Lasso and Brown on Leadership
Ted Lasso, the Apple TV+ series that won a 2021 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, touched people’s hearts from its first episode. Were you part of that audience? What moves us about Ted Lasso, the fictional coach of a mediocre English soccer team? And what can we learn about leadership from watching him? Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead examines the qualities that allow ordinary people to rise into positions of confident, compassionate leadership—here, we’ll view the character of Ted Lasso through the lens of Brown's work.
According to Brown, true leaders
- lead with empathy;
- show vulnerability and have tough conversations;
- dismiss perfectionism and (only) winning;
- believe in their team;
- are curious and not judgmental; and
- are accountable and forgiving.
Lead with empathy
Ted Lasso accepts a job coaching European football (soccer) coach, even though he only has experience as an American football coach. Nonetheless, Lasso successfully unites the team. His ability to be fully present with each person and to be completely vulnerable during every interaction wins over players and administrators, even the most cynical.
In her book Dare to Lead, Brown writes, “Empathy is a choice. And it’s a vulnerable choice, because if I were to choose to connect with you through empathy, I would have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling. In the face of a difficult conversation, when we see that someone’s hurt or in pain, it’s our instinct as human beings to try to make things better. We want to fix, we want to give advice. But empathy isn’t about fixing, it’s the brave choice to be with someone in their darkness—not to race to turn on the light so we feel better.”
Consider this example when he recognizes and connects with Sam Obisanya’s homesickness.
Show vulnerability and have tough conversations
As Brown teaches, being clear is being kind and being unclear is unkind. Honest, productive communication will lead to better relationships. Brown calls a tough conversation a rumble, defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious, to take breaks, and address the issue again when necessary.
Lasso is naturally laid-back, but part of his role is to make the final call in tough circumstances. In one episode, the team's star player, Jamie Tartt, ignores a team play to make a goal and then congratulates himself for his individual accomplishment. Lasso had been clear that playing as a team was the crux of their strategy and that when approaching goal, Jamie should make the last pass to a teammate. Even though Tartt scores, Lasso makes the tough decision to bench Tartt for ignoring the strategy and alienating himself from his teammates. Even though fans are furious, Lasso knows the players will understand his commitment to the team.
Dismiss perfectionism and (only) winning
Brown notes in several of her books and TED Talks that perfectionism and fear prevent people from learning and growing. At its core, perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgement, and shame. Additionally, Brown says perfectionism is an unattainable goal. It’s more about perception than internal motivation, and there is no way to control perception, no matter how much time and energy is spent trying.
Ted Lasso also dismisses perfectionism. In one episode, Obisanya makes a mistake that results in a goal for the other team. He beats himself up over it on the pitch, and Lasso calls him to the sideline for a chat. Rather than reprimanding Obisanya, Lasso asks him what the happiest animal in the world is before responding to his own question: it’s a goldfish because they have a 10 second memory. In the final episode of the first season, Lasso returns to this mantra to “Be a goldfish”— reminding players to feel the sorrow over losing the final match but also note their success and move forward.
BELIEVE in your team
In the pilot episode of Ted Lasso, the coach hangs in the locker room a bright yellow sign of the word “BELIEVE.” Keeley Jones, introduced as a minor celebrity and the girlfriend of one of the players, points out that the sign is crooked and directs him as he tries to fix it. When he is finished, they agree that it’s “perfect,” but when the camera pans back, we see that it’s just as askew as it was at the start.
Belief is the core of who Ted Lasso—hope, opportunity, and love. He teaches us that we must believe to achieve and remember to have as much fun as possible on the journey.
According to Brown, trust—a critical component of all relationships and workplaces—can be broken up into seven elements: boundaries, reliability, accountability, vault, integrity, non-judgement and generosity. These seven components of trust form the acronym BRAVING. This model enables us to pin down behaviors that drive feelings of distrust and provides us with solutions to rebuild, grow, and maintain trust.
Be curious, not judgmental
Brown encourages us to assume positive intent and to hold people to high standards. Instead of judging, try to understand others’ perspectives by being a learner, not a knower. The more we learn, the more we question, which opens us up to more truth and wisdom. Leaders must pursue these and not rely on what has worked in the past.
Lasso creates connections with his team through curiosity, and he holds zero judgment. Even when trying to win over the British press, a sports team that hates him, or a boss who wants him to fail, he maintains a positive attitude. We can see this lesson reinforced in the episode where Lasso agrees to play a game of darts against Rupert Mannion, the team's wealthy former owner and ex-husband of Lasso's boss. During what could be a contentious exchange, Lasso tells Mannion that Mannion has underestimated him by judging Lasso instead of being curious. Lasso quotes Walt Whitman — “Be curious, not judgmental” — as he wins the game.
Be accountable and forgiving
As we previously noted, “Accountability” is part of Brené Brown's BRAVING acronym for trust. She writes that being accountable, owning mistakes, and making amends are critical to reclaiming trust with team members. At the same time, however, it’s important to be gracious and forgiving in order to move forward.
Ted Lasso offers excellent examples of owning mistakes and making amends. Rebecca Welton, who acquires a football team in her divorce, hires Lasso to coach the team because she wants him to fail. Her ex loves the team more than anything in the world, so Welton wants to burn the franchise to the ground. Throughout the season, Welton makes Lasso’s hard job more difficult by secretly sabotaging him.
Welton eventually confesses to Lasso and tells him everything. Her remorse is evident, but she owns her mistakes and doesn’t ask for forgiveness. Ted, however, can sense Welton’s compassion. He immediately forgives her and acknowledges her pain, and they shift their relationship into one built on honesty and trust.