This article was kindly contributed by Leonard Borges, Director of Engineering at Zip co and author of The LeadTech Diet, musings on leadership and technology (subscribe here).
It’s not every day that you accidentally sit through a leadership 101 lesson while trying to unwind by watching a lighthearted comedy on TV.
But that’s exactly what happened last week when I started watching Ted Lasso!
What can Ted Lasso teach us about leadership?
A comedy series exclusive to Apple TV, Ted Lasso is about an American Football coach who is hired to coach soccer - a.k.a. actual Football - in England, coaching the AFC Richmond team.
Despite having no experience coaching the sport, Ted takes it all in stride and proceeds to showcase a number of fundamental leadership principles throughout the first season.
I’ll go through my favourite ones now — warning: spoilers ahead!
The importance of relationships
Whether in business, sport, or war, success comes from our ability to work together.
Nothing of significance was ever achieved by an individual acting alone. Look below the surface and you will find that all seemingly solo acts are really team efforts. — John C. Maxwell
While it’s possible to collaborate without knowing too much about your team mates and colleagues, history shows that the best teams know and trust each other. Call sign chaos talks about this in military context.
Ted very quickly develops rapport with his boss, club owner Rebecca, and the kit man, Nate, by finding common ground with each of them.
This is important and shows that you have to take the time to know the people you work with in order to connect with them.
But you don’t need to guess what this common ground may be - just ask! The next principle is just about that.
Curiosity is a key characteristic of people with a growth mindset. They come from a place of knowing they don’t have all the answers and therefore are willing to learn.
This is even more important when you’re starting in a new team or organisation as you really need to try and understand why things are the way they are.
It’s important to realise that people rarely set out to be deliberately malicious. As such, even if you think things need to change and that you know what needs to be done, start by understanding the background and context of your organisation.
You’d be surprised by how much that might change your own strategy!
Make people be seen and heard
I really like the way Ted demonstrates this principle. On his first day at AFC Richmond, he meets Nate, the kit man. He immediately introduces himself, asks Nate his name - which takes Nate aback by the way - and asks his opinions about various club matters.
This accomplishes a number of things:
It makes Nate feel part of the team, renewing his motivation;
Establishes trust between Ted and Nate;
Acknowledges the fact that, as kit man, Nate’s been in the locker room with the players more than anyone else in the club and therefore may have invaluable insights about their relationships with each other;
Helps Ted build his social capital, which will invariably come in handy later on;
Make difficult decisions
Not everyone works out in a team or organisation.
In particular, brilliant jerks can be specially harmful to a team’s culture and morale.
AFC Richmond’s Jamie Tartt is the embodiment of the brilliant jerk. He mostly cares about himself, believes he’s a 10x player and that he is carrying the whole team on his back, all the while refusing to collaborate.
The thing is, the fans love him and he delivers! Sound familiar? You might have met someone like that during your career.
This puts Ted in a tough spot as he watches the team underperform during an important match. Jamie refused to follow the practice plays and pass the ball to free his free team mates. This demotivated the team and nobody was having a good time.
Ted then decides to bench Jamie to the roaring outcry of the crowd. A move that ultimately leads to a better game performance for AFC Richmond.
It took courage to make a call as unpopular as this one, but Ted put his own discomfort aside - as well as any backlash from fans and the media - and prioritised the needs of the team.
Later, in season 2, Jamie goes through his own personal growth journey. A journey which started right here, when he was benched for the first time.
Grow your people
Just because you know how to solve a problem, that doesn’t mean you should. As a leader/manager in any capacity, every time you solve a problem for a team member, you are potentially robbing them of a learning and growth opportunity.
Ted Lasso demonstrates this beautifully as he notices a number of players constantly bullying Nate, the kit man. The team captain, Roy, fed up with this, walks up to Ted and asks if he’ll do anything about it. Ted simply says “no” — shocking, right?
This leads to Roy taking it upon himself to tell the other players to stop bullying Nate - exactly what Ted wanted in the first place!
This worked because Ted knew Roy’s intentions were good but that he was trying to avoid conflict with a team mate as he didn’t think it was his job to say anything. However as the team captain, that is exactly Roy’s job. He is a role model and has tremendous influence on the team.
This was a moment of learning & growth for Roy, and a bonding moment between him and Ted which ultimately created a better environment and culture within the team.
On coaching vs. mentoring
I have strong views on the technical background someone should have when leading an engineering team. I believe it is a must to be an effective leader and manager in the field.
Having said that, it’s also just as important to note that a leader will most likely go back and forth between being a mentor and a coach — therefore, it’s worth understanding the differences between the two:
A mentor is a subject matter expert in a closely related field to that of their mentee. They share knowledge and skills with their mentee in order to help them develop and grow.
A coach, in contrast, may be someone from a completely different field who provides guidance through asking questions, setting context and holding their coachee accountable in order to help them reach their full potential.
Both are needed and incredibly important. For an example of how such coaching can be useful, I recommend reading The Trillion Dollar Coach.
Own your mistakes
Ted is far from perfect. And he is fully aware of that.
During a particularly bad day due to personal issues, he snapped at Nate for no good reason. The next day, he walked up to Nate, admitted he was out of line, and apologised.
Ted teaches us that when you screw up, all that is left to do is to own up to it. We all make mistakes, but it’s what we do about them that matters.
Ted Lasso’s first season is a great, light-hearted reminder of what it means to be a leader. These leadership principles are timeless and proven to work.
Now it’s time to put these in practice. How do you score in each one of these?
Until next time!