“Ted Lasso” is a television series from Apple that has captured the imagination and adoration of a growing fan base. Ted Lasso, the titular character, is a coach of American college football. He’s unexpectedly recruited to lead an English Premier League team, AFC Richmond, despite having no experience in association football (soccer). Aware of the cultural and ideological divides between the players and a new coach from abroad, Lasso tries in his calm, upbeat, folksy way to unite everyone. But he’s also clever and seeks ways to empower his team. In one popular episode, he gives everyone a different book. Though the team captain is incredulous at first, the lessons Lasso intended to impart make their impact. Because stories capture our imagination. And for that reason, compelling and empathetic storytelling can supercharge business leadership success.
Ted Lasso’s Wrinkle in Time
In the series, Lasso’s ostensible nemesis is Roy Kent, a former champions league winner with Chelsea FC, who was forced to step down eight years ago after a knee injury. Today, Kent is the often angry, always gruff captain of AFC Richmond. His talents are fading, he’s nearing the end of his useful career, and he’s reluctant to step up to the leadership responsibilities that come with the position. The team is disorganized and plagued by internal strife, including bullying among club members. Lasso tries to groom Kent into the leader he sees within, to little avail. In episode 3, Lasso gives all of his players different gift-wrapped books. Kent receives the middle school classic “A Wrinkle in Time.” He’s not thrilled.
Roy: “I mean, what even is A Wrinkle In Time?”
Trent Crimm (journalist from The Independent): “It’s a lovely novel. It’s the story of a young girl’s struggle with the burden of leadership as she journeys through space.”
Ted: “Yeah. That’s it.”
Roy: “Am I supposed to be the little girl?”
Ted: “I’d like you to be.”
Roy Kent ends up reading the novel. As he recites the end of the story to his niece, he realizes Lasso’s point.
Roy (reading aloud from the book): “‘What do you understand?’ ‘That it has to be me. That it can’t be anyone else.’” He concludes with an expletive, signaling his epiphany—that he must become a genuine leader, that he is best suited, and that the team needs him.
Stories Must Speak to the Heart and Mind
Lasso’s selection resonates with Kent because the message is specific to him, and it’s sincere. The riddle the protagonist must solve independently mirrors a journey of discovery that Kent must also undertake alone. Simply demanding that a person transcend or improve won’t have profoundly positive outcomes. Lasso simply points to a path that Kent must walk. Lasso also grasps the close bond between Kent and his young niece, so choosing an age-appropriate book increased the likelihood that Kent would read it, gambling on the notion that the story would become a shared bedtime tale.
However, storytelling is equally susceptible to failure when the story is unrelated, disingenuous, irrelevant, or self-serving. Anand Sanwal is the CEO of CB Insights. He regularly sends out newsletters that are packed with a perfect mix of business intelligence and wry humor. He’s an excellent storyteller. In a recent email blast, he called out a few examples of those who aren’t:
Here’s a podcast pattern I've noticed with successful folks.
They're asked about early life/school and their response is often something like, "I was a terrible student tbh. I didn't particularly enjoy school."
And then minutes later, "I attended Princeton where I met my co-founder."
Another podcast pattern among successful people is they often will reference if they are immigrants or children of immigrants. It happens too often to be coincidental.
Is this media training to get folks to seem like underdogs? Listen for this. It happens a lot.
Sanwal reveals a subtle and pervasive problem with the wrong kind of storytelling. For example, a powerful figurehead may have been the child of immigrants, but we shouldn’t presume his or her parents were poor, fleeing conflict or persecution, or that they built an empire from nothing—although it’s clear that this is the impression the author wanted to leave.
The best anecdotes come from a place of compassion, honesty, vulnerability, and sympathy. A leader can hail from privilege and still be supportive, inclusive, and devoted to his or her team, while framing the story in a way that conveys meaningfulness. I would love to hear something like this:
“I came from a wealthy, connected family. I went to the best universities. I was fortunate, and I know that. I also know that most people don’t have recourse to these advantages. That’s why I created XYZ Company. I wanted to give back. I wanted to use my resources to build a business with a purpose, one from which my teams and customers could benefit—where our employees could gain access to opportunities I enjoyed which they may not have.”
Once Upon a Time
It’s true, data now drives the focus of organizational leaders. We concentrate on metrics, key performance indicators, Big Data, BI, people analytics, and other statistics. That information is instrumental behind the scenes. Our business strategies, however, must sell our culture, our values, our commitment to employees, our dedication to customer care—our brand. It’s not enough to provide candidates with compensation figures, numbers about the company’s growth, or competitive rankings. It’s not enough to force customers to fill out endless forms and speak with a procession of salespeople to understand what we sell, how we sell it, how it benefits them, and how much it costs.
We have to engage, entice, and inspire. That means detailing corporate culture, equal opportunity, vision, mission, shared values, social outreach, community and professional development, inclusion and belonging, and more. We have to detail our sentiments sincerely, in a way that won’t just attract an audience but will appeal to similar sensibilities held by the members of that audience. In short, our success often hinges on our ability to tell a captivating story.
Your Story in Three Acts
Business leaders don’t need to brush up on the elements of fiction or the mechanics of literary analysis. Stories that resonate come from the heart. They speak to the motivations and aspirations of others. Anyone can spin a majestic yarn by following three fundamental rules for constructing a solid plot.
In mythologist Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking 1949 work “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” he introduced us to the concept of the monomyth—the hero’s journey. It’s the template on which many great tales are based. To summarize, using Campbell’s own words: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Our stories should conform to these ideals. There’s a villain, a hero, and a mentor. There’s a journey that must take place across realms fraught with obstacles. There’s a wise and experienced guide to help the young hero. There are magnificent opportunities that await, which can better the situation of every stakeholder at the conclusion of the adventure.
In this instance, the villain isn’t an individual or supernatural presence. A villain should never be a competitor or an employee. It’s a situation, an obstacle, a greater problem that must be overcome. Introduce your prospective hero to the villain. It could take the form of skills deficits, stalled innovation, a lack of diversity, the status quo, the need for fresh perspectives, a stalled project, or other obstacles on the road to progress.
Paint a vivid portrait of the issues facing those in the villain’s path and the rewards gained by solving them. For instance, give your talent something to champion—a shared mission they can rally behind as contributors who will learn new skills and refine their abilities along the way. Demonstrate to a prospective client how you confronted the same villain with another customer and how your heroes vanquished the antagonizing situation. Think of the pandemic, the most formidable villain we’ve battled in a long time. What stories could you share? How did you save that village or rescue those in peril? What dragons did you slay? What challenges did you overcome? Even a defeat has merit and influence, so long as lessons were learned, courses corrected, battles renewed, and strategies forged for future victories.
Every memorable hero’s journey involves a mentor. This role belongs to a learned and experienced veteran who will provide guidance, inspiration, training, and direction. The Hobbits had Gandalf, who himself relied on the insights of Galadriel, a mighty elven queen. King Arthur sought counsel from the wizard Merlin. Buffy the Vampire Slayer learned from Giles. Luke Skywalker became the most powerful Jedi thanks to the lessons bestowed on him by Obi-Wan Kenobi, whose list of mentors was more extensive. We need teachers to learn. And we eventually need to become teachers ourselves to help others learn.
Mentors possess the tools, the acumen, the experience, and the people skills to groom heroes for their inevitable encounters with villains. They lead with empathy. They serve as advocates, facilitators, coaches, and negotiators. They give people a voice and lend an ear. They are inclusive and they intimately understand that diversity is what strengthens a team.
Imagine if every hero had only the same skill set. What if the members of the Fellowship of the Rings were all Hobbits instead of a group that included Dwarves, Elves, and Humans? This homogenous force would head into the fray bereft of the talents offered by archers, swordsmen, wizards, smiths, and healers. Victory against an electric and strategically assembled garrison of villains would be improbable.
Here are some ways mentors achieve results.
- Take a genuine interest in the personal and professional aspirations of their people, and help steer them toward paths that lead to attaining those goals.
- Recognize the efforts, contributions, and achievements of their team members.
- Schedule time to talk with your workers, explain client needs, develop their skills, and help them fathom the opportunities that come with each role.
- Have meaningful interactions and actively listen to responses. Then act on that feedback.
- Groom talent to become leaders. Create career paths, interdepartmental cross-training, and managerial development processes. Make leaders available for knowledge sharing, shadowing, evaluation, and insight.
Even your best people don’t want to battle villains alone. Show them how their unique attributes contribute to a greater whole when united with those of other team members. Think of the rebels in Star Wars, Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings, the crew of the Starship Enterprise, and the Avengers. Victories are achieved by teams of heroes, all of whom bring something different yet critical to the saga.
Always consider how diverse those teams tend to be. In the stories we cherish, we often find that our valiant groups include a broad swath of society—members who represent different genders, races, ethnicities, cultures, and experiences. Together, their differences enhance the strength and value to the mission.
The best way to highlight workplace culture and employment brand is to tell the stories of your clients and workers, your experiences with them, and their testimonials. Even better, encourage a social media campaign, driven by workers or clients, which allows them to tell their stories directly.
We all love a good story. History itself is a system of tales—chronicles of events, parables, myths, and beliefs told to localized groups of people who then spread them through an evolving process of oral, written, and digital media.
When crafted well, there’s a truth being revealed in every story that reaches out to us in a more visceral way, without obscuring the real message. It draws us in and inspires us. Stories embody the challenges we want to overcome, the contributions we want to make, and the heroes we one day hope to be. If you can’t think of a story to tell, follow Ted Lasso’s example. Give your team a reading assignment. Pick a book, podcast, movie, song, poem, or any story based media that delivers your message in a uniquely personal way to the intended audience. Be a guide, not a dictator. Be a mentor, not an autocrat. Let your people discover their paths and embrace the qualities you saw in them when extending the job offer. And be there to catch them if they should stumble, while teaching them to stand back up on their own.
One of my friends, a well-respected psychologist, has a personal mantra: “What’s truer than truth? The story.” She says it a lot. I think she’s on to something.