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American Association for Physician Leadership
American Association for Physician Leadership

Leadership Lessons from Season One of Ted Lasso

by Gary S. Schwartz, MD, MHA

November 8, 2021


Summary:

More than an award-winning television show, Ted Lasso teaches leadership lessons worthy of attention.



Ted Lasso is a situational comedy that features a main character and premise developed by NBC Sports in 2013 for commercials promoting the arrival of English Premier League soccer in the United States. The show’s co-creator, Jason Sudeikis, stars as the titular Lasso, who, for reasons that go well beyond the scope of this essay, leaves his American college football coaching career to become manager of the fictional English Premier League team, the AFC Richmond Greyhounds. Sudeikis won Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, Primetime Emmy, and Critics Choice awards for portraying the fish-out-of-water Lasso.

At first, Lasso comes across as a bumbling yokel who will either fail repeatedly because of his ignorance and inability to recognize his ignorance or succeed through a combination of luck and pluck. By the end of the first episode, however, we realize that Lasso is much more grounded and self-aware than initially surmised, and we, along with the initially skeptical players, fans, owner, and local press, take joy in watching him rack up successes.

In addition to being an award-winningly entertaining half-hour of television, I believe that Ted Lasso should also be appreciated as a master class in organizational leadership. The attentive viewer might learn as much about leadership by watching 10 half-hour episodes of this show as they could by taking courses, viewing academic videos, or reading books on the subject. Every episode is rife with pearls that can benefit everyone in a leadership position, regardless of their chosen business or field.

Although this article focuses on the leadership lessons that can be learned through the main character, the series offers much more than just that. For instance, viewers can learn leadership lessons through the character of Club President Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham), especially through her relationship with Director of Football Operations Leslie Higgins (Jeremy Swift). Likewise, the series digs deeply into non-business themes, most notably those of aging and being replaced by a younger version of oneself.

I leave it up to others to explore those themes as I present a summary of 10 leadership lessons that can be gleaned from watching Season 1 of Ted Lasso.

1. Establish a Strong Culture

The importance of culture to a business’ success is well-trodden ground, perhaps best personified by Peter Drucker’s quote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” For Coach Ted Lasso, nowhere is the culture of his team more important than in the locker room.

One of the recurrent tropes of the series is the tension between the young prodigy, Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), and the seasoned veteran, Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein). Team captain Kent is a formal leader, while Tartt, by nature of his skill on the pitch and personality off it, is an informal leader.

Lasso recognizes early in the season that Tartt’s self-centered behavior has the potential to erode the culture that he is trying to create. Although Lasso comes off as laid-back and folksy, he repeatedly confronts Tartt about his negative behavior, sometimes in private and sometimes in front of others.

Lasso confronts Tartt in Episode 2 when Tartt puts chewing gum in the collection box for a player’s birthday gift and again after a game when he tells Tartt he would do better if he were a less selfish player. In Episode 5, he benches Tartt in the middle of a game and in Episode 6, he confronts Tartt in front of the entire team when Tartt says he is too injured to practice.

Through repeated discussions, Lasso demonstrates how important culture is to him. The players (and the viewers) come to learn that Lasso will not give up until Tartt is fully on board with the team culture that Lasso is trying to create.

Because of Lasso’s commitment to this core value, Tartt does show improvement as the season progresses. Unfortunately, we do not see how much he ultimately changes because his contract is picked up by Manchester City at the end of Episode 6 and he no longer affects the internal culture of the organization.

2. Realize That You Do Not Have to Know Everything

Lasso seems comfortable with knowing very little about England in general, and English football in particular. As late as Episode 9, he is almost hit by a car while crossing the street because he hasn’t absorbed the fact that the Brits drive on the left side of the road.

His ignorance is on full display in the last episode of the television season (and last game of the fictional football season) when he admits to the referee in the middle of the game that he still does not understand the offsides rule: “Explain to me how that’s offside. No, I’m serious. How is that offside? I don’t understand that yet.”

Although he does not know everything, Lasso is confident in the things that he does know. He knows the importance of team culture, for instance. He also knows how to develop people, and how to get players to want to play for and win for him.

These ideas are more important than understanding the nuances (or even fundamental rules) of the game because, as he says to his son in Episode 10, “Once the game gets going, I can’t tell my fellas what to do. So, I just gotta hope that everything I’ve been trying to teach ’em made some sort of impact on ’em, and that they’ll make the right decisions when they’re out there on their own.”

He knows what he needs to know to be an effective leader. To him, the other things do not matter.

3. Consider That the Team Is More Important Than Any Individual

Jamie Tartt is the team’s most skilled player, and the team has won many games thanks to goals he scored. But he is a selfish player; he often holds onto the ball when he should pass it, he believes being used as a decoy in a successful play is a waste of his talents, and during a game in Episode 5, he points to the name on the back of his jersey and chants, “Me! Me! Me!” when he scores a goal. His teammates are turned off by this selfish behavior and do not join him in celebration when he scores an important goal.

After observing how Tartt’s selfish behavior affects the rest of the team, Lasso benches him in the middle of the game. We recognize this decision is the correct one for the sake of the team’s culture, but the fictional fans and press have a harder time seeing why a manager would bench his most productive player.

Interestingly, Lasso has a more difficult time deciding whether to bench Kent. Kent is an important leader in the locker room and on the pitch, but as his career is in its waning years, he is being beaten on the field by younger players. In Episode 9, the fans, the press, and even Lasso’s assistant (and fellow American) Coach Beard (Brandan Hunt) and kit man Nathan Shelley (Nick Mohammed) explain to Lasso why the team would perform better if Kent were benched, but Lasso cannot do that because the decision to do so is trumped by other truths that he holds higher:

  1. He coaches to develop men into the best versions of themselves, and Kent playing until he, himself, decides it is time to stop is an important part of his personal development, and

  2. The culture of the team is paramount, and Kent’s role as player and captain is an integral part of the team’s culture.

Thus, Lasso’s inability to bench Kent brings up an important leadership concept. Every good leader makes decisions based on their own internal value system, and some values must have a higher ranking than others.

For Lasso, the idea that “the team is more important than any individual” seems to be less important than his commitment to the development of people and the team’s culture. Thus, although his decision to bench Tartt and not bench Kent may seem inconsistent, it is actually aligned with his personal value system.

4. Call People by Name

Lasso learns and uses people’s names, most notably the names of people who are lower than he in social position. Early in the pilot episode, Lasso introduces himself to his limo driver by saying, “My name’s Ted. What’s yours?” He then addresses the driver by his name (Ollie) twice before they arrive at the stadium. When he asks kit man Nathan what his name is, a surprised Nathan answers, “Who me? No one ever asks my name.” As the season progresses, we see Lasso address members of the press and fans at the pub by their names as well.

Addressing people by name shows them that you respect them as a person, which sets a tone for the relationship. The limo driver, Ollie, later welcomes Lasso into his restaurant, where he brings him a specially prepared meal. Nathan, who has never before been considered more than a kit man, feels valued enough to contribute his knowledge to help create plays for the team.

The members of the press corps, who are brutal to Lasso in his first press conference, treat him much more civilly when he calls them each by name as the season progresses, despite that they consider his coaching to be the main reason the team is not winning many games. Even the three fans whom he repeatedly bumps into at the pub, fans who only care if the team wins or loses, find it hard to stay mad at a Premier League manager who calls them by their names.

5. Choose a Partner with Skills and Weaknesses That Complement Yours

It is the rare leader who is the complete package: visionary, organized, emotionally intelligent, boardroom savvy, a great communicator. Most effective leaders score well in a few of these traits but fall short in others.

In the business setting, leaders work with and around others, and may even be formally linked with a single individual in a dyad relationship. The dyad pairing of Coach Lasso and Coach Beard is successful because the strengths and weaknesses of the two coaches barely overlap at all.

Lasso is engaging, chatty, and amiable in a folksy sort of way. He knows how to develop the people around him but knows little about the game of soccer that he is traveling halfway around the world to coach at the highest level. Beard (we are never really sure if that is his name, or just his most distinguishing feature), is the exact opposite of Lasso in just about every way and so makes the ideal dyad partner.

Where Lasso is engaging and chatty, Beard is quiet and thoughtful; we learn later that he is a chess prodigy. Where Lasso knows little about England, soccer, or any manner of new things he is experiencing, Beard has made the effort to study them. This difference is made manifest even before the opening credits of the pilot episode, when Beard is reading a soccer book on the plane from the United States to England, while Lasso is reading a paperback novel (Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums).

Neither Lasso nor Beard would be nearly as successful in their new coaching stint without the other. Picture the situation if their similarities outweighed their differences; imagine having two chatty coaches, ignorant of the finer points of the game or two introverts steeped in them.

The same principle also obviously applies to leaders in business. A CEO who is visionary and driven by numbers, but with a low EQ, will be most successful partnering with someone with a high EQ, assuming they respect each other enough to listen to one another.

6. Seek Input From Others

Lasso understands that like many successful leaders, he alone is responsible for making the important decisions. He decides what the team does in practice, who is in the starting lineup for each game, and when a player gets pulled from a game.

Despite the fact that he is the ultimate decision-maker, he repeatedly seeks feedback from reasonable sources. As early as Episode 2, he seeks input from Rebecca and Keeley (Juno Temple) about Tartt. Throughout the season, he seeks input from Nathan, who, remember, thought himself so unimportant that no one ever asked him his name, let alone his ideas for soccer plays.

Lasso is even open to receiving input that he neither asks for nor agrees with. This trait is made clearest in Episode 9 when Lasso tells Beard and Nathan, “Guys, I’m not benching Roy. He’s our captain. But I want you to know that I value each of your opinions. Even when they’re wrong.”

7. Look for Diamonds in the Rough and Develop Them

Nathan is the epitome of the diamond in the rough. When we first meet him, he does not recognize Lasso and Beard as coaches and runs toward them yelling for them to step off the pitch. Later, after Lasso convinces Nathan that he really does want to know his name, and then Nathan laughs at one of Lasso’s jokes without understanding it, Lasso tells Beard, “I love this kid. Love him.”

Recognizing that Nathan has more to offer than anyone has ever asked of him, Lasso develops him by continually giving him additional responsibilities while ensuring that the rest of the team knows that Nathan has his support. In Episode 3, he asks Nathan to share a play that he has written and in Episode 4 he buys Nathan a new suit and takes him to the charity fundraiser. In Episode 7, Lasso apologizes to Nathan for getting mad at him the previous night, then has him give the pre-game pep talk before the important game against Everton.

Finally, in Episode 10, Lasso, Beard, Rebecca, and the whole team surprise Nathan by promoting him to coach. This promotion is not a symbolic and meaningless act, and it is not merely a just reward for someone who has shown the skills and know-how for a deserved promotion. It is a very public demonstration of how Lasso develops and promotes diamonds in the rough within his organization.

8. Know When to Get Involved and When to Stand Back

Lasso does not shy away from difficult discussions. As discussed above, he talks to Tartt about his bad attitude and talks with Beard and Nathan about not wanting to bench Kent. Yet he also recognizes when people need to fight their own battles.

The best example of this leadership technique occurs in Episode 2, when Lasso does not interfere with Tartt and his followers who are picking on Nathan in the locker room. When Kent confronts Lasso on this, he responds, “If a teacher tells a bully not to pick on someone, it’s just gonna make it worse.”

Lasso certainly has the authority to ask Tartt to stop picking on Nathan. But he recognizes instead that the true problem is not that the bullies are picking on Nathan, but that Kent, who is team captain, is not displaying the leadership necessary to make them stop. Kent learns this lesson from Lasso, confronts the bullies himself, and receives more respect from his fellow players by doing so.

9. Recognize Losses

The adage “You can’t win them all” obviously applies to sports but works for almost everything else, including business. Successful leaders know that it is important to celebrate successes, but how should they treat losses? There are a lot of options here, including ignoring them, learning from them, and redirecting away from them.

In Ted Lasso, the viewer does not see the results of every game, but evidence indicates that AFC Richmond loses more games than it wins under Lasso and Beard’s leadership. We are not privy to locker room discussions after most of these losses, so we do not know how Lasso responds to each one. However, we do know from his discussion with reporter Crimm in Episode 3 that he does not concern himself with wins and losses. His primary goal is to “get them fellas to be the best version of themselves, on and off the field.”

It does become evident in the final episode that winning is important. It is important for the fans, for the players, and for the team, itself, because if AFC Richmond loses their last game of the season, they will be relegated from the Premier League into the lower-level Championship League.

In this final game, it looks like they will avoid relegation with a tie, but Jamie Tartt (who now plays for their opponent, Manchester City) assists on the winning goal in stoppage time, causing the Greyhounds to lose and be relegated. After the game, the AFC Richmond locker room is obviously an emotional place, and Lasso delivers one of his best speeches of the season. He tells the team, “This is a sad moment right here. I want you to be grateful that you’re going through this sad moment with all these other folks. There is something worse out there than being sad, and that is being alone and being sad.”

With this speech, he does not minimize the fact that the team lost, that they are relegated, and that everyone has the right to be sad about it. He also does not give a typical sports-themed silver lining (e.g., “You all played hard but got beat by a better team”). Instead, he emphasizes the interpersonal relationships that are at the root of the team’s culture and that everyone in that room has each other to go through this difficult experience.

10. Be Curious, Not Judgmental

The scene, in which Lasso plays darts with Rebecca’s ex-husband Rupert (Anthony Head), is key to understanding the core of Lasso’s leadership philosophy. Rupert assumes that Lasso cannot play darts well because he knows him as just a dumb American yokel. He has never taken the time to learn anything about Lasso and assumes that there is nothing more to him than that. Thus, Rupert accepts the terms of Lasso’s bet over a single game of darts.

As Lasso lines up a virtually impossible combination he needs to win (two triple-20s and a bullseye), he soliloquizes, “Guys have underestimated me my entire life….I saw this quote by Walt Whitman….It said, ’Be curious, not judgmental.’ I like that….It hits me. All them fellas that used to belittle me, not a single one of them were curious. They thought they had everything all figured out. So, they judged everything, and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me, who I was, had nothing to do with it. ’Cause if they were curious, they would’ve asked questions. Questions like ‘Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?.’ To which I would have answered, ‘Yes, sir.’ ”

Ted then hits the necessary combination and wins the game.

After watching this scene, we understand why Lasso acts the way he does toward Nathan. Where everyone else assumed that Nathan was just an ignorant kit man, Lasso was curious, not judgmental.

Thinking back over the season, we realize that he has done similar things with other characters, including Rebecca, Keeley, Kent, Tartt, and Trent Crimm. All of us have fallen into the trap of being surprised by the knowledge and skills of someone whom we have underestimated.

Going forward, we would all do better if we remember this lesson from Whitman as filtered through the drawl of Lasso: “Be curious, not judgmental.”

Master Class

Ted Lasso is more than a funny sitcom to be watched and then forgotten. It joins a short list of shows that do more than just entertain us; they also teach us something. In this way, it is similar to such great network shows as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which gave us a glimpse into the life of a single professional woman in the 1970s; M*A*S*H, which pulled the curtain back on not only the horrors, but also the ridiculousness of war; and the more recent The Good Place, which taught viewers about ethics and moral philosophy.

It is too early to see where history places Ted Lasso among these great shows, but anyone in a leadership position would do well to watch it for what it is: a master class in organizational leadership.


Gary S. Schwartz, MD, MHA

Gary S. Schwartz, MD, MHA, is a practicing ophthalmologist in Stillwater, Minnesota, and is president of Associated Eye Care and co-chair and executive medical director of Associated Eye Care Partners. gschwartz@aecpmso.com

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