Like countless other households surviving lockdown, our household consumed a LOT of television during 2020. It’s been our escapism, reminding us of simpler times before we knew about quarantining, social distancing, curfews and mask-wearing.
(As an aside, I wonder if, in the future, we’ll look back on the pre-2020 media as “period” pieces? In the same way we instantly recognise film and TV from the 1980s and 1990s (pre-mobile technology, pre-9/11 skyscapes of New York, pre-internet). Will we one day think, “oh look … how funny we used to kiss and hug strangers and gather together in crowds!”?)
When the news outside our home bubble was particularly sad or frustrating, we scoured the streaming services for intelligent, thought-provoking entertainment. Falling into this latter category is the relentlessly positive and upbeat Apple TV+ series, Ted Lasso. Essentially a “lost-in-translation” comedy, Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) is an American football coach from Kansas hired to manage an off-the-rails, rapidly descending English Premier League club.
Yes, this series is about a soccer team, but it’s not about soccer (phew!). It’s schmaltzy, corny and filled with less-than-subtle cliches. But beyond this it’s also smart, engaging and avidly watchable. And, as we binged eight of ten episodes over one weekend, I was struck by the valuable leadership lessons contained in this thoughtful and nuanced series.
Hey, takin’ on a challenge is a lot like ridin’ a horse. If you’re comfortable while you’re doin’ it, you’re probably doin’ it wrong.Ted lasso
1. A capable and inspiring leader does not need to be a subject matter expert.
Ted knows nothing about soccer and believes “football’s football no matter where you play it”. The fervent press-pack and fanatical footie fans are quick to educate him (halves not quarters, games can tie, never touch the ball with your hands) and even quicker to label him a clueless “wanker”.
But with unrelenting enthusiasm for the challenge, Ted observes, takes advice, develops meaningful relationships and genuinely seems to care about people above outcomes. Needless to say, the results follow. This is, after all, a feel-good story.
It’s not so hard to connect the dots to real life where someone who’s aware of their knowledge gaps, willing to listen, take and act on advice will quickly become a trusted and inspiring leader over someone who walks into a new situation thinking they know more than everyone around them.
2. Be confident but release yourself from your ego and trust your people.
Ted relies upon the support of his trusted lieutenant, Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt) and comfortably requests coaching and gameplay advice from Nate (Nick Mohammed), the team’s lacky and errand boy. Most surprised by this is Nate himself (“no one ever asks my name”) and the press, who articulate it less kindly (“is this a f#*king joke?”).
I love this analogy of strong, motivating leadership. Ted, acknowledging his lack of soccer expertise, does not try to bluff or assert himself. (How many examples of this do encounter every day? In business? In politics?) Instead, he seeks the advice of someone he recognises as a close observer of the team and then confidently backs his decision in spite of significant opposition.
3. Always be curious, not judgemental.
There’s a scene-stealing moment in episode 8 where Ted gives a monologue based on the Walt Whitman quote “Be curious, not judgemental.”. The underlying message is when you’re curious about someone, ask questions and understand their background rather than jumping to uninformed judgements, you’ll never underestimate that person and be caught off guard.
This is an important life and leadership lesson because as we grow and know more, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we know enough. This is never true. Inspirational leaders know this and spend the time needed to get to know people – their employees, customers and competitors. They understand the value in doing this, in understanding behavioural nuances, rather than making assumptions based on stereotypes.
4. A successful team needs diversity of talent and experience.
It’s an understatement to say the team Ted takes over is a malfunctioning group of individuals with a poor work ethic. The culture is toxic and malice between the players is pervasive and offensive.
Ted navigates this situation, diffusing landmines and resolving conflicts with his trademark positivity and mid-West American colloquialisms. He pushes the captain to take leadership responsibility, he teaches an arrogant superstar the team doesn’t depend on him, he shows empathy to a player struggling to fit in. Bit-by-bit he forges the group into a cohesive team.
It’s clichéd, yes … but it’s a great reminder that a team is only ever as strong as its weakest member. An experienced leader or a team superstar on their own does not create an effective, sustainable team. For a strong, well-functioning and successful team you must have a diversity of talent and experience.
5. Kindness, compassion and empathy are underrated leadership values.
Ultimately this is pure escapism and a lovely reminder that lashings of positivity, kindness and compassion can deliver professional and personal success. While many corporate organisations say they value these qualities; they also quickly deprioritise them in the face of economic or competitive pressure.
It’s difficult to believe, and highly improbable, that a character like Ted exists. In my almost 30-year corporate career, I’ve experienced many different managers and leaders but sadly it’s a very small number who have been truly inspirational and clearly held these leadership values.
At a time when the world is so completely upside down, role models who show us they’re real people, good people trying to be the best possible version of themselves are a much-needed commodity. Ted Lasso is a fable that shows us that leaders who are positive, kind, compassionate and motivating – who are prepared to focus their time and energy on others rather than themselves – make the very best leaders.
(Ted Lasso is available on Apple TV+. All references and image sourced from Apple TV+)