Leadership lessons from ‘Sesame Street’

Sep 19th, 2017 | By | Category: Commentary

Jeff Hough

By Jeff Hough

Nov. 10, 1969, was the day we first met Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, and Grover. ‘Sesame Street,’ a giant departure from the existing children’s programming, sought to teach children by using educational curriculum and goals as the “script” for each episode.

‘Sesame Street’ has evolved through the years, but the colorful cast of characters and the show’s mission has remained unchanged. To stay current, ‘Sesame Street’ has expanded to social media, mobile apps and YouTube, with the YouTube channel amassing over 2 billion views since 2006.

While preparing a presentation on the Millennial generation in the workforce, I reviewed the cultural and corporate impact of ‘Sesame Street’ on today’s workplace. To some it may seem ludicrous that a children’s show could influence the adult world of business, but from a leadership perspective, the show gets many things right.

Consider the effect of multiple generations growing up, drinking from the same fountain of knowledge. The show’s creators had a simple goal in mind when creating the show, but its cultural impact can’t be ignored. From the start, it promoted a multi-cultural environment where everyone lived and worked together in harmony.

Prior to ‘Sesame Street,’ children’s television programming consisted of such programs as a very white Mickey Mouse Club or Lassie. ‘Sesame Street’ was so radical and racially diverse that Mississippi banned the show temporarily because it targeted “impressionable young minds” with themes of integration for which the state’s children were not ready.

From a leadership perspective, ‘Sesame Street’ is a classic case of doing the right thing for the right reason. The show’s originators set out to create a program that would have a positive impact on the minds of children—they succeeded. Studies from the 1970s demonstrate that ‘Sesame Street’ had a positive influence on preschoolers’ test scores and academic abilities. This impact is still felt today.

Examining ‘Sesame Street’ from a business leadership perspective is interesting because the show’s mission and characters reveal several useful concepts.

First, the show demonstrates the concept of leading with a vision. Though they have never deviated from the original goals, the producers strive to find new and innovative ways to educate children. There have been changes to the show over the years, but those changes have always supported the original vision.

Next is the principle of keeping it simple. A.G. Lafley, executive chairman of Proctor and Gamble, uses the management philosophy of keeping things “Sesame Street simple” when dealing with the complexities of a large organization. Lafley often claims that innovation occurs when things are simplified.

Diversity is another area ‘Sesame Street’ has right. From the very beginning, the show’s culture was one of diversity and inclusion. The show explores everything from race to handicaps, with the constant theme of acceptance and learning from individual differences.

The show’s constant theme of cooperation builds on the previous principles. Throughout each episode the characters work together to solve problems or complete neighborhood projects. The Muppets taught teamwork and cooperation from the very beginning and have never strayed from the core belief that together we can accomplish anything.

Finally, the major leadership lesson from ‘Sesame Street’ is to believe in yourself. Being a leader is challenging; unpaved roads often lie before you. In a memorable episode, Ray Charles sings to Elmo about the importance of believing in yourself, even when people around you tell you something different.

‘Sesame Street’ is an iconic institution with numerous lessons for people of all ages. As business becomes faster and current leaders get a little grayer, it is important to reflect on some of the things that can bind generations together. ‘Sesame Street’ and its colorful cast of characters is one of those things—its lessons last a lifetime.

Jeff Hough is a business author, blogger and speaker in Pocatello.

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