Lasso on Leadership

Foster School Professor Bruce Avolio “believes” there are rich leadership insights to be found in the episodes of favorite fictional football coach Ted Lasso

As if there weren’t enough examples of leadership run amok in the real world, you’ll also find an abundance of dreadful fictional leaders across the landscape of prestige streaming television. Think Don Draper of “Mad Men.” Walter White of “Breaking Bad.” Logan Roy—the entire Roy family, really—of “Succession.” The list could go on and on.

Into this toxic world, in fall of 2020, ambled Ted Lasso, the titular protagonist of a refreshingly different kind of series on Apple TV+.

This fairy tale of a decent small-time college football coach called up to lead a professional world football (aka soccer) club fighting for survival in the elite English Premier League has, in its first two seasons, become a bona fide sensation and an absolute awards magnet.

Lasso, the ultimate underdog as played by series co-creator Jason Sudeikis, incrementally wins over all of AFC Richmond—the players, the club management, the fans, even the cynical press—with a consistent, persistent style of positive, home-spun, human-centric leadership.

But is this fantastical streaming series merely a bauble, a cozy embrace in a time of global pandemic and political division? Or is there something deeper, more instructive and reflective going on between the touchlines?

Bruce Avolio

To find out, we asked Bruce Avolio to help us view “Ted Lasso” through a leadership lens. Avolio is the Mark Pigott Chair in Business Strategic Leadership at the UW Foster School of Business, the founding director of Foster’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking, and a foremost expert in examining and promoting evidence-based leadership development for sustainable organizational transformation.

He’s also a big fan of the show. So, it wasn’t difficult to convince him to “talk Ted.”

Foster Business: Is “Ted Lasso” more than just another whimsical sitcom?

Bruce Avolio: Definitely! The show and the character of Ted Lasso have a lot to say about the importance of kindness, self-awareness, transparency and the ability to suspend judgment in leadership. Ted is honest and ethical and empowering of everyone around him. He believes in himself and the common good, while seeking to understand the unique needs and strengths of all stakeholders—whether he is leading up, down or sideways.

In Ted Lasso, we are seeing a master class in authentic, considerate, motivational, strategic and moral leadership that has unfolded across two seasons of a show what we might refer to as “Breaking Good.”

What drew you to the series? And what made you stay?

Whenever I start watching a new series or movie, I’m often accused of “ruining” it for family members, by asking, “What are the leadership lessons from this one?” Thank you for providing me with a legitimate platform to share my thoughts! Really, I just like Jason Sudeikis as an actor, and I didn’t have any preconceived notions other than wondering what this show is all about.

What hooked me was the leadership challenge that Ted faced from the opening scene. Here is a person who becomes the coach of a team playing at the highest level—and he doesn’t even know the first thing about the game he’s coaching. Immediately, I thought, how is this imposter going to get through the first practice?

Can you cite an analog in the real world?

Early on, Ted reminded me of Lou Gerstner, who transformed IBM after arriving in 1993 from RJR Nabisco. At the time that Gerstner was installed as CEO, I was living near the original IBM manufacturing facility in Endicott, NY. And I remember many long-time employees of IBM in my neighborhood were saying, “He has no technology background—I don’t think he can even turn on a computer!”

How does Ted Lasso approach his own fish-out-of-water conundrum?

Ted views each situation with a sense of childlike wonder and curiosity. Time and time again, he seeks out the developmental or performance opportunity, while also delaying judgment. This occurs when he is interacting with his players, his coaches, the people who own and run the team, and even when he enters a local pub near his apartment. He also transmits genuine humility, which a lot of leaders are afraid to do. When you recognize your limitations, you allow yourself—and others who know more than you—to find the motivation and belief required to achieve a higher collective potential.

All this suggests that Ted possesses a high learning-orientation, which precedes his attention to the kind of KPIs (or key performance indicators) that organizational leaders typically obsess over. Ted centers his focus on the human dynamic, perhaps the hardest of all skills to master.

Everyone matters to Ted (though his family suffers as a result). He transmits his capacity to observe, adapt and figure out how to do things differently, while still recognizing his shortcomings and deep personal conflicts, which we see displayed repeatedly, though often in private.

This characterization of Ted is what makes him feel even more authentic to me. We are all imperfect versions of our best selves.

To mine hope from a seemingly hopeless situation, what is the most important facet of Ted’s leadership portfolio?

First and foremost is his resilient positivity. He sees the glass as more than half full. And, related to this, he seeks out the good in people, rather than dwelling on the bad. His positivity spreads through his so-called intangible psychological resources of hope, efficacy, resiliency and optimism—yes it spells out H.E.R.O. These are profoundly tangible hard skills, not soft.

Beyond his enduring positivity, Ted also approaches people with a clinical sense of their orientation toward humanity. He pays close attention to understanding what makes people lean in or out for others.

Ted also is unfailingly patient with all those around him, even those who judge him as a fake. Like the homemade biscuits he brings Rebecca (the club’s owner) every morning—these perceptive acts of kindness and individualized consideration help Ted build stronger connections and, ultimately, enduring relationships. Ted eventually wins over his most strident players and most dismissive fans, who began their relationship taunting him viciously. How? He allows himself to be vulnerable, highly exposed, and honest about his lack of knowledge of the game he is supposedly coaching. Yet, Ted is powerfully confident in his understanding of what constitutes authentic and positive human dynamics that contribute to building a winning team.

What other effective leadership traits does Ted Lasso model?

I don’t like to refer to “traits,” because that infers a permanency that is not necessarily justifiable. As noted, Ted’s leadership starts with a positive learning orientation—which, eventually comes at a cost to his own human condition.

His second orientation is represented in his empathic concern for the well-being of others. He is proactive—being “that kind of person” who reaches out and tries to help before being asked. He accepts his mistakes and seeks support to figure out how to correct them. Importantly, he knows that he’s an imposter in terms of coaching this game, but he is curious, which creates in others a willingness to help him succeed. Ted also exudes a high tolerance for ambiguity, a fascination with what he can learn, and an openness to new experiences.

Except for the British tradition of tea, which he rejects as “garbage water.”

That is the exception. But Ted takes time and gives people the opportunity to foster a relationship and grow, even if it is painful in the beginning. Plus, he demonstrates a high degree of consistency in his treatment of others, which can lead to higher levels of trust and admiration. Leading with his imperfections, he becomes more influential—perhaps surprisingly so.

How would you describe Ted’s style of leadership?

I’d say that Ted is a slow moving inspiring leader, who is highly empathetic and unfailingly supportive. He’s not charismatic in the traditional sense. He’s not portrayed as an intellectual leader. He’s kind of an in-the-moment sort of leader, who takes advantage of those moments using his keen awareness of what constitutes a humane orientation. This is what gives such power to simple actions, such as when he encourages newcomer Sam Obisanya, after being embarrassed on the pitch, to “be a goldfish,” forget his failures and focus on the future.

In its totality, we understand the depth Ted brings to his philosophy of leading others.

Does this explain Ted’s ability to draw the best out of everyone he encounters—even the petulant star striker Jamie Tartt?

I see the highest bar for effective leadership being stewardship, wherein a leader enables individuals to achieve their highest states of self-determination, even after the leader is gone. Great leading, like great parenting, nurtures self-determination, the ability to make your own decisions and act without advice.

Ted intuitively understands a powerful piece of human wisdom dating to ancient thinkers. There’s enormous symbolic power in the simple sign he posts over the locker room door calling everyone who passes to “Believe.” It represents his work to improve every individual’s confidence or efficacy, which we’ll call agency.

The act of increasing a person’s agency to achieve better performance is what psychologist Dov Eden referred to as the “Galatea effect,” after the sublime statue carved out of ivory by Pygmalion of Greek mythology—though this archetype appears throughout history and around the world, including in the 4th century BCE Chinese poem, “The Wood Carver.” As Eden demonstrated, if you have low agency for any task, you are more likely to fail, even if you’re capable. If you have high agency, you may succeed even if you are not as capable as others.

How do these principles apply, for example, to “Nate the Great,” who ascends from timid kit man to (over)confident assistant coach?

Ted tirelessly works to increase people’s agency, whether it’s the club’s owner, his players or even Nate. He’s pretty good at it because he’s persistent. His tactics on the surface appear to be simple, but sometimes simple acts are the most powerfully motivating.

With Nate, he’s building a strong relationship—at least through the first season and a half. He gives Nate autonomy, so much so that he grows into a legitimate strategic partner on the coaching staff. Some might recall a similar transformation in “My Fair Lady,” loosely based on the myth of Pygmalion, in which a professor named Henry Higgins accepts a wager that he can turn a crude flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a presentable lady in London’s high society. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the positive transformation is an example of the Galatea effect.

How does a leader like Ted Lasso ultimately affect an organization?

Is Ted changing the culture of the AFC Richmond organization? I don’t really know much about what it was before, but I would venture a guess that it was neither inclusive nor equitable. Ted focuses on fostering inclusion and equity with everyone, which represents the harder challenges that emerge for leaders in organizations and societies that continue to diversify. Fortunately, leaders like Ted are always looking for help and to help others. They also motivate team members to step up and become more engaged in their organization by building greater individual and collective self-determination, ultimately to produce a better version of themselves.

Can the effective leadership behaviors of a fictional coach work in the real world? Do they work in the real world?

Absolutely! There are plenty of examples. Though I like to remain agnostic about political figures, Ronald Reagan was about as close to Ted Lasso as you can get. A former actor, he was seen by some as an amateur and mocked early in his political career. Still others found him to be militant and manipulative. Yet, when most individuals got to know him, they just seemed to like that aw shucks guy, like his close friend and then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill—a Democrat.

Pete Carroll has similar qualities to Ted Lasso in his reputation for never saying something bad about a current or former player, no matter what they say about him. Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of Pepsi Co., projected a similar positivity and humanity in her leadership.

And Eleanor Roosevelt exemplified humane leadership in much of her work while serving as first lady, and also drove the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when she was the US delegate to the United Nations.

The long game for leadership is about having a humane orientation. Ultimately, our most revered and respected leaders possess this orientation. These leaders can operate at the global level of a Nelson Mandela or at the more intimate level of a caring middle manager, an inspiring elementary school teacher, a confidence-building Boys & Girls Club big brother or sister, or a patient, positive youth soccer (a.k.a. football) coach.

These leaders, like Ted Lasso, seek to instill a belief that everyone matters. Everyone can win. Everyone will win.

Ted Lasso photographs courtesy of Universal Television/Apple TV+.

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array of people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.