Ted Lasso: You either immediately know who this is, or you’re wondering, “Who in the world is Ted Lasso?” Less than two months ago, I was in the latter category. I don’t watch much TV, except for sporting events and the occasional Golden Girls re-run, and I have never binge-watched anything on television. That changed when I went to Colorado to visit my brother and sister-in-law over Memorial Day weekend. After the kids went to bed, they insisted that we watch this great show called “Ted Lasso.”
Here’s the premise: Ted Lasso is a Division II football coach from the United States, and he is recruited by the owner of a struggling English Premier Soccer League team, AFC Richmond, to become its head coach. Ted has never coached soccer before, and the new team owner, who received the club as part of her divorce settlement, intentionally recruits him hoping to run the team into the ground in order to get back at her ex-husband.
It sounded nice, I love anything by Jason Sudeikis or comedy-related, and my brother called it “heartwarming” – something I need more of in my life. I was not expecting to discover one of the most brilliantly written, uplifting, and moving shows I have ever watched. I was also not expecting to think about work, but the show offers profound lessons in leadership and how to develop high-performing teams and a positive culture.
Here are my leadership takeaways, presented as general themes that can also help inform your return to office conversations:
Emphasize the role of the team. I define a team as two or more people working together in service of a common goal. Many organizations orient in teams, but don’t often know how to team well. Ted knows that in order to team well, literally everyone in the organization needs to be part of the team. He begins a practice of bringing small cakes to the team owner (biscuits with the boss) each day as a way to connect with her, and he encourages her to “come downstairs” to visit the team and participate in some of their rituals. In addition, Ted makes several courageous personnel decisions when it becomes clear that the collective good of the team is in jeopardy.
Kindness supports great leadership. This show could have very easily become too saccharine because Ted is just so darn friendly. Kindness is at the essence of who Ted is, and without his expert social and emotional intelligence, he could have easily been thought of as a doormat (or certainly uninspiring). At work, kindness can be perceived as “soft,” yet I think it’s the superpower most leaders need to better demonstrate, particularly in these times. Ted remembers birthdays, eats at his cab driver’s family restaurant as a show of support, brings gifts to people, and does little things to show everyone just how much he cares. In one of my favorite scenes from the entire season (Episode 8 if you want to watch), Ted very clearly shows why kind people are not to be underestimated.
Everyone has a perspective to share. One of my favorite aspects of the show is the relationship Ted develops with Nathan, the underappreciated equipment manager (“kit man”) who is often picked on by some of the team. What nobody realizes is that Nate has some brilliant ideas about how to coach. When Nate gets up the courage to tell Ted his ideas, Ted listens, values his opinion, and then incorporates the ideas. What’s more, when Ted is asked by the media who developed one specific play in particular, he gives Nate the credit. Seeking out a team member’s opinion, then actively using his or her suggestions, creates psychological safety: the belief that you can share ideas, disagree, and ask questions on your team without fear that you will be singled out, put down or otherwise embarrassed.
Approach the unknown with humility. Leaders must also be willing acknowledge the limits of their knowledge; yet, most leaders who I work with find this difficult (and even a sign of weakness). Ted has never coached soccer before, and this does not sit well with the fans or the media. He approaches his interactions with them using humble curiosity, asking lots of questions, and relying heavily on his assistant coach for help translating the new language (both as to soccer and the cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K.).
Cultivate hope. Ted believes in the power of hope, and one of the first things he does is to hang a sign in the locker room that says “Believe;” even though the fans he interacts with repeatedly tell him that “it’s the hope that kills you.” In reality, Ted knows it’s the exact opposite because you can’t achieve any type of hard goal if you don’t first believe that it can be accomplished. Not only that, but the journey should also be something you enjoy.
I wrote these lessons in general terms because I don’t want to give away too many details in case you are new to the show. Just know that each episode offers myriad examples to support these themes, many of which will leave you feeling better about life (or laughing out loud). In many ways, I believe leadership is overthought. Leadership is a set of behaviors (not a title) that promote good teaming, kindness, empathy, the courage to make tough decisions and have tough conversations, and develop those around you because you care. Ted Lasso provides a good template for all leaders and organizations to follow.