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Life (and High Performance) Lessons from Ted Lasso



Living in Australia (and not being into social media) has meant that, sometimes, I am behind the curve on US-based popular culture happenings and must-see TV. So, with apologies to those of you for who have already “been there, done that,” I’d like to recommend you try out the Apple TV show, Ted Lasso for two reasons. 1. It epitomises the idea—and my professional conviction—that high performance doesn’t have to hurt people. 2. It’s the feel-good AND do-good show for these tough times. Until I watched it, I did not know how much I needed it. :)


The series follows an American small-college football coach, Ted Lasso, who is hired to coach an English soccer team in an attempt by its owner to spite her ex-husband. He thinks she is just trying to mix things up. She wants him to fail spectacularly.


Coach Lasso is a hard-core, corn-ball optimist whose genial interactions with his soccer team’s patrician owner and cynical fans are comedy AND emotional gold. Also in the cast - because no elite sport team would be complete without them - are the team’s narcissistic star and the strident but showing-his-age captain. All of these stereotypes running up against a new coach who freely and cheerfully admits his lack of game savvy. Sacrilege - but it somehow works.


Here are some life (and high performance!) lessons I think we can take away from Ted Lasso. And the evidence backing the feel-good.


1. The Power of Kindness. Coach Lasso is relentlessly upbeat and kind. He immediately starts a tradition of bringing a small box of baked goods to the owner. At first, she is non-plussed but takes a bite and swoons. And immediately sends out her team minion to ferret out the bakery sourcing such deliciousness, to no avail. But never you mind—he just keeps delivering them. Who does that? The happiness those little cakes bring—every day, to an unhappy owner—is palatable. And that’s just how it goes, day after day, week after week. And, like a repeated drop of water cutting through rock, we witness the transformation it brings.


Lasso fronts up to the daily onslaught of combative media questions with homespun anecdotes and unexpected candor, never defensive, cynical, or negative. Through these small, repetitive acts of open-hearted approachability, we watch as Coach Lasso disarms—over and over again—people expecting a very different response. They push…and he simply opens the door wide.


Why is Kindness A Good Thing? Kindness counteracts the effects of burnout and confirms our sense of self-worth-- both for the receiver AND the giver. Moreover, kindness makes life more meaningful. In being kind, we are investing in something bigger than ourselves. Giving compliments is especially powerful in these times of Covid distancing - these acts satisfy our innate need for social connection by channeling our focus on others - in a nice way.


2. Just be You. Being this open and kind has drawbacks, as we learn. How do you care for your players and make hard decisions that mean winning or losing? Coach Lasso does not always get this right. We know when he, with a set of his shoulders, does the hard-nosed things for the good of the team that personally rub him the wrong way. Usually, because his trusted team of advisors finally wears him down…but also because we know who he is and what he stands for.


Research from the University of Michigan's Center for Positive Organizations has shown that bringing our "true selves" to our work is good for our mental health by reducing the negative dissonance that can hit when we try to change ourselves to fit into a culture--especially when that culture's norms violate our values.


3. Forgive easily and often. Coach Lasso is regularly insulted and mocked. The entire stadium chants “wanker… wanker,” raining down personalised abuse after some early losses. His affable shrug-offs and are a lesson for anyone who thinks the world should be treating them better. He is also betrayed regularly. And yet, when the Big Betrayal becomes known at the end of Season 1, Coach Lasso simply holds out his hand and forgives.


Honestly...I find myself wondering as I watch, even as a card-carrying softie, optimist, and believer in the best of others, how would I keep things like this from bothering or breaking me? How would I respond? What a wonderful opportunity to ponder such things.


Author Jerry Jampolsky famously said, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.” In fact, forgiveness can save your life, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression, and stress.


3. It’s About People Over Winning. Ted Lasso shows us what happens, and how people respond—some well and some poorly— to a leader who treats them (some of them for the first time in their lives, it would appear) like human beings. His coaching philosophy comes across as novel, nay, downright antithetical compared to what we so often see in elite sport. Yet here he is, here it is, and we get to witness how it works. Yep, it’s just TV, so people go with it when he says it…but what an idea.


It’s an idea worth pursuing in today’s world where we have been able to test the veracity of such dyed-in-the-wool notions as “of course we all have to go into the office. It’s just how things are done.” In a world where we are challenging out-mode thinking about mental health being unimportant or our distress a sign of weakness. Is it time?


And if you ask me, it's about time. If only Facebook—whose own research has informed them of the destructive nature their search algorithms have had on children, yet they carried on regardless—had more of this ethos. If only Moderna— which has charged some poor countries more than rich ones for its vaccines—put people over profits. If only some of the coaches and leaders who have been found guilty of bullying, abuse, and other forms of power-gone-wrong over others saw the world in this way.


I love this show for how it makes me feel, and what it teaches us about how things could be if we were to prioritise kindness and people over winning and profits. And even gives us clues about how to do it, and how we would feel. What a blessing.


In the post-Covid world we are heading into, I believe there is room for both—people and profits. Kindness and winning. If we get the people part right, with kindness and compassion, profits and winning will come. There’s no need to sacrifice the former for the latter.


Thanks for tuning in and I hope you enjoy the show! And let me know your thoughts!


In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.com



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