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)

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