A playbook for new leaders, by coach Ted Lasso

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Photo by Toni Cuenca via Unsplash

Despite my best efforts to resist a sports-themed comedy, my husband lasso’ed me into watching the new Apple Original dramedy, Ted Lasso, starring former Saturday Night Live favorite Jason Sudeikis.

“It has legs,” my husband said. “It has heart,” he said.

He was right. Ted Lasso is the love child of Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights and Lesley Knope from Parks and Rec.

To my delight, the show is also a masterclass for how to come in and lead a team in an indifferent—or downright belligerent—environment. It’s set in the sports arena, sure, but it also applies more broadly to anyone who’s trying to head up anything, anywhere.

Whether you’ve been tapped to manage a team in Silicon Valley or even organize your local bake sale, we can all learn a thing or two from how Ted approaches things.

Setting the scene

Here’s the gist: A small-time football coach (Ted) from the middle of nowhere (Kansas) has been brought over the pond to manage the other football, a premier soccer club in Richmond, London. Ted has had some past success as a coach, having taken a “garbage” Wichita university program to the state championship—in just one year.

Yet it seems highly unlikely he can do the same for this English team. To start, Ted knows little (to nothing?) about soccer. The prima donna players are embarrassed to have him as their coach. The local fans vociferously boo and hate on the yankee “wanker.” He gets off on the wrong foot with the local media, right off the bat (er, boot).

Then, in what appears to be the nail in Ted’s coffin, it’s revealed in a delicious twist that the female owner hired him specifically to sabotage her team, run the club into the ground, and stick it to her cheating husband.

No one expects Ted to do well. He’s flat-out set up to fail.

“Let’s prove them wrong,” Ted says. Here’s how he goes about doing just that.

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Start on the sidelines.

New leaders often come in with big plans and an aggressive goal, which they proclaim right from the get-go.

“We’re going to turn this team around!” Ted could have broadcast to anyone who would listen. He could have tooted his own horn, harping on all the amazing things he accomplished back in Kansas. He could have laid down the law, explaining his proven, step-by-step plan for shaping struggling teams into winners.

But he resists that urge. Ted understands that no one cares what he did back in Kansas. All people here care about is if he’ll make their lives better — or worse.

So his first step is to get the lay of the land. He watches the team practice from the sidelines and familiarizes himself with names and faces. He strolls through an empty locker room, like an anthropologist on a dig. Then he stands by and observes how the players pile in.

The play: Observe before you act. Before making any changes, study the team dynamics.

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Find the first red seat.

The show’s intro sequence gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come. It opens on a sea of cerulean stadium seats, all empty. Ted saunters into view and plops down in a seat, which morphs from blue to red. His action starts a cascade, a ripple of red that spreads out in all directions and eventually spells his name.

The color of the seats isn’t the only thing that changes. Along the way, we also see graffiti and gum wipe away. The implication—Ted’s actions will revitalize the team and possibly the community beyond. But it all starts with a single seat.

So from day one, Ted keeps a sharp eye out for his red seat, the place he can make a difference right away. As an early step, he plonks down a suggestion box (bedazzled, naturally) in the middle of the locker room. He wants to hear about anything that’s bugging his team. Anything at all. Many of the players take it as a joke and use their suggestions to call him yet more unflattering monikers.

But a couple of people take a chance and mention real things that bug them. The snacks are crap. And, more importantly, the showers tend to dribble rather than blast. Right away, Ted checks out the showers for himself. Behind the scenes, he exerts his influence to get that water blasting like a firehose.

And a key member of the team takes note.

Bingo. The first seat has turned red.

The play: Fix one thing first. Ask for feedback—and act on it right away.

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Be a humble, bumble beginner.

Great leaders are the first to admit they don’t know jack. The moment he sets foot in England, Ted is thrust into a rabid press conference. Everyone is worried about this rube from America. Ted tackles their fears head on. He acknowledges that this is new to him and that he has a lot to learn.

“Let’s address the larger-than-average elephant in the room. No, I have never coached the sport that you folks call football. At any level. Heck, you could fill two internets with what I don’t know about football.”

In other words, Ted doesn’t profess to know everything about soccer, or even coaching. He’s not afraid to say “I don’t know” or use the wrong term, like calling them cleats instead of boots. He asks plenty of questions and relies on the intuition and experience of anyone around him.

The play: Leaders start from scratch and embrace a beginner’s mindset.

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Spread like the rays of the sun.

Notably, Ted doesn’t discriminate or prioritize his attention based on someone’s rank in the team. No one is beneath him. In fact, he spends more time up front listening to the team lackey (Nathan) than he does to its star players.

Ted is quick to listen and learn from everyone. He makes a salad date with his boss’ assistant. He seeks out his star player’s girlfriend for advice. And he takes play ideas from the guy who cleans poop off the field.

But he doesn’t stop there. Given the pressure that he’s under to learn and perform, Ted could easily have stayed holed up in his office, cramming on all things soccer and strategy.

Instead, he has dinner in his local pub and cozies up to the influential barkeep. He greets townspeople by name. And he makes a point to visit the restaurant of the guy who drove him from Heathrow.

The play: Leaders connect with anyone and everyone.

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Go for the gold…fish.

“Do you know what the happiest animal on earth is?” Ted asks one of his players, who’d just eaten dirt and let someone else score a goal. “A goldfish. Got a ten-second memory. Be a goldfish.”

One of the best things about Ted: he chooses to be unflaggingly, tooth-rottingly happy and positive. You won’t hear him say anything negative about anyone. He doesn’t take criticism personally, nor does he repeat or dwell on it. And he doesn’t take no for an answer. Like when his boss tells him that she’s not a fan of “biscuits with the boss” in the mornings.

The play: Leaders let the negative stuff wash off, right away.

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“Relax, they’re just kids.”

Ted could have easily come in to this high-stakes situation super serious and stressed, uncertain about his standing and worried about how he’ll be received. Certainly, that’s probably what he’s feeling inside. But he tries not to show it on the outside.

At his first practice, his assistant coach reminds him of the first bit of advice Ted ever gave him: “Relax, they’re just kids.”

Ted takes his own advice to heart. He plasters on a beaming smile and celebrates everything, big or small, that comes his way. He knock-a-doodle-doos on his boss’ door. He high fives a tree. He breaks into a Kenny Rogers ballad and does cheerleader toe-touches, right and left.

The play: Leaders play. If you aren’t having fun, no one else will, either.

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Run with them.

Ted doesn’t ask the team to do anything he doesn’t expect from himself. He wants the team to be nicer to each other, so he models that by befriending the person everyone else picks on.

Later, when the team runs a drill too slowly, Ted sends them off on a couple of laps around the field. But in an unexpected move, he sets off on a sprint himself and challenges them to a race.

The play: Leaders don’t just watch their people run. They run alongside them.

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Dance with them.

It’s not enough to just run with your team. You need to dance with them, too.

We first meet Ted in a clip on ESPN where he’s doing an awkward, over-the-top celebration dance with his old football team. He’s right there in the thick of things, as excited as they are about their win.

This spirit of celebration continues throughout the series. Ted celebrates successes big and small. He throws a birthday hoopla for a Nigerian player who’s missing home. He gives the team hand-picked book recs. He bakes homemade biscuits for his boss.

The play: Leaders pour themselves into people. They are quick to lavish others with heart-felt praise and grand gestures.

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Be true to yourself.

Let’s be real. We can’t all be as amazing as Ted. He has the distinct advantage of being a made-up character on TV, with impressive writers behind him who can massage his lickety-split dialogue until it hits precisely the right note. Not to mention be delivered by an actor who has the lovable ingenue underdog down to a science.

So yeah, we can’t be as witty and off-the-cuff as Ted. But we can still strive to do what he does, which is to stay authentic to who he is.

Ted pulls off all of the above without feeling disingenous. You don’t get the sense that he’s working an angle, going down some checklist, or trying to manipulate others to nefarious ends. Instead, it feels like he genuinely enjoys connecting with people and unearthing the hidden gems in them.

Through it all, he’s honest. If he doesn’t like something, he says so. When his boss offers him tea, he doesn’t pander to her and pretend to like it—he dubs it “garbage water.” Ted is honest about who he is, but honest in a way that builds other people up.

The play: Leaders don’t pander or pretend to be something they’re not.

A last little nugget

Over an overly spiced Indian meal with a jaded reporter, Ted shares his top leadership nugget:

“For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellows be the best versions of themselves, on and off the field.”

As a leader, your job isn’t to win. It’s to win people over.

We’re rooting for you, Ted.

Writer + aesthete. I write about ways to be more positive and creative in work and life.

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