Pop Culture Incorporated: Leadership Lessons from Ted Lasso

Some of the pandemic’s most rel­e­vant and res­o­nant lessons about lead­er­ship didn’t come from a high-pro­file CEO’s LinkedIn post. Instead, the mas­ter-lev­el class on what it takes to be a leader was taught by a folksy, opti­mistic, pos­i­tive – and entire­ly fic­tion­al – soc­cer coach. And his sweet mustache.

Ted Las­so, per­fect­ly embod­ied by Jason Sudeikis in the epony­mous Apple TV+ series, crammed more nuggets of wis­dom in the five hours of the show’s first sea­son (the sec­ond sea­son drops July 23) than in a library of well-mean­ing busi­ness books. Most of them are home­spun bon mots: “You know what the hap­pi­est ani­mal on Earth is?” Ted asks a team mem­ber strug­gling with let­ting go of an issue. “It’s a gold­fish. You know why? Got a 10-sec­ond mem­o­ry. Be a goldfish.”

In what could have been a ham-hand­ed fish-out-of-water sto­ry, with much of the humor aimed at Lasso’s seem­ing­ly Pollyan­na-ish approach. (“For me, suc­cess is not about the wins and loss­es,” he says. “It’s about help­ing these young fel­las be the best ver­sions of them­selves on and off the field.”) “Ted Las­so” instead turns our expec­ta­tions on their ears and demon­strates how a sin­cere, trans­par­ent leader can affect change in the peo­ple he or she leads – even while deal­ing with his own crum­bling mar­riage and debil­i­tat­ing pan­ic attacks. It’s an even stronger left turn since Las­so was ini­tial­ly set up to fail. New team own­er Rebec­ca hired Ted to spite her ex-hus­band and dri­ve the team, which she got in the divorce, into the ground. Before he arrived in the UK, Ted was a suc­cess­ful col­lege foot­ball coach in Kansas, and had nev­er coached soc­cer before.

Because of the opti­mism and feel-good approach, the show was award­ed a Peabody ear­li­er this sum­mer “for offer­ing the per­fect counter to the endur­ing preva­lence of tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty, both on-screen and off, in a moment when the nation tru­ly needs inspir­ing mod­els of kindness.”

Ted’s lessons are legion; here are a few that any­body in a lead­er­ship role can apply to their own situation:

Con­nect with your team. Min­utes after his arrival, Ted star­tles kit-man Nathan by ask­ing his name. “No one ever asks my name,” says the sur­prised assis­tant. By build­ing a rela­tion­ship with “Nate the Great” (who gets a well-deserved pro­mo­tion by the 10th episode), not to men­tion every oth­er per­son on the team – as well as some of their friends and fam­i­ly – Las­so empow­ers them all to become authen­tic ambas­sadors for his approach. “Indeed, much of the per­son­al trans­for­ma­tions in the char­ac­ters and their extend­ed rela­tion­ships occurs through the rip­ple effect of Ted’s radi­ant opti­mism and intense­ly sin­cere, if folksy, good will,” cit­ed the Peabody Board of Jurors. Every sin­gle per­son in Ted’s orbit feels seen and heard, a hall­mark of true leadership.

Rely on oth­ers. Ted demon­strates ear­ly and often that he val­ues and relies upon oth­er people’s per­spec­tives. Coach Beard, his sec­ond in com­mand, expert­ly plays the role of inte­gra­tor to Lasso’s vision­ary, and the duo is greater than the sum of their parts. Ted con­stant­ly brings oth­ers into the con­ver­sa­tion, both to hear diverse points of view, but also to keep them engaged with what’s hap­pen­ing across the team. When aging star Roy comes to Ted for advice, the coach pulls togeth­er a brain trust of Coach Beard, Nate and Hig­gins, which he brands the “Dia­mond Dogs.”

Be con­sis­tent. One of the major arcs of the sea­son is how Ted keeps try­ing to get super­star jerk Jamie to pass the ball to his team­mates rather than hog­ging all the goals him­self. When Jamie final­ly learns the les­son, it’s (spoil­er alert) when he gets called back to the Man­ches­ter City team, and his final­ly unselfish move results in the goal that beats Ted’s team, AFC Rich­mond. Ted sends Jamie a heart­felt let­ter say­ing how proud he is of him mak­ing the extra pass to his team­mate, which clear­ly impact­ed Jamie (who we’ll no doubt see rejoin the team next sea­son). Ted had an approach, and he stuck with it.

One of the first things Ted does when he arrives is to scrib­ble a sign that says “BELIEVE” and slap it on the wall, hear­ken­ing back to it mul­ti­ple times as the sea­son wears on. “I believe in hope,” he says. “I believe in ‘Believe.’” The team ini­tial­ly shakes their head at this rube from Amer­i­ca, but ulti­mate­ly his con­sis­tent and col­lab­o­ra­tive phi­los­o­phy – and what the Peabody Awards call his “charm­ing dose of rad­i­cal opti­mism” – res­onates. His inher­ent hon­esty, com­mu­ni­ca­tions skills and inten­tion­al approach to build a com­mu­ni­ty designed to strength­en the team moves the ball up the pitch, both lit­er­al­ly and figuratively.

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