The Leadership Lessons of Ted Lasso

If you lead within any organization, toss aside the latest best seller and simply tune in to the Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso.

The show’s namesake is a positive, endearing, and erstwhile American football coach played by co-creator and Kansas City area native Jason Sudeikis. After some modest success in the States (he leads Wichita State to the NCAA D-II National Championship), Ted finds himself the head coach, er “Manager,” of AFC Richmond, a different sort of football club in the English Premier League.

Coach Lasso knows little about the U.K., and even less about its national sport, soccer. This draws fierce ire from the Brits, who find it hard to take him seriously as he’s perpetually joking American-style and making obscure references to agriculture and barbeque.

But as the first ten episodes of Lasso unfold, we find Ted is not some hayseed simpleton and the series is not a slap stick sitcom. Instead, we’re presented with a dynamically complex set of characters who under Coach Lasso’s influence grow, mature, and experience redemptive moments the likes of which are rarely found in Hollywood or for that matter England.

While the list of Ted Lasso’s leadership qualities might fill two internets, I’ll distill them down to six:

He’s Not Afraid To Be in Over His Head

As he flies across the Atlantic to begin his assignment in Richmond, Ted and his assistant, Coach Beard, acknowledge the craziness of what they’re doing. But as Ted concludes, “it’s like riding a horse. If you’re too comfortable you’re not doing it right.”

Indeed, how many times do we as leaders avoid new initiatives because we fear we may look bad or be accused of not knowing what we’re doing? Complacency and safety do not breed success.

He Treats Everyone, No Matter How Far Down the Org Chart, the Same 

The first AFC Richmond employee Lasso meets is Nathan Shelley, the team’s kit man (I don’t know what that is either). As the lowest individual in the organization, Shelley is dumbfounded when Lasso wants to know his name. As if he’s forgotten it, Nathan babbles “no one’s ever asked me my name before.” He’s even more astonished when Ted remembers his name the following day. Nathan is eventually dubbed “Nate the Great” by Coach Lasso. It’s in this pronouncement that Nathan Shelley begins to flourish within the AFC Richmond organization.

Do we seek to know, or only to be known? Do we construct hierarchies, or do we believe every individual is a meaningful contributor to our team? Maybe before we answer those questions, we answer this one: Do we simply know everyone’s name?

He Sees a Bigger Picture

When an arrogant reporter is assigned an article designed to discredit him, Ted uses the interview as an opportunity to make a new friend. He makes sure the reporter understands Ted’s ultimate objective—to “help these young fellas be the best versions of themselves, on and off the field.”

Whether we’re talking about wins and losses, or profit and loss, is there something bigger at play? Is leading an organization actually a larger stewardship, where we are accountable for the collective individual persons we are leading?  How do we help our team members become the best versions of themselves—in and out of the business?

He Checks His Ego at the Door

Ted Lasso is quick to admit “you could fill two internets with what I don’t know about soccer—football.” This sort of humility gains him no fans in London, but when it’s fleshed out, we see something else is in play.

Nathan supplies a play to Coaches Lasso and Beard. They implement the play, and it’s successful. But when the press asks Ted about it, he deflects any credit and places it where it’s due, on Nate the Great. They’re astonished that Ted would subcontract the offensive attack to the kit man (I still don’t know what that is).

Nate is later promoted to assistant coach and gives Ted a memo with insightful thoughts regarding the strengths and flaws of individual team members. Ted loves it,  and tells Nate to deliver it during a pre-game speech. Nate very reluctantly does so, and the results are powerful.

Can an organization thrive if its leaders are obsessed with taking all the credit? Is it sustainable to toil in circumstances where one’s gifts and talents are not recognized? The mark of a great leader is not in knowing all the answers, but in identifying and assembling talent which does.

He Tends to the Little Things

Early in Ted Lasso’s tenure, he passes around a suggestion box, leveraging the prospect of anonymity to gain honest feedback. Many of the submissions simply call him a “wanker” and encourage him to “piss off.” (Note: the series contains healthy doses of foul language and sexual innuendo) However, Ted notes one suggestion which states “the shower pressure is rubbish.” Flash forward to a scene where we see the shower pressure elevated to fire hose levels.

What is your “water pressure” detail? What seemingly small matter shows you have the backs of the people you lead? What otherwise insignificant detail, given appropriate attention, suggests you can be trusted with much more?

He’s About Reconciliation

My favorite scene from the first season involves Ted’s boss, team owner Rebecca, apologizing to Ted for the horrible ways she had been orchestrating his failure so she could get back at her ex-husband. She enumerates her sins, one by one, and in doing so demonstrates amazing contrition and vulnerability.

Most of us would be enraged if a boss, or anyone, had undermined us in this fashion. Ted, visibly shaken, takes a few moments to collect himself, then stands up, walks around his desk to face Rebecca, and states with a wide-eyed earnestness: “I forgive you.” It’s a stunning moment, one that floors Rebecca and brings her to hug Ted tightly while shedding not a few tears.

Although a variety of factors led Rebecca to this apology, I believe Ted had ultimately established a culture where people, and the way they interact with one another, matter.

Is there dignity in the organization you lead? Are you capable of admitting you’re wrong? Are you capable of seeking forgiveness when it’s appropriate? And, can you undertake the perhaps even more difficult work of granting it?

If you watch the ten-episode Season One of Ted Lasso, you’ll not only witness exemplary leadership, but you’re also likely laugh out loud and shed a few tears. I believe you’ll find it well worth the five hour investment.

The second season of Ted Lasso begins July 23 on Apple TV+.

Greg Finley – Dealer Principal
**Greg is a partner of the Velocity Team, Acumen, Kansas City
You can connect with him on Linkedin