What can Ted Lasso teach us about leadership?
Author’s Note: I am the official Ted Lasso promoter for Small Potatoes Communications. I take this unsanctioned role very seriously, so I must warn you: there are spoilers in this blog post. If you’d like to run over to Apple TV+ and watch the series, I’ll await your enthusiastic thank you. If you’ve seen it or are curious to see what all the fuss is about, read on.
Ted Lasso is a show about kindness, relentless optimism, forgiveness, personal growth…and leadership effectiveness?
In an episode of our beloved Brené Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us, Brown shared her love of Ted Lasso with her fans. Brown is joined by show co-creator and title star, Jason Sudeikis, and co-creator and everyone’s favorite Lady Gaga impersonator, Brendan Hunt, to discuss the positive impact the show has on seemingly everyone that tunes in.
In the context of strong leadership, the part that stood out to me is when they discuss the show’s opening title. There, Ted Lasso sits in a blue stadium seat. Slowly and steadily, chairs around him begin to turn red until they spell out the show’s title. What looks like a standard football stadium actually has a much deeper meaning.
“…The idea of Ted sitting in a chair and then changing the environment around him, it’s… Ted is more of a white rabbit than a white knight. He sort of leads you to the thing and leads by example…” Sudeikis said.
Good leadership is bold and out there – but it’s also subtle and nuanced. Impact happens in the big, organization-changing moments, but gaining alignment and setting culture happens in the small moments.
Early in season one, Lasso has yet to gain credibility with the team. His first order of business is to put out a suggestion box for the team to share their feedback (and brilliant British insults). Card after card lobs criticism and name-calling (wanker) at Lasso until he reaches the one that becomes his starting point for change.
“Shower pressure is rubbish.”
It’s simple and small, but it becomes the first building block to effective change. He immediately springs into action and has the shower pressure fixed. Here’s where the nuance comes in: He doesn’t announce it. He doesn’t say, “Look what I’ve done for you!” and seek credit. By showing that he’s willing to listen to the small things to improve the team’s experience, a little crack forms in their armor.
The moment the team truly comes together is when Lasso is willing to make the difficult and controversial decision to remove his best player from the game. After watching his arrogant star player, Jamie Tartt, celebrate two goals on the field solo while the other players gather unenthusiastically off to the side, Lasso decides to make a change.
Lasso sends the message: Winning is not more important than fostering teamwork and camaraderie among the players. The culture of the team supersedes the scoreboard.
Isn’t that a breath of fresh air?! We all know that companies must balance performance and culture, but what would happen if culture was always the priority?
The episode ends with the team winning the match. Yes, it’s brilliantly written fiction, but I believe it’s rooted in real life business outcomes when people are the priority.
Lasso’s leadership throughout the show was not just top-down. There is also a great storyline of managing upward, with Lasso and the team’s owner, Rebecca Welton. Welton is an embittered recent divorcee acting out from pain and heartbreak. The operational decisions she makes, including hiring Lasso, are designed to hurt her ex-husband, as his first and only love is the football team. Lasso, in his unwavering kindness and shrewd sensibility, sees her struggle and supports her.
“He is egoless. He does allow for people to be themselves and reflect what they think he is, but really what they are. Ted doesn’t try to persuade [them]. He just knows. He just keeps marching along. Slow and steady wins the race. …He doesn’t allow himself to be changed by it and try to prove other people wrong; he just knows,” said Sudeikis.
Lasso is unshaken by Welton’s efforts to sabotage the team and marches forward with his mission to make everyone around him a better person. Eventually, Welton moves past the pain, sees her errors in judgment and accepts Lasso’s gift of forgiveness. She becomes more involved in the team dynamic, breaks free from the chains that bind her and moves toward creating a more cohesive environment.