How to move past the second act

“In life, the first act is always exciting but it is the second act – that’s where the depth comes in.”

Joyce Van Patten

In these early days of September 2021, as kids go back to school and adults make their way back to the office, I hear a lot of people feeling… stuck. The last two years were dominated by the pandemic, but while we slowly emerge from the sense of urgency and constant crisis it created (if not from the pandemic itself), there is a sense of inertia, a feeling of ‘I am trying everything, yet nothing seems to work’. A lot of my coaching sessions at the moment revolve around this impression that there is no forward movement, and, because we live in an environment where individual effort is praised above all others, many of the people I talk to blame themselves for this lack of progress.

To me, it sounds like they are stuck in the second act of the movie.

The three-act structure

The three-act structure was described for the first time in the fourth century AD. I came across it in Syd Field’s book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. But we all know it, from watching romcoms and action movies and crime shows and sports movies…

Essentially, most stories can be divided into three acts: The set up, which revolves around an “inciting incident” (the meet-cute in a romcom, the crime in a thriller); the confrontation, where various things happen, and our protagonist may have a few small successes, maybe even think they have reached their goal, but will eventually come to a point of failure or at least non-success; and the resolution, where the protagonist comes back from setbacks to triumph.

The second act is where character development happens. Early successes turn out to be moot, and our character needs to learn new skills, and improve their self-awareness, in order to finally succeed.

And in the third act we have the climax, and the resolution, good or bad – that’s where the wedding takes place, or where Thelma and Louise drive off into the great unknown.

If you are interested, here is a great breakdown of the three-act structure of The Godfather. But 80% of the movies you have seen, quite a few of the books you have read, follow this structure. It is the most satisfying, the one that leaves the most intense sense of completion. It is the story equivalent of a perfect cadence in music.

The second act tends to occupy the biggest part of the book or movie. But in terms of time elapsed rather than minutes of film or pages of books, it is usually much longer still. Think of all this time Rocky spends jogging through Philadelphia. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone goes away for a whole year. In When Harry Met Sally, the second act goes on for decades!

When I see some of my coaching clients feeling unsure of who they are, where they are going, feeling like nothing they are trying really works, and often blaming themselves for it, I think about them as stuck in the second act of their story. Of a specific part of their story, at the very least. That feels very frustrating. Again it’s like an unfinished cadence in music, or being stuck halfway on a zip-wire. Efforts to move on or create change don’t seem to work, and eventually it’s easy to start feeling discouraged.

And yet remember – second acts take longer!

The work then is to decide what is needed to move on to third act and some form of resolution (at which point it will all start again!). Is it internal? External? Both? What support is needed? What are some of the barriers that you are likely to encounter?

Strategies to move past the second act

In stories, there is a usually a plot point that moves you from second act to third act. Sometimes it can be very dramatic, like when Apollonia’s car explodes in The Godfather. Other times, it can be an external event that triggers recognition – often a conversation with a good friend or mentor, or witnessing something that triggers an epiphany. Sometimes, it’s all internal. But in order to be believable, the second act turning point needs to demonstrate personal growth. Think Bill Murray starting to help people in Groundhog Day.

Unsurprisingly, the same is true in life. To move past your second act, you probably need some personal development and reflection. Now is a great time to reach out to your network and talk to people. Engage with a mentor or a coach. Read new articles, new books. Expand your understanding of what the world looks like, in order to expand your understanding of your place in it.

In movies there are often false victories in the second act. Protagonists rush to success, but are ultimately foiled because they aren’t fully ready, or because they haven’t defined what they want properly. Tink about the first attempt by the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars, which looks successful at the beginning but then ends with Obi Wan Kenobi’s death. Or Jerry Maguire thinking that he has signed his star player, only to have him snatched from under him because he hasn’t worked out what he stands for yet.

The same can be true in a career. Rushing to apply to any job available, or asking for a promotion, is tempting because it feels like action, like momentum moving forward. But without a proper reflection on what it is you are trying to achieve, it may well not lead you where you want.

Don’t pre-empt what victory looks like

And where DO you want to go? In movies, the second/ third act transition often comes with a realisation that the end of the story is not what you thought it was going to be. In Wall Street, Bud thinks he wants to become like Gekko, until he realises his redemption story is to destroy Gekko instead. In Three Men and a Baby, the men think they want to get rid of the baby for most of the film. Of course, they don’t really want that at all.

You may have a very clear vision in your head or where you are trying to get to and what you are trying to achieve, and your frustration may come from not getting there fast enough. Or you may on the contrary be struggling with too many options and possibilities. Either way, your time in Act Two should be spent thinking about what is really important to you, and how you may be able to achieve that. The result may be exactly what you thought it would be (Frodo does get rid of the Ring, eventually), or it could look very different. The way you get there could be what you expected, or a very different route. Revisiting both these is an essential part of your learning journey as the hero of your story!

Key take aways

“It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear…”

Sometimes it feels like nothing is moving and you can’t quite get to where you want to go. Sometimes life and work can feel like the repetitive part of Groundhog Day. If that’s the case think about the following:

  • Reframe your situation as being in the second act of this part of your story, and think about what it might take to move to a third act
  • Don’t move into action too soon!
  • Expand your perspective through talking to new people, working through things with a mentor or coach, reading and learning
  • Don’t get stuck on your definition of what success looks like, and be prepared to change and evolve as you develop your thinking

Good luck!

I have a very particular set of skills… Focusing on the end game

Office life can be immensely frustrating. And one of the most disempowering feelings is that of having no control over what’s happening. Perhaps a decision is made at a higher level that makes no sense to you. Perhaps the wrong person is promoted, or given a project you really wanted. Perhaps something you have worked very hard on gets shelved for reasons that feel political and wrong.

Today I would like to think about ways to manage situations such as these when they arise, by taking a leaf out of Liam Neeson’s book, or rather his character in Taken, Bryan Mills:

“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

This is a great quote because it illustrates perfectly the three things you can do when faced with a situation you have no control over:

  1. Don’t get stuck on the moral high ground
  2. Use your agency
  3. Focus on what you want to achieve

Here is what Liam does: he doesn’t waste time telling the bad guys they are bad guys, or trying to divine their motives. He goes back to what he can control and influence: his skills. And he focuses on his end game: getting his daughter back. If they give her back, that’s the end of it – no revenge, no “doing the right thing”. That’s all he wants – his daughter – and that’s his entire focus here.

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

Don’t get stuck on the moral high ground

The moral high ground is a lovely, comfortable, highly judgmental place. You can gather there with likeminded colleagues and talk about all the things that went wrong, all the bad decisions that were made. You can even tell the people concerned. But in the workplace, if you stay too long in the moral high ground, it becomes a way of abdicating your personal responsibility. It’s a way of saying: It’s not my fault. Things are being done to me.

Sure, mistakes were made. But what are you doing about it? What is your area of control?

The problem with this approach is summarised by Bradley Jackson, played by Reese Witherspoon in the TV show The Morning Show: “Once you villainize someone, there is nothing left to do but go to war with them.” Bradley/ Reese in the show is the queen of the moral high ground, of going chasing after windmills without a clear game plan. Ultimately, though she is told by her boss Cory: “You cannot keep yourself pure just by moving on every time someone disappoints you.” Bradley goes into battles she can’t win, and gets to a point where her only agency is to leave. She turns everyone into enemies she must do battle with.

If you feel you are leaning into your inner righteous crusader in the workplace, it’s worth examining what it is you are angry about, and what you might be able to do about it. Move the narrative away from the faults of other people, and from a black and white view of the world, and think about other angles, other perspectives. Then focus on what you truly have power over. Even if your anger is justified (and it probably is), it is powerless if you don’t create action from it.

Do you remember the James Dean movie Rebel Without A Cause? James Dean’s character Jim Stark is deeply unhappy about things around him. But he doesn’t use that anger. He mostly just shouts at his parents. It’s only at the very end, when he takes action, that he feels in control again.

Use your agency

In social science, agency is defined as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. If you think about the moments in your life where you have felt most frustrated and unhappy, chances are at least some of them were linked to feeling that your agency had been taken away from you. Maybe you got made redundant. Maybe your company changed strategy without your involvement and a lot of your work is now irrelevant. Or it could be something much smaller in everyday life – you are waiting for an important delivery and it gets delayed at the last minute. Whatever it is, it is something that happens to you outside of your control, and it often triggers incredibly strong negative emotions.

Think of Liam Neeson: his daughter has been kidnapped! That’s the ultimate loss of agency.

The most immediate way out of this situation is to regain some control over what’s going on. Regaining agency will get you out of your moral high ground into a place where you can focus on action, which immediately feels better to us as humans.

So think about it in that way: what do you control, and then what might you have influence over? You are being made redundant – can you negotiate some terms? Your work of the last few months is no longer needed – can you review what you have done to figure out how you might use some of it in other circumstances?

In the last scene of The Morning Show, Bradley has evolved, thanks to her co-host Alex who may not have her moral compass, but who definitely understands what power she yields, in a way Bradley doesn’t. When Alex starts going off script, Bradley turns to her and says:

“Are we doing this?”

“Yeah, you wanna?”

“We should just tell the truth quickly, they’re going to cut us off. We have one minute.”

She’s moved into action. She will not step on a soap box. She has one minute to create change.

And that brings us to the last, and most important part: what’s your end game?

Work out your end game

Bryan Mills has one end game: he wants his daughter back. The rest is irrelevant – catching the bad guys, for instance. Bradley wants the truth to be known widely. The rest becomes irrelevant – her own guilt, her feud with Alex. Jim Stark has no end game, and that’s a big part of his problem.

Take a mundane example – customer service complaints. There are two kinds of people who complain to customer service: people who just like complaining and need to demonstrate that they are right (they are firmly in moral high ground category), and people with an end game – looking for a discount, free stuff, some form of compensation. Customer service agents know this and once they’ve establish whether the complaint is valid or not, they move quickly to the next phase (or they should, if they are well-trained): how can we make this up to you?

In the context of a career, there will be multiple end games, of course. Your overall end game may be to be CEO of your company one day, or it could be to retire by the beach at 30. It’s probably useful to break this down into intermediate endgames. If your overall objective is to make enough money to retire early, then you are going to want to focus on the financial portion of a redundancy package. If you are keen to progress your career, you should ask for placement services, CV support, training, coaching.

Let’s imagine now you have been passed over for a promotion. Your end game may be to get promoted. What can you do to move towards that goal? Can you ask for feedback as to why you didn’t get the job? Are there other opportunities? Should you look elsewhere? Being angry about not being promoted is satisfying in the short term, but it will not get you anywhere new – and at some point it becomes a barrier to progress

Focusing on your end game will help you move past the inevitable anger and frustration and start thinking of the future – in your terms.

In conclusion

There will be moments in your career where you feel incredibly angry and frustrated. There is a chance that these happen when your agency has been taken away from you, and you feel powerless. If that’s the case, picture Liam Neeson in your mind and:

  1. Don’t spend too much time in your angry place
  2. Re-establish your agency and sense of control
  3. Focus on your end game

Miss Marple vs Jerry Maguire: putting your detective hat on

“I do believe in atmosphere, you know. People’s thoughts and feelings. They give their impression to the walls and the furniture.”

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger

I love detective novels, murder mysteries, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes. I must have read most if not all of them, not to mention the various TV adaptations of diverse quality I have watched.

After a while of course, you begin to notice the (t)ropes, the tricks of the trade. Agatha Christie has written 66 novels and 14 short stories after all. There is bound to be some level of repetition or system – the last-minute twist, the red herring early on…

But what is consistent across her books, and other books in the same style, is the reliance on detectives who somehow hear more than is being said. They notice everything, from a minute pursing of the lips to the décor of a boudoir, to the overused strap of a handbag. And they deduce, and so we deduce too. Whether they are the narrator themselves, or whether we rely on a sidekick (Watson, Hastings) or on the omniscient audience of a TV crime show, our attention is drawn to these little details.

It’s not only in detective stories. Many books give us an enormous amount of information by describing things that the protagonist “notices” – thus quickly letting us know what we need to know about a person or a situation. This creates a very satisfying feeling of knowing things that others don’t – a feeling that can be manipulated by skilled storytellers, such as in The Usual Suspects or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Yes, when diving into the world of fiction we are very good at catching all these little details that writers and directors are subtly drawing our attention to. And this is how we can say with certainty halfway through the story that “it was definitely this guy…”

Unfortunately, life isn’t an episode of Murder She Wrote.  We tend to notice very little beyond the words that are being said, and perhaps to some extent the tone. Or at least we don’t think we notice. Our brain unconsciously takes on an enormous amount of additional information, yet we rarely use it to make up our mind about what is going on.

It can be very helpful to “play detective” and use these additional inputs to inform what we do, in all contexts but perhaps especially in a working environment. Here I will give you some reasons why we don’t, and some ideas on getting better at it.


“You had me at hello”

Jerry Maguire walks into a room and launches into a 3 minutes et 40 seconds speech. It starts with:

“Hello? Hello.

I’m lookin’ for my wife.”

And it goes on, for a while. It’s very moving of course.

And then Dorothy says:

“Shut up. Just shut up.

You had me at hello.”

Right. Read the room maybe next time, Jerry?

By far the main reason we don’t notice non-verbal cues (or even verbal ones) is that we are too focused on communicating our own message. Jerry walks into a room, he is on a mission, he has prepared what he wants to say. Does he look around, does he check with his wife, does he ask her anything? No. He is 100% in broadcast mode.

Think about a meeting with a team member to whom you want to give feedback. You have prepared what to say, you want to get it through, and you will only accept input insofar as it impacts the delivery of that message.

Maybe there is an agenda you need to go through. Maybe you have prepared a sales pitch and are looking for an opening to deliver it. Maybe you really want this job and you have prepared carefully why you should get it.

Maybe you’ve made up your mind already about what the other person is thinking or feeling and you are not taking in any information that contradicts your view.

What this tends to lead to is not so much not noticing things, but actively ignoring signals. It may not be as obvious as not letting anyone interrupt, but you are probably too focused on your story, your message, to pick up on anything the other party is trying to say.

Sometimes, it’s fine! You go in, do your thing, everybody loves it. That Tom Cruise speech has become a classic for a reason, after all. But in many other cases you would be well advised to take in what’s going on and adjust accordingly.


Put your Miss Marple hat on

Miss Marple (TV series) - Wikipedia

Or Sherlock’s or Poirot’s, but personally, I have always had a soft spot for Miss Marple.

At the start of a meeting or interview, don’t jump straight into what you need or want to communicate. Talk less, drink tea, listen more. And really listen, with all your senses, not with your ears while preparing your next reply.

What would Miss Marple have to say about the person in front of you? What would she notice about their body language, their energy, the signals they are sending?

What about the environment, the noise, the furniture?

If you were writing an introduction to the story of this meeting, how would you describe it?

Miss Marple would also watch the other person’s reaction to what you are saying. Are they excited? Do they look bored? Do they look like they have something very specific to say and they are just waiting for you to finish?

If that’s the case, you may want to stop and listen to them first because they will not be listening to you…

If your audience seems uninterested or fidgety, don’t make the common mistake of assuming it’s all about you – Miss Marple certainly wouldn’t! Consider what else might have happened, and what you might do to bring them back to the present.

Finally, absorb all of this and consider: what does it mean for me? Do I need to alter my message? Should I gather more information before launching in? What useful element can I use to strengthen my point?

It will feel like a waste of time at the beginning, because we are action-oriented creatures and your entire body is straining towards action. But it will make your interactions infinitely more productive.


“Harry Kane has gone off the boil a bit”

England player ratings vs Scotland: Harry Kane disappoints again on  frustrating Euros night at Wembley | Evening Standard

In a recent Euro 2020 game, the commentator on TV wasn’t impressed with the performance of Harry Kane, the England team captain. “He’s gone off the boil”, was his verdict.

I found this very interesting, not because Harry Kane was playing terribly (he wasn’t) but because the commentator was clearly picking up on what Harry Kane was broadcasting – he was looking stressed, unhappy and frankly a bit disinterested.

I’m pretty sure Kane wasn’t actively trying to communicate these feelings. He may not have been consciously feeling them, or they may not have been about the game. Yet this was the overwhelming impression, one that TV pundits, fans, and presumably his teammates, were picking up on.

As you start trying to read people’s non-verbal signals, be very aware that consciously or not, people are picking up yours as well. What are you communicating? How is your body language, not only when you are talking, but also when you are listening, or in downtime? You may be the type of person who lights up when the spotlight is on them but looks bored when other people are talking. You may be taking emotions from other contexts into the meeting room – your worry for your cat, your lack of sleep – and letting these affect your energy. You may be very stressed, or scared, for a variety of reasons.

There isn’t much you can do about this – we are all human – but you have a decision to make: can you put these feelings back in a box until the end of the interaction? If not, could you acknowledge them to your audience, to give them context and helping them read you more accurately?


If you only read this

  • We tend to enter meetings and interactions in broadcast mode, focusing on the message we have prepared and intent on delivering it at all costs
  • Yet there is much to gain by taking in the energy and signals from the audience, whether it is one person or many, and adjust or adapt accordingly.
  • In parallel, it’s worth thinking about what signals you might be broadcasting yourself, and how they might be affecting the people you work with.

A coach can help you learn how to decipher non-verbal communication, and work on your own energy and presence to make sure you make the most of all of your interactions

Awareness: The Importance of Telling Your Story

I don’t think you should wait. I think you should speak now.

Taylor Swift

In my post The Power Of Stories, I described the three levels at which stories can lead to behaviour change. Awareness is the first level. A lot of the work I do with coachees is to refine steps two and three, emotional connection and behaviour change – to make sure that their story is impactful enough.

Yet without awareness, there is no story. It simply doesn’t exist, good or bad.

Imagine a world where Charles de Gaulle hadn’t been able to make his speech on the BBC on 18th June 1940.

Or one where the murder of George Floyd hadn’t been recorded and, crucially, shared.

None of the changes that came from these events would have happened, without people being made aware of them.

All of this seems blindingly obvious. And yet I am constantly amazed at how many people assume that facts are known, or will be known, without their proactively and effectively communicating those facts. This is especially true in the workplace. Whether it is an unsustainable workload, an instance of discrimination, or – on a more positive note – a great performance, the results of a brilliant initiative, or your key achievements on LinkedIn – it is YOUR responsibility to make sure the story is told.

Be more like Elle Woods, less like Fanny Price

How often have people said in exit interviews: ‘I do the work of three people around here, and no-one notices. So-and-so gets all the credit just because they know how to play the game.’

Or someone will run a brilliant seminar, or offsite, and they’ll tell me: ‘I hope someone tells the boss how amazing that was, because I’m really proud of how it went.’

One of the most common mistakes I see in the workplace is to think that it’s going to be like school. At school, or at university, you work hard, you may or may not participate in class, but there is an exam at the end and the teacher will measure your output based on this exam.

Except on rare occasions, there is no exam at the end of work, and in most cases, trust me, senior leaders do not know, exactly, what their staff do. They know whether a certain task has been completed or not, and to what standard. They hear what people who ‘play the game’ tell them they have done. But what if you are the one who always mentors the interns, stays late to organise the filing room, takes the minutes at meetings… but you don’t talk about it? Nobody will know you did it. Conversely, if you are facing serious issues or barriers, or if someone is treating you poorly, do not assume that anyone will notice unless you speak up.

In other words: you think you’re being ‘left on read’, when in fact your message has not been delivered.

The problem is is that through stories themselves we have been conditioned to believe that ultimately, the quiet, unassuming hero will win over the confident, self-promoting antagonist. In Jane Eyre, Jane, not Blanche, gets Rochester. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price, not Mary Crawford, marries Edmund. A life of quiet hard work is sure to be recompensed ultimately by success in whatever endeavour we pursue. This thinking pattern applies disproportionately, although not exclusively, to women, who are more likely to have internalised this type of messaging early on.

When that doesn’t work out, I often hear from my coachees ‘I am not being noticed because I am not good at politics’. The subtext is: ‘It’s not my fault. Politics is a bad thing’.

Hang on, this is not politics. It’s a basic communication skill. And you do need to become good at communicating.

Maybe it helps to think of life – and of the workplace in particular – as more Legally Blonde than Mansfield Park? Elle Woods understands the value of highlighting her achievements and framing them in the correct light – just look at her video essay. She advises Paulette to go ahead and talk to the UPS guy (or at least ‘bend and snap’!) rather than wait for him to notice her. She takes her destiny in her hands. Be more like Elle. Tell your story.

Write the script

The other advantage of telling your story yourself, rather than hoping that someone will notice, is that you get to tell it in your words. If De Gaulle had waited for someone to notice he was in London (unlikely move, I’ll admit), he wouldn’t have the chance to coin the famous phrase: ‘France has lost a battle, but it has not lost the war’. This phrase went on to define the French resistance movement. De Gaulle had put his words to the story.

It’s been interesting, recently, to look at the various messaging around Covid-19 by the different governments around the world, and what they chose to emphasise. The Guardian did a great piece on this, highlighting the different in tone, spirit and efficacy between New Zealand’s ‘Unite Against Covid-19’ and, for instance, the US state of Oregon’s ‘Don’t accidentally kill someone’.

Words matter, you may have heard me say more than once. And being the one to tell the story allows you to be intentional about the words you want to use. If they feel right, and strike a chord, they are likely to be repeated over and over again, defining your story as much as the content itself.

(This is true of images too, of course – think of the power of picture of Tienanmen Square in 1989, or of Alan Kurdi, the little Kurdish Syrian boy whose body was tragically found on a Greek beach in 2015. The right image, the right video, will accompany your story and reinforce it for ever.)

What does it mean for you? It means you have to plan the way you tell your story, according to what you want to achieve.

This applies to giving feedback as well, or to managing an issue with an employee. What is your ideal outcome? And what is the best way to express yourself to get it? Or think about  your LinkedIn profile summary, or to the top of your CV. What’s your story? What words do you want people to use when they talk about you?

Here is an example: the same fact – you’ve done the work of three people recently – can be expressed in many different ways:

  • ‘Recently, I have picked up a lot of additional responsibilities. If I left you would have to hire three people to replace me, yet I am paid less than others in the team. I would like to discuss a salary raise.’
  • ‘Due to the various departures, I have taken on much more responsibilities in new areas. This has been a great learning experience, and I have enjoyed working with the other teams and achieving great results, but I am afraid my main role is at risk of getting neglected. Would it be possible to redistribute some of the additional tasks? Here are some options I have been thinking about.’
  • ‘I am doing three different jobs. I enjoy the challenge, and I’m sure you’ll agree that we have achieved much on all fronts, but I am getting bogged down by small administrative tasks. I would like to hire a junior person to take over the low-level bits so I can focus on delivering value.’

Three scripts, three different end games. All of them have a clear narrative, motivation and ask, and most importantly, all of them are scripts that the person you are talking to can potentially take to the decision maker(s) to discuss your case.

Let me help you help me

You know how in these mafia movies, the bad guy (or the hero) says: ‘Tell your boss I said hi’? Usually after killing an entire room full of bystanders. Or bad guys. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Well guess what: in most cases, the person you are talking to, whether it’s a sales pitch, or a salary discussion, or even an interview, is not the final, or at least not the only, decision maker. Part of your job is to help them help you, by giving them something concrete they can take to their boss for approval, sign off or next steps.

If it’s a good news story you are sharing – you’ve achieved something amazing, your team has broken a sales record, or you have a great new product you’d like them to buy – the way to think about it is as a viral video. People share memes if they think they are going to gain social status by doing it – they want to look cool, or engaged, or sympathetic. Think about the virality of your message. How can you make it more likely that your interlocutor will be talking about it not only to their boss, but to their boss’s boss, and to the person they meet in the lift? What’s the anecdote, the interesting stat, the unique quote that’s going to stick in their head and make them want to share?

If you are sharing a problem or a complaint, be aware that their first reaction is going to be to avoid taking it up. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news. Think about making it as easy as possible for them to share. Be objective, be concise, and ideally suggest possible ways forward.

The take-away is this: the better packaged your message is, the more likely it is to be shared.

If you only read this…

Here are my key messages when it comes to raising awareness in a work context:

  • Never assume people know something if you haven’t told them!
  • Think about the way you deliver your story as much as the story itself
  • Anticipate who else will need to hear the story, and make it as easy as possible to share

This is worth spending time on. If it feels quite scary and overwhelming, consider working with a coach to refine your narrative and how to share it. The answer is very probably in you already, but a good coach will help you own it more completely.

Ted Lasso and the changing face of great leadership

Great leaders don’t see themselves as great. Great leaders see themselves as human.

Simon Sinek

The Apple TV show Ted Lasso tends to come up regularly when discussing management styles in my coaching sessions. I use the main character as a role model, but also the show as a whole to underline how much our thinking about what constitutes good people management has shifted over the last 15-20 years.

What we look for in our boss – then and now

It’s interesting that Jason Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence, two of the show’s creators, are alumni, respectively, of 30 Rock and Scrubs, both (brilliant) sitcoms which defined the “boss from hell” trope of the 2000s. Perry Cox, Bob Kelso, Jack Donaghy and frankly Liz Lemon herself were the managers you had probably met and prayed you would never become. This was the Jack Welch school of management. This was the model that Michael Scott from The Office aspired to in the early years of the show, until he mellowed and became not unlike Ted Lasso himself as the 2000s progressed into the 2010s and being the ultimate “d-bag” became less aspirational – thankfully.

15 years and half a pandemic later, here comes Ted Lasso. As so often with TV, the show puts up a mirror in front of us and helps us reflect on what we value and respect in the people around us. And it turns out we have learnt to value a new style of compassionate management, one where vulnerability is acceptable, where asking for advice is recommended, and where changing your mind is a strength. That’s right, today’s leadership template, the one taught in business schools and Harvard Business Review articles, is less Jack Donaghy, and more Ted Lasso.

In 2000’s 30 Rock, the Ted Lasso trope was represented by wide-eye, silly, “loser” Kenneth the page. In 2020, Ted is the boss and the Jack cliché is Jamie, the materialistic individualist who will find redemption through team spirit.

Look how far we have come – here are some quotes from Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock and Ted Lasso:

Jack DonaghyTed Lasso
“Money Can’t Buy Happiness. It Is Happiness.”“I believe in hope. I believe in Believe.”  
“Every Time I Meet A New Person, I Figure Out How I’m Gonna Fight ’Em.”“Smells like potential.”  
“Come On, Lemon. What Do We Elites Do When We Screw Up? We Pretend It Never Happened And Give Ourselves A Giant Bonus.”“I want you to know, I value each of your opinions, even when you’re wrong.”    
“Well, it’s business drunk. It’s like rich drunk. Either way, it’s legal to drive.”“I like the idea of someone becoming rich because of what they gave to the world, not just because of who their family is.”
“I have faith in things I can see, and buy, and regulate. Capitalism is my religion.”“Be curious. Not judgmental.”  
“What happened in your childhood to make you believe people are good?”“I think that’s what it’s all about. Embracing change.”

I guess that’s a pretty positive evolution, all things considered.

The Ted Lasso School of Management

Now let’s have a look at the Ted Lasso school of management in more detail, and what we can learn from it.

There is much to learn by watching Ted manage all the people who work for and with him. Early on, he asks people what can be changed for the better. Among a list of pretty rude comments, somebody requests better water pressure in the shower. Ted sees it for what it is – a low hanging fruit that will cost little and have a big impact. All new leaders should be looking for these easy wins that have a disproportionate impact and build confidence in the new regime. Asking for ideas is the best way to ensure the change will be meaningful.

Perhaps the most iconic element of Ted’s management style is his relationship with Nathan the kit man (and now assistant coach). From his first day at the club, Ted actively seeks out Nathan’s advice, recognising him as someone who will give him an objective view of what’s going on. As their relationship progresses, Ted includes Nathan more and more into the conversation, and frequently asks for and listens to his views. Then comes the day when Ted asks Nathan to deliver the pre-game team talk. Nathan comes into his own and proves that he deserves his new role as assistant coach. The key to Nathan’s successful speech is the fact that he has earned this opportunity, and built self-confidence and belief in his own opinions, through his interactions with Ted.

Ted’s approach enables him to spot Nathan’s talent, and to create space for him to develop and grow while feeling supported. Through Ted’s mentorship, we see Nathan go from an undervalued junior staff member to a respected leader in his own right. We see his potential, and we see him see his potential.

This is a lesson to managers everywhere, to actively search for and develop potential not only in the team members that put themselves forward, but also amongst the quieter people, who may have much to contribute if given the necessary space and support.

Compare this to Jack in 30 Rock with Kenneth – Jack’s view of the world is that everything is a competition, a win/lose situation. Jack steals Kenneth’s idea, tries to beat him at poker, constantly undervalues him publicly (“He’s worth $7“), and generally bullies him around. There is no expectation that Kenneth can be anything else than a page. He is there to be given menial tasks and made fun of. Kind of the way Jamie treats Nathan in Ted Lasso.

Ted’s relationship with Roy Kent is also beautiful – who amongst newly promoted managers hasn’t had the team member who has been there for ever, has seen it all and is not interested in change? Yet Ted wins Roy over little by little, not through showy set pieces but through consistency and transparency.

Yet another illustration of Ted Lasso as a team leader is his relationship with Coach Beard. Coach Beard has obviously worked with Ted for a long time – he is the perfect COO, working around the edges to make sure his CEO shines. Ted inspires, then Coach Beard writes the flow chart. Coach Beard makes sure Ted has all he needs, all the time. And their working relationship is strong enough that Coach Beard doesn’t hesitate at the end to disagree strongly with Ted – and Ted recognises that he was wrong, changes tack, and moves on.

All leaders need a Coach Beard; but creating a relationship of trust that can allow for negative feedback is a skill.

Ted and vulnerability

Unlike many TV bosses, Ted is often depicted openly showing vulnerability. He will tell a room full of journalists that he doesn’t know the offside rule. He dances with his players in a viral video. He has a panic attack in front of his boss. None of this concerns him. He knows it doesn’t make him a less good leader. On the contrary, it actually makes him a likeable person and, as the people around him find out, it’s hard to reject someone you like. Ted is a master at using his humanity to disarm foes and get people behind him. That, also, is leadership.    

In conclusion…

What can we learn from Ted Lasso? My takeaways:

  • When moving into a new role, focus on the low hanging fruits you might be able to tackle early on. Real change takes time, but a few quick wins will go a long way to give you the time you need. Some wins may be obvious – maybe it’s the team meetings that always overrun, or the broken coffee machine. Others you will have to ask around for. But they are well worth looking for.
  • Talent is everywhere – and talent that is nurtured and developed is the best. Whether it’s the receptionist or the junior analyst, if you spot someone going above and beyond, think about how you can make them shine even brighter in the long run – not how to get the most out of them in the short term.
  • Every good leader needs a strong number two who will support them, but not be afraid to tell them when they are wrong. Everyone needs a Coach Beard! Who is yours?
  • Showing that you are human is a strength, not a weakness, and will earn you respect, not derision.

PS: The amazing Rebecca

You will note that I haven’t talked much about the unforgettable Rebecca Welton, Ted’s boss. That’s because she deserves more space than I have here for her. Look out for a post soon on physical presence for female leaders – Rebecca will be front and centre! (alongside Beyonce, obviously)

Using storytelling to gain new perspectives – Gee, Officer Krupke!

We are all the heroes of our own stories

Rebecca Solnit

When we think about what’s happening, what we are really doing is thinking about what’s happening to us. This isn’t selfishness or self-absorption, it is human nature. Yet it immediately creates a distorted, or at the very least partially distorted, view of the events enfolding.

There are multiple movies and books that play with the concept of different/ partial points of view. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, many of Agatha Christie’s mysteries (most famously perhaps The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), Jackie Brown and many other Tarantino movies. When done well, this allows us to get a full picture (or a fuller picture) of what’s going on, while also gaining an understanding of each character’s motivations and beliefs.

If you want the three-minute version, Gee Officer Krupke, from West Side Story, sees a “juvenile delinquent” being passed to a cop, a judge, a therapist, a social worker and back to the cop while each profession gives their perspective of what’s going on for our character. Talk about efficient storytelling – here is youth crime, explained concisely with music, dance, humour and a surprising poignancy…

Or think of Pink’s Just Give Me a Reason, which compares two completely different takes on what is happening in a couple. She thinks they are about to break up. He has no idea what’s going on.

Looking at other points of view

We are all the heroes of our own stories. But what happens if you try to see the story from another hero’s point of view?

The ability to see the same story from different perspective is critical to success in all relationships, including in the workplace. In my experience, most conflicts in the workplace come from a misunderstanding of, or at worst a refusal to understand, the other party’s point of view.

Think about this situation: you go in for a difficult conversation with your boss. She has been very hard on you recently and once again you know she will be giving you negative feedback, which you think is unwarranted.

In this conversation, you are the hero and main character, obviously. She immediately can only become the villain or antagonist. As a villain, you will be ascribing her a series of nefarious motives – this is how we think about villains, in our story-led brains. Maybe she is trying to get you to resign. Maybe she enjoys being mean to people. Maybe she just doesn’t know what she is doing and is trying to cover it up by being unreasonably tough.

All of these, in the scenarios in your head, make perfect sense. If you discuss them with friends and colleagues, they may well agree that they make sense. They will be focusing on the inner logic of the story – why is the villain doing what they are doing?

But what if we rewrite the story from her perspective? What if she becomes the hero? Who is the villain then? Is there a villain? Maybe this is a buddy comedy and she is trying to bring you on her team? Or maybe you are (gasp!) a side character in a completely different story you are not seeing at all – pressure from her management, a difficult client who keeps complaining, a teenage daughter who is being very difficult…

You don’t know, do you? But what if you find out?

Bertha Mason in the foreground, an illustration by F. H. Townsend for the second edition of Jane Eyre, published in 1847

An incredibly powerful version of this reframing is Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, which considers the character of Bertha in Jane Eyre. You know Bertha, the mad woman locked in the attic? The one who tries to kill Jane, kill Rochester, and then commits suicide?

But in Jane Eyre, we only ever hear Bertha’s story through Jane and Rochester’s point of view. And one could say they might not be completely objective on the subject. Jane Eyre is written in the first person. It doesn’t even pretend to not have a point of view.

Yet before Wide Sargasso Sea, I had never questioned Bertha’s villain status. She is the antagonist! Surely it’s quite normal for her husband to have locked her in an attic for years. She is mad! So says Rochester, and so say her brother, and so says Jane, and there we go.

We also have very little information on Bertha, and when the brain doesn’t have enough data, it tends to fill in the gaps, rather than, say, display a dialog box saying “not enough information to compute”…

Jean Rhys rewrites this from Bertha’s (or Antoinette’s) perspective and suddenly, it is as if a veil is lifted. Suddenly we can’t unsee her side of the story, and suddenly Rochester is not quite the hero we all want him to be.

So the first question to ask yourself in this effort to defocus your version of the story is – am I creating a Bertha?

A caveat: learning to change the filter

We aren’t bad people, on the whole. But we are hard-wired to think of others as ourselves – which means it can be very hard to understand and empathise with other people’s lived experiences. A lot of prejudice comes from applying the filter we apply to ourselves, when sometimes an entirely different filter is needed. Unconscious bias means our brain have applied a certain filter without us being even aware of it. These are difficult processes to dismantle, and outside help is usually needed. The rewards are immense, though.

Sharing your story

It’s incredibly useful to try to understand somebody else’s story. But sometimes, all it takes for a complete shift in perspective is for you to share your story.

Recently a business contact cancelled our meeting for the second time, on the morning of the planned meeting. My first reaction was deep annoyance. My second thought was that she didn’t want to meet and was stringing me along.

Then I read the email.

“I have family in India who have been affected by the Covid crisis”, she said, “and the last few weeks have been quite complicated.”

Well. Who is the villain now?

Or rather, who is the side character in what must have been a very difficult period for her?

It may have felt quite vulnerable to write this in the cancellation email. But when we did finally have the meeting, instead of arriving annoyed and defensive, I arrived grateful that in the middle of all this she would still find the time to connect.

A simple sentence can entirely transform someone’s perspective. Share your story!

The Greek Chorus

Unreliable first person narration is a great writing trick that is quite difficult to replicate in movies and plays (counter-examples include The Usual Suspects or Memento). In most cases, the audience takes on the role of the all-knowing Greek Chorus instead.

West Side Story | LMK Film Picks

In West Side Story, we are shown the two widely divergent perspectives of the Jets and the Sharks, and when tragedy unfolds, it is made more powerful by knowing that it was avoidable. In the series 24, the screenwriters were careful to make sure the audience knew the suspects Jack Bauer was torturing were in fact bad guys (even though Jack himself didn’t know it), to keep us firmly on Jack’s side. In most romantic comedies, from Shakespeare to Netflix, we see the central couple fall in love long before they realise it themselves. Perspective is everything.

How would it look like, you might ask yourself, if you were the audience, or the Greek Chorus, to whatever is unfolding, rather than a character? What new perspective might you gain, if you positioned yourself as a spectator of the interaction with your boss? What would you see differently, if instead of reading the first person account of it, you were watching it on TV or in the cinema?

Imagine the following scene:

  • The tourist who doesn’t have their travel card ready when they get to the gate and slows down the guy trying to get to work.
  • The commuter who pushes through while sighing loudly.

Both annoying. Both relatable. If told in the first person, both probably ending with the main character furious at the other.

As an objective, separate observer, just a very innocuous thirty second of city living. Possibly even a bit funny.

Can you see all three now? And more importantly, will you be able to see all three next time you are either the tourist or the commuter?

So what?

Replaying the same interaction from different angles and perspectives is something you can try to do yourself, next time you are faced with a difficult interaction where emotional thoughts (‘She hates me!’ ‘He is doing this on purpose!’) are cropping up.

Or you can work with a coach to really understand what is going on and perhaps use specific techniques such as chairwork or Gestalt Coaching. Either way, never forget that the person you are dealing with is also writing a story. One where they are the hero, always.

The Power of Stories – Introduction

When I was young, I spend my entire life lost in stories. I read voraciously, and I watched everything I could on TV. In a world that I had very little control over, stories became the imaginary place that fed me the emotional connections that I needed.

RetroNewsNow on Twitter: "📺ABC Primetime, April 12, 1989: — On 'Growing  Pains,' Carol's boyfriend, Sandy, gets into a car accident while driving  intoxicated… https://t.co/2VWFPPZHXT"

To give you a sense of how strong this emotional bond was: I remember one day being at home on study leave, and taking a break from studying Weimar Germany (good times…) to watch an episode of Growing Pains. Unfortunately for me, it was this episode, the one where Carol’s boyfriend dies. I cried for hours. When I think about drink driving, this is still the first story that comes to mind. Such is the power of a good story.

(And yes, this is a pre-Friends Matthew Perry. Imagine my surprise when I found him five years later sitting in Central Perk…)

Stories are essential, because they frame the way we relate to things. We listen to stories, we tell ourselves stories, and stories become our primary sense-making tool, especially when things are confusing.

So it will not surprise you to learn that I believe in the power of stories. In fact I think stories have at least three superpowers: the power to show us, the power to move us, and ultimately the power to change us. In other words:

  • Stories raise awareness
  • Stories create an emotional connection and humanise issues
  • Stories can lead to behaviour change

The most basic stories will at the very least create awareness. You read an article in a newspaper, or listen to a presentation and think – OK, I didn’t know this. Cool! And then you move on with your life, armed with a little more knowledge and awareness, but not much else.

Now awareness is pretty crucial, don’t get me wrong. None of the other steps work, if people don’t know about the issue in the first place. And sometimes awareness is all that’s needed – but in most cases, in you want impact, awareness is only the first step.

The next level is to create an emotional connection with a story. This normally happens when a story has a face, especially a face that I as an individual can relate to. This could be a human interest story on the news, or it could be a novel, or a TV show. Suddenly the story is a bit more than just information – suddenly I care, I am moved, I am touched. Possibly, I may start to evolve my thinking about the topic.

For me, emotional connection is the most important part of any story. If I can’t connect with what’s happening to the characters, I get bored. I stop listening. I disengage.

But if it works, it allows people to see something from a different perspective, because they are connecting emotionally with someone who has that perspective.

And that connection could be with anything! A piece of toast, in the mobile game I Am Bread. An alien, in ET. Or a bereaved and confused child, in René Clément’s 1952 masterpiece, Les Jeux Interdits. That is the beauty of stories, that you can use them to put yourself credibly in someone/thing else’s shoes (or crust).

In the most effective cases, if that connection is strong enough, stories can change behaviours. This can be good, and bad – propaganda works with stories too! But think about giving up smoking, or being more mindful of your speed when you drive, or changing the way you eat – or think about being more accepting of certain differences, being more open to different ways of life. And then reflect back to the moment the shift happened. Chances are it was linked to a story that touched you.


Let’s look at some examples here, starting with the original stories: the fairy tales.

Little Red Riding Hood is a story that exists in most cultures – sometimes the wolf is a tiger, sometimes the grandmother is an aunt, but the basic elements of the story remain. Look at it in terms of the three levels:

  • Awareness: sometimes people who look like a nice grandmother can be a wolf who wants to eat you
  • Emotional connection: this little girl is going to her grandmother just like me last Sunday!
  • Behaviour change: Hmm – I’ll be more careful in the future about what information I may share with strangers, even ones that look very nice.

Or in Charles Perrault’s words:

From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!

OK, so this one is pretty obvious and straight forward. Let us examine a slightly different way of telling a story: Princess Diana shaking an AIDS patient’s hand, in 1987, without wearing gloves. This seems quite banal now but at the time was a turning point in people’s perception of AIDS patients. What do we have here?

  • Awareness: it is not dangerous to shake an AIDS patient’s hand
  • Emotional connection – well this was Princess Diana, the Princess of the People – of course there was an emotional connection
  • Behaviour change: I may think differently about my behaviour towards people suffering from AIDS from now on

As John O’Reilly, a nurse on the ward at the time of the visit, told the BBC’s Witness 30 years later:

“If a royal was allowed to go in and shake a patient’s hands, somebody at the bus stop or the supermarket could do the same. That really educated people.”

Sometimes, the emotional connection comes before the awareness. That’s often when the power of storytelling is most obvious. That’s true of movies such as The Crying Game for instance, but it’s also beautifully demonstrated in this French social media campaign.

Here the viewer or follower created a real emotional connection with Louise, and so when the messaging came it has a devastating impact. The young person who mentioned this campaign to me told me it had made her rethink completely how she saw casual drinking.


Stories are everywhere, and they underpin everything. Now think – how can this help you? Are you harnessing the power of storytelling?

Here are some things I hear in my coaching session:

  • I work harder than everybody here, but no-one notices
  • I would like to evolve my role, but I don’t know how to engage with my boss
  • One of my team members is not pulling their weight

Let’s think about these in terms of story levels. The first one is obvious: it starts with awareness! You need to let people know that you work hard. Otherwise how are they supposed to notice? But then think about evolving this to the next level: how do you frame the narrative that you work hard in the way that is most likely to engage your boss and colleagues emotionally? Complaining is unlikely to work. What’s the story here? And then what about behaviour change? What would you like your colleagues and boss to do in response to your story? Praise you? Give you a promotion? Or would you like your workload to decrease? Think about the behaviour you are trying to elicit in your audience, and then frame your approach with this in mind.

Engaging with your boss is also about understanding your audience, and framing your approach in a way that will make sense to them. What is the story here? How is this going to help your boss? Or if it won’t help, how can you pre-empt and mitigate problems? How will you communicate this in a way that’s emotionally engaging?

And then think about talking to someone who works for you about their behaviour. That’s a conversation most of us would dread. Let’s think about the narrative that’s going into that person’s head. Let’s ask them for their story. And let’s refine the way we approach them based on that.

Most of us understand intuitively that stories are fun and interesting. Yet we go to meetings, interviews, presentations and we start listing facts. This is what we have been told to do at school.

Facts should be enough, of course. But they never are. Very few people change their minds when faced with convincing data. Our brains are incredibly skilled at ignoring data! Sure, data may say that vaccination is safe, that big cars kill the planet, that soda is bad for you… but one article in a newspaper about that extremely rare side effect, a couple of James Bond movies with a bunch of SUVs, a cute Coke advert… all of this is going to have more impact on our behaviour than rows and rows of numbers.

Stories are powerful. In fact, stories run the world. So… what’s your story?