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Ted Lasso and the Psychology of Positive Leadership

What are the traits that make Ted Lasso a role model for positive leadership?

Key points

  • Positive role models like Ted Lasso are especially needed in these times of anxiety and uncertainty.
  • Those who employ positive leadership with their teams tend to share certain traits, like humility and humor.
  • Leaders like Ted Lasso show how anyone can balance being a trusted authority figure with giving empathic feedback.

**Warning: Spoilers for the show ahead.**

The seemingly unassuming but Emmy-winning hit dramedy Ted Lasso has become a phenomenon in the past year, likely due to a confluence of factors. The overwhelming sadness and anxiety induced by the pandemic increased the appeal of feel-good programming for much of the public quarantining at home. The simultaneous stressor of recent toxic, self-centered, grandiose leaders in the public eye also has made us more contemplative about what the alternative could and needs to be: What is the kind of leadership we hope for and would benefit from instead?

The title character is an amusing American fish-out-of-water who is unexpectedly selected as the new coach of Richmond, a Premier League soccer team in the United Kingdom. Ted Lasso is an amateur league American football coach who would be normally considered an absurd, unqualified choice. (As it turns out, the Richmond owner was secretly trying to sabotage her own team out of anger at the former owner, her ex-husband.) Initially, he is so clueless he doesn’t even know the basic rules of soccer, such as the presence of two halves to a game.

However, the twist is that Ted is, as the Yiddish phrase goes, a mensch. He embodies an old-school, Jimmy Stewart-like ideal of principled American manhood and quickly endears himself to his team and his bosses alike. Despite some curveballs thrown his way, such as an unexpected marital breakup, the impossible personality of a diva star player, and the viciously hovering UK press, Ted remains unfailingly optimistic and likable.

The following are some of the traits he exhibits that contribute to his success and may help others learn how to guide people with dignity and not despotry:

1. Humor

Ted is unfailingly jokey and witty with everyone. His humor helps to defang and disarm those who initially doubt and even openly disrespect him. It sets a tone of camaraderie that says he is willing to bond with those around him and not take himself too seriously.

His good humor also exhibits and establishes a quiet position of strength; despite the harshness thrown his way, he responds as though it all rolls off his back. While sometimes excessive joking can be a sign of manipulative charm or distraction, if it comes from a place of warmth and connection as with Ted, it can set a workplace tone that encourages mutual respect.

2. Takes charge with advice

Despite the initial skepticism and even open derision thrown his way, Ted plows through and, in an assertive, fatherly tone, sets the ground rules for his team. He gives clear, concise messaging and direct guidance in his meetings and doesn’t hesitate to impose structured drills and sessions designed as lessons. By establishing that he is willing to lead with helpful, hands-on advice, those around him realize he is there to help while also showing he knows what he is doing.

3. Listening to feedback plus action

In an early episode, Ted sets up an anonymous feedback box for people to provide input, complaints, concerns, and more. While the players initially grumble at what literally is a box decorated by an elementary schooler, and most simply insert mocking insults, the captain notes that the showers could use better water pressure. When Ted promptly fixes the shower plumbing, the previously disgruntled captain’s icy heart begins to thaw. Accordingly, when people who work under you get a sense that you genuinely want to listen and improve their situation, their morale inevitably can also improve.

4. Humility

Ted is outgoing and vocal and easily establishes himself as a coach-style personality, but he also doesn’t hesitate to take a back seat when he needs to as well. He is appropriately deferential to his higher-ups, and also to the talent and advice of his players, and even unexpectedly to the lowest-ranking member of the staff because he knows what the guy tells him makes sense. The advice helps the team score a much-needed goal.

5. Respect for all

Ted is unfailingly friendly and polite to everyone, even when they openly insult and degrade him. He also doesn’t just reserve his respect for those in power; he is just as respectful to all levels of his team, which uncovers hidden talent that later helps the team succeed further.

6. Nurturing

Ted is constantly searching for what is positive in those around him and openly nurtures and highlights those traits. He literally brings out the best in those he encounters, which in turn engenders their mutual confidence and loyalty and also enhances and develops their innate abilities. A sense of grounded confidence then results.

7. The team comes first

Ted emphasizes us versus me in those under him. His most challenging situation is coping with the talented but typically narcissistic star player Jamie Tartt, who initially seems incapable of sharing the limelight or the ball with anyone but himself. Ted knows that he has to try to get Jamie to connect to his team, else their play suffers. Gradually, Ted is able to establish some sort of bond, seeing Jamie’s fragility underneath the arrogant façade.

Overall, Ted Lasso manages to straddle some important lines between establishing his role as a trusted authority figure while also engaging in constant empathic feedback with those around him. What happens is that the karma comes back to him; when he faces some dark moments, those around him respond in turn and help him regain his positivity. In an era where me-first-style bullying and entitlement at the expense of others has become normalized, particularly in our leaders, Ted Lasso provides hope that human decency in role models is still possible; his growing popularity is hope that his infectious optimism will help us follow in his kick-stepping footsteps.

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