d laugh.

Between sets, I watched the interaction between these two people. As she exited one of the machines, I could see the lady’s hand trembling. She wasn’t always steady on her feet, but moved eagerly and purposefully from machine to machine. Each time, Kevin would help her get seated into the machine. Hold her arm. Gently lift her first leg and then second leg into position. He didn’t talk down to her, or ask if she felt strong enough to continue – he was confident that she could do it and simply gave her what she needed to do it. He’d give her a few instructions and off she’d go.

Kevin and his client were together for the better part of an hour. As I was wrapping up my workout, I was somewhat surprised to hear Kevin talking about a movie he recently saw about the life of Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Kevin seemed too young to have grown up watching the show, and yet, he clearly knew the story – and that Mr. Rogers was the very embodiment of kindness and compassion, and he led with those characteristics. In fact, these traits were what made Kevin a perfect leader for this woman.

Kevin’s partnership with his client was a living example of leader-as-coach. Kevin had knowledge that she didn’t and was helping her learn. More importantly, what I saw first-hand was the role that kindness and compassion play in leading. Kevin was helping her learn a new skill, sure. But the way he was engaging her – kindly, compassionately and patiently – was bringing her to a better place. In some ways, as leaders is that not what we are all trying to do, bring our organization to a better place?

We hear a lot of talk about leaders as decisive, assertive, charismatic. “He went in and negotiated a hell of a good deal.” “She took charge and made things happen.” What we hear a lot less about are the importance of empathy for the people a leader is serving, the role of kindness, a person who gives some of him/herself to help their colleagues learn, grow and engage in success.

We live in challenging times. As leaders, we need to deliver results. Certainly, they are as important now as ever. But I think we must aspire to more. I like to picture a world where leaders embody the traits of kindness, compassion, and empathy, as much as they do decisiveness, assertiveness and charisma. For me, I don’t see ‘either-or’, I see ‘and.’ Personifying both allows us to build better organizations and better people…and that is a model for sustainable success.