As the Emmy nominations stacked up for season 1 of Ted Lasso, and the anticipation builds for season 2 coming out July 23, I can’t stop thinking about Ted and the team at AFC Richmond. My daughters will tease me endlessly about my hopeless love of all sports movies and TV. After all, I am a sucker for an underdog story. But of all my favorite sports-themed entertainment, Ted Lasso is at the top of the pile. After watching the first season for a third time (yes, I just admitted that), the many themes of how great coaching applies to great leadership became even more apparent.
Here are some of the takeaways from Coach Ted that any team leader can apply to help their teams thrive:
1) Kindness and empathy win the day.
First and foremost, Ted is kind to everyone he meets, whether they are teammate, boss, Uber driver, journalist, or fan (even when those fans forever call him "wanker"). He genuinely cares about the people around him and that kindness rubs off and makes others want to be better as well. Ted even converts the notoriously skeptical journalist, Trent Crimm, after a long day together. When Ted tells Trent how much he enjoyed spending time with him, Trent responds with surprise, "You genuinely mean that don't you?"
Ted is a classic example of a level 5 leader as Jim Collins describes in Good to Great—a leader who "builds enduring greatness through a combination of personal humility and professional will." As Trent Crimm describes in his article, "In a business that celebrates ego, Ted reins his in."
And this kindness works, even on the toughest critics, as he sees with Rebecca after months of "biscuits with the boss" and other opportunities to build rapport. As he says to her towards the end of the season, “You know what you do with tough cookies, don’t you? Dip ‘em in milk.”
And while kindness is a sufficient purpose in its own right, it's also true that teams perform better when they feel heard and valued. Ted reminds us all to be kind and have empathy for our colleagues, our customers, and ourselves.
2) We have to believe, in our missions and in each other.
Ted posts the "believe" sign in the locker room for the team to see every day (and he notes he has one posted on his bathroom mirror) to remind the team that success comes from our belief in the causes we are fighting for. Even when things get tough, and especially when things get tough, it's belief that carries us through. Belief is what helps us continue to get up, even when we fall down.
What is so unique about how Ted Lasso illustrates the power of belief, is that it's not only about the team believing in the mission, it's also about the belief in the potential of each individual on the team. Even Ted's constructive feedback is grounded in belief. (And in fact, research shows that feedback is 40% more effective when it starts by saying you believe in someone's potential.)
Ted gives a master class in delivering feedback in the scene below with Jamie. He starts by telling Jamie how talented he is and then explains that Jamie may be so sure he's one in a million, that he forgets that during the game, he's just 1 of 11. Ted says to Jamie, "If you just figure out some way to turn that me into us, the sky's the limit for you." The request Ted makes of Jamie is grounded in enormous belief in his potential.
3) Treat each person as a unique individual.
Ted sees each of the players on the team for the unique people that they are, with different strengths, capabilities, and needs. He knows that what works to motivate and inspire one person, won't work for another. And he gets the most out of the team by tapping in to each person's uniqueness. You see him display this deep understanding of each person in his gift of a unique book to each member of the team.
When he gives Roy "A Wrinkle in Time," a young adult novel about "a girl's struggle with the burden of leadership," Roy reacts with disdain, asking, "Am I supposed to be the little girl?" And Ted just replies, "Well, I'd like you to be." But later, as Roy reads the book to his niece, he reads aloud, “'What do you understand? That is has to be me. That it can’t be anyone else'…F*%K!” and he accepts his role as the primary leader of the team. Ted brings out Roy's leadership potential through a book that applies singularly to Roy and his story.
The most effective leaders understand what uniquely drives each person on the team. It's why we've built assessments in the Rising Team LeaderKit to help leaders understand everything about their team, from working styles, to top talents, to appreciation preferences. The more we know about what makes each person tick, the better we can support and develop them.
4) Amplify people's natural talents.
Not only does Ted understand what motivates and inspires each person, he also sees the natural talents that everyone can contribute to the team, even when they are lurking beneath the surface and may not be visible to others.
Ted sees that Nate, the "kit man," has potential to be much more than that. Nate has natural talents in envisioning creative plays and in cultivating and inspiring the team. Ted first encourages Nate to practice these talents by using Nate's plays in the game and asking him to give the pre-game speech. And when Nate delivers, he promotes him to assistant coach. By amplifying Nate's innate talents, Ted helps Nate grow and adds value to the team as well.
Gallup, who has done decades of research in this area, says that when people get to spend time doing work that aligns with their natural talents, it improves engagement, well-being and team success. Ted reminds us that as leaders, we should help each person do more of the activities that they do best.
5) Be open and curious.
There's a great scene where Ted beats Rupert, the narcissistic previous owner of the club, at a game of darts. Rupert lacks curiosity and assumes he'll beat Ted because he underestimates him, as Ted says has been happening all his life. Ted quotes from Walt Whitman saying that he learned to "Be curious, not judgmental" because he realized that people would have known not to underestimate him if they had ever asked him questions. He suggests that Rupert might have started with a question like, "Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?"
It is widely demonstrated in research, including Google's Project Aristotle, that one of the most important drivers of team success is psychological safety, where “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.” For this to work, it means that leaders need to actively ask questions, seek feedback, and be open to hearing people's ideas. We should be actively asking questions of our teams, before we assume we know what they think or what they are capable of, just like Rupert should have asked Ted.
6) Sometimes things go badly. It's how we recover that matters.
This is a lesson I know we've all learned many times over, as overcoming obstacles is a common part of any leader's experience. What is unique is how Ted handles the ones in the show.
First, he uses creativity. When the team believes that their training room is cursed, instead of just refuting them, he creates an elaborate ceremony where they get rid of the curse by honoring the fallen soldiers they believe are haunting the room. They each bring something personally valuable to throw into a fire, and the act of doing that together helps them connect, build trust, and learn about each other. (Just like we do in the monthly team sessions as part of the LeaderKit. Maybe we should try this one!?)
Second, he encourages them to move on. We can get past a difficult situation by focusing on what's ahead instead of what happened in the past. As Ted reminds Sam Obisanya, “You know what the happiest animal on Earth is? It’s a goldfish. You know why? Got a ten-second memory. Be a goldfish, Sam.”
And third, he reminds them they are not alone. Because they have each other, any challenge is easier to overcome. After the final game, Ted says to them, “I promise you, there is something worse out there than being sad. And that is being alone and being sad. Ain’t no one in this room alone.”
As leaders, we can help our teams get past even the toughest challenges by being creative, looking forward, and taking solace in each other.
7) It's about the team.
(Spoiler Alert if you haven't watched season 1 yet.) Ted Lasso has such a surprising ending to season 1. Most sports-themed movies and TV shows have the underdog wins ending, where Rocky wins the match, the miracle happens on ice; we know the pattern. And you think Ted Lasso is going that way too as Richmond makes the exciting tie goal in the final minutes. But that's not what happens. In the very last seconds of the game, Manchester City wins, with a last-minute breakaway by Jamie Tartt.
This is shocking. And sad. And it's also the main lesson of the show. It's not about the win; it's about the team. While Richmond doesn't win, and in fact gets relegated for the next season, the "win" that happens at the end of the season is that Jamie makes the extra pass. Jamie, who has been famously self-obsessed throughout the show, does the one thing that Ted had been trying to get him to do the whole season: share the spotlight with a teammate. And that lesson—that it's about the team, not any one person—actually helps the other team win in this case. Sad, but brilliant.