What Ted Lasso has reminded me about humans and leadership


| Michael Pittman

I have a friend named Chris that runs a busy oil change shop.  He has been there since he was a young man and kind of worked his way up to it being his place.  Throughout most of his time there, he had a rescue mutt named Marley, a previously abused pup that his family had given a much better life.  She was a sweet dog who you kind of understood had a rough go of it before finding this new life, and appreciated her new lease.  Unfortunately, after becoming a wonderful part of his family, she developed cancer kind of unexpectedly and it was terminal.

We all knew that losing Marley would be tough on Chris, and when the time came it certainly was.  It was the first major loss of his life.  I remember talking to him a couple weeks after and he surprised me with pretty poignant thoughts on what it had taught him.  Perhaps first and foremost, he found himself dealing with aggravated or upset customers in a completely different fashion.  He said that as a young person he never would’ve stopped to consider why someone was in a foul mood, or why a customer was being unreasonable.

In his own grief for Marley, he found himself shorter with people than usual, and maybe even quicker to get agitated for a few days.  He was hurting and it was tough to bury.  He told me from that point on, he was going to give people the benefit of the doubt and essentially assume they had any number of life’s challenges influencing their behavior.  In his line of work, he would have a steady parade of all walks of life come through in all kinds of moods and dispositions.  Instead of responding to the agitated ones with agitation, he was going to kill them with kindness.  How could he ever know what that person is going through on that year, that month, that day?  

marley dog

This simple lesson reverberates throughout Ted Lasso’s two seasons, as an American football coach is hired to run a British Premiere League soccer franchise – without even knowing the rules of the game.  The plot is hatched by the vindictive and recently divorced owner who wants her ex-husband to suffer the only way she knows how.  Making his beloved football club a laughing stock of the league.  What she doesn’t know is Coach Lasso is the type of man that endears himself to those around him almost instantly and has a very firm understanding of what Chris learned after the passing of Marley.  Human behavior, dramatically more often than not, isn’t random.  Whether we are inherently good, or inherently bad, or most certainly some version of both – the way we act out and express our inner  turmoil or desires or demons can likely be traced to a root cause.  I don’t want to spoil this wonderful show for any of you, but if you watch it, look for how Ted addresses problems with his players – and he doesn’t really need to know the game to do so.  In almost every conversation he has, despite being goofy and sarcastic and overly positive, he is looking to understand what makes the person tick. If there is conflict, he is trying to understand the perspective of the player going through the turmoil – and what brought us to it. 

By learning these things, by being ever vigilant and aware of causation and the circumstances that pre-dated a human problem, you can address it and the player at the real core of the issue, and often without them even knowing you are doing it.  Any other resolution is fools good, you have likely slapped a coat of paint on an issue that will become a problem once again. 

I never forgot that conversation with Chris, because admittedly he was ahead of the ball on me at that time.  I remember thinking, he’s absolutely right.. and I swear to this day and sometimes much to my wife’s chagrin I simply don’t honk or really react any way towards a driver that swerves in my lane or cuts me off, at least if the risk of a crash is over and done with.   I don’t have the faintest clue what’s happening in that car, but what I can tell you is most likely he or she is not a horrible human and there’s a real good chance I get distracted and do the same to someone tomorrow.  What is the honk accomplishing if the threat of a crash is over?  Before that conversation with Chris, I felt the need to let that person know I was angry and I was calling them all kinds of names in my head.  I was a mild road-rager until he helped me gain a little perspective.   

Ted Lasso made me think of Chris and Marley and every time someone on my team is flabbergasted by someone else’s actions at work.  Have you considered how we got here?  Why did this happen and can we address that real root of the problem?  Is it more likely that it was an honest mistake, or just a poor decision, or something that has deeper root cause for us to address – as opposed to the colleague just being a bad person or bad at their job. 

Back to Ted Lasso.  I’ve changed my mind.  I do have one pretty obvious spoiler.  Ted turns the team around, not knowing anything about soccer, but taking the time to know a lot about humans.  In today’s world, where mental fragility is at an all-time high, this is how you enact change as a leader.  Maybe you can’t always give the employee the benefit of the doubt, you can’t always just kill them with kindness like Chris did with customers at his shop.  But like Ted Lasso in the show,  you can  be empathetic to the human and just maybe you will uncover something that makes the colleague and your team much better in long run.

-Michael Pittman