What’s possible when we hold that two things can be true?

Recently, at the end of a stressful day at the end of a stressful week, I needed a pick-me-up, so I hit up my rainy-day YouTube playlist and rewatched Fred Rogers’ testimony before Senate from May 1969.

In the six-minute video, Rogers appears before a Senate subcommittee to defend $20 million in federal funding, at risk of being cut in half, for the then newly formed Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He makes the case for what he calls “a meaningful expression of care,” the kind of programming that shows characters exploring and discussing their feelings and that reinforces each young viewer’s inherent value and importance. The kind of programming exemplified by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in what would become its 33-year run on PBS. “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable,” he says to the committee, “we will have done a great service for mental health.”

Rogers concludes his testimony by sharing the words of a song he wrote to help children understand that they can feel all sorts of big emotions without those emotions overwhelming them. “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” the song begins, then goes on to provide not just a list of activities to help channel the emotion but also a way for children to notice and name the emotion as a way of mastering it. At the end of the song, subcommittee chairman Senator Pastore, says, clearly moved, “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.” And I, inevitably, tear up, my faith in humanity restored.

Perhaps even more powerful than Mister Rogers’ message of the importance of “expressions of care” or his guidance on how to manage emotions is, for me, his embodiment of just what’s possible when multiple things are true.

Fred Rogers was a private person. He never sought popularity or stardom. Yet he became the face of one of the most popular children’s television shows of all time and served as an influential role model for generations of Americans. He was a modest, gentle, soft-spoken person, yet he carried himself with authority and an enviable sense of self-possession and self-assurance. He despised early commercial TV programming (“I got into television because I hated it so,” he once told CNN), yet he saw the medium’s potential and so helped found WQED in Pittsburgh, the first community-supported educational television station in the U.S. And, in six short minutes of testimony in that Senate subcommittee hearing, with his unassuming, yet impassioned plea, Mister Rogers demonstrated that one need not be forceful, loud, or arrogant to be compelling, influential, and powerful.

So, what’s the lesson for leaders?

At Leadership Circle, we often talk about the need for leaders to be able to hold complexity in the situations they face. But it’s more than that. They must also be able to hold complexity within themselves.

As humans, we rarely embody only one trait at a time. When you get up to deliver a speech, you may feel confident, but I’d be shocked if you didn’t also feel other things, maybe excitement, maybe nerves, or even a burst of energy. Each individual moment is shaped by every moment that comes before it—and all the memories, emotions, and experiences we’ve gathered along the way. As a result, the way we show up as leaders, like how we show up in every part of our lives, can be messy. In short, work and life rarely fit into a binary, black-or-white set of responses and behaviors.

We contain multitudes, and we show up in many shades and multiple colors at all times. How we show up is what really matters. And the key lies in our choosing.

Take Mister Rogers, for example. At the risk of funding being cut, he could have stormed into that Senate hearing and done what probably everyone expected someone in his position to do—rail against the budgetary oversight and lambast everyone on the committee. Instead, he took the mad that he must have felt and realized that he could be both peaceful AND persuasive. That combination not only earned the funding he needed, but likely changed the face of television, early childhood development, and ultimately, the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

What’s possible when we entertain the notion that two things may be true? Well, that depends on each of us. But becoming aware of all the possibilities that we may not have considered before is how we hold complexity in our lives. When we match the world’s complexity with our own, all of a sudden, the world slows, decisions become clearer, and what’s possible becomes an invitation to play big in our decision-making, no matter the situation. So, the next time we face a complex situation, let’s ask ourselves:

If two things can be true, what’s possible?

Sarah Stall

Author Sarah Stall

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