Ted Lasso: the Servant-Leader we need right now

Ted Lasso image from Apple TV+
Ted Lasso image from Apple TV+
Photo: Apple TV+

If the political division, pandemic lockdown, and national racial unrest has you seeking new models of leadership, look no further than Ted Lasso, the recent Apple TV+ series. Starring Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso, an American football coach hired to manage AFC Richmond, a fictional English Premier League soccer team, this new dramedy provides poignant examples of emotional intelligence, optimism, and servant-leadership.

In countless for-profit and not-for-profit organizations today we are seeing traditional, autocratic, and hierarchical modes of leadership yielding to a different way of working — one based on teamwork and community, one that seeks to involve others in decision making, one strongly based in ethical and caring behavior, and one that is attempting to enhance the personal growth of workers while improving the caring and quality of our many institutions. This emerging approach to leadership and service is called servant-leadership.

It has been 50 years since Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term “servant-leader” and first wrote in his classic essay, “The Servant as Leader” about the need for a better approach to leadership, one that puts serving others — including employees, customers, and community — as the number one priority. After some years of carefully considering Greenleaf’s original writings, Larry Spears extracted a set of ten characteristics of the servant-leader that have taken on global significance in the understanding of servant-leadership. They are: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.

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Coach Beard, Ted Lasso & Nate

Ted Lasso embodies the practice of these servant-leadership characteristics in this ten-episode show and provides lasting leadership lessons for all of us.

Leadership is not a quick-fix approach

Ted takes the long view. He is hired by Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham), team owner, who intends to burn the club to the ground to get revenge on her ex-husband who loves this soccer club. One aspect of Ted’s appeal is his aw-shucks sensibility and humble approach. While focusing on relationships he instills a “BELIEVE” philosophy and quietly begins implementing change at the club. At its core, servant-leadership is a long-term, transformational approach to life and work — in essence, a way of being — that has the potential for creating positive change throughout our society. This is modeled by Ted through simple and intentional acts — baking biscuits for Rebecca, selecting and giving books to his players — all moving toward creating a new team culture.

Develop others into the best version of themselves

Early in the show, Ted Lasso is interviewed by skeptical soccer writer, Trent Crimm (James Lance). While many were questioning his ability and leadership, Ted states his mission for this team is about “helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves, on and off the field.” As the show progresses, this vision allows players to make difficult decisions about their playing time, seeking what is best, ultimately, for the team. Ted’s love for each player and commitment to growth of each individual plays out in the arc of every character surrounding AFC Richmond.

Change requires crafty persuasion

Ted Lasso’s quiet belief and unassuming nature allows space for others to lead. He trusts and allows others, from his coaching staff to players, to come to the best solutions by themselves. Team kit man turned assistant coach Nate (Nick Mohammed) slips game strategies to Ted, but rather than present them to the team, Lasso encourages Nate to develop his leadership voice and inspire the team. This same servant-leadership commitment to persuasion, rather than positional authority or coercion, leads to young star player Jamie to “make that extra pass.”

Healing starts with forgiveness

Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead, shame researcher, and important voice on vulnerability and leadership believes Ted Lasso is required viewing for leaders. On her podcast, Unlocking Us, she interviews series creators Jason Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt (Coach Beard), and focuses on a moment from the show where Ted Lasso offers forgiveness instead of unloading shame and blame. Sudeikis suggests while many of our leaders are ignorant and arrogant, “Ted is ignorant and curious. And I think curiosity comes from a power of being able to ask questions and truly empathize what someone is dealing with.” While difficult, Lasso chooses empathy and understanding — reminding us that kindness is power.

Ted Lasso provides a number of uncommon moments in modern television of healing and forgiveness. From the pain of divorce, to coming alongside a friend experiencing a panic attack, Ted Lasso displays that many leaders have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts. Although this is an aspect of being human, servant-leaders recognize that they have an opportunity to help make whole those with whom they come in contact.

Commit to Listen Intently to Others

One of Ted Lasso’s first acts is to place a “complaint box” in the locker room, then proceed to follow up on the feedback. Star player Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) is surprised to find the shower water pressure has been fixed. Ted makes incredible efforts to listen to his staff, often allowing followers to become leaders. Servant-leaders seek to identify and clarify the will of the team. They seek to listen receptively to what is being said (and not being said!). After one of his players got scored on and was feeling down, Ted reminds him that a goldfish “has a ten-second memory” — be a goldfish.

Empathy and Awareness for the win

The show’s primary leadership moments are rooted in emotional intelligence. Ted Lasso names that AFC Richmond are a broken team, and proceeds to utilize vulnerability and storytelling to provide healing. He reminds them that change requires being brave. As Greenleaf observed: “Awareness is not a giver of solace — it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener.” Ted Lasso has enough self-awareness to balance his authority with empowering others, as Trent Crimm observes, “In a business that celebrates ego, Ted reins his in.” While leadership requires confidence, it doesn’t require the leader to be at the center of change. As Sudeikis states on Brené Brown’s podcast, “Ted is egoless. He allows for people to be themselves, and reflect what they think he is, but really what they are.”

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Photo: Apple TV+

Ted Lasso exudes optimistic leadership wisdom. He provides a relevant cultural example of servant leadership. Most importantly, Ted Lasso offers tangible leadership practice that calls us to emotionally authentic relationships and injects hope into our organizations. I can’t wait for next season!

Gonzaga University School of Leadership Studies faculty, Global Citizen, Dad, Husband, Friend, Servant-Leader

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