When Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso” first dropped in 2020, just a few months into the pandemic, I didn’t know what to make of it. The story of a folksy American college football coach who’s called on to lead a flailing premier league soccer team in England did not sound like my cup of tea — and if you know the show, you already know how Ted feels about tea. “Tea is horrible. Absolute garbage water. Don’t know why you all do that.”
But beyond its humor and charm, the show is remarkable for another reason: It presents an alternative approach to leadership — one very different from the styles celebrated by Wall Street analysts and shows such as “Succession.” Instead, “Ted Lasso” is a master class in a contemporary form of leadership that current and future leaders should take note of — because it’s based on science and gets results.
As Season Three is about to drop, I wanted to look back at some of the most valuable lessons we’ve learned from the American-turned-British football coach, starting with this one: Put people first.
From the moment Ted Lasso first appears on screen, it’s clear he’s not your typical leader. When we first catch sight of him, he’s in a locker room with his players, dancing like a maniac after leading them to an unexpected national victory. He looks pretty silly, but he doesn’t seem to mind — he’s more focused on celebrating his team’s success.
At a time when many leaders focus on how they look, want to take credit for collective successes, or see their people as a means to an end, Ted demonstrates again and again that he is less important than his team — and that it’s people who matter.
Let’s look at some specific ways Ted puts people first. When he arrives in England to take over the AFC Richmond team, his first act as manager is to schedule daily check-ins with the team’s owner, Rebecca Welton. Rebecca protests, saying she doesn’t have the time, but Ted wins her over with homemade cookies, announcing he intends to make it a daily routine. It’s a brilliant way to ensure frequent check-in conversations about the team’s progress and build relatedness with a boss who’s skeptical of his ability to turn the team around.
Collaboration and team spirit
Traditionally, leaders are expected to have all the answers and tell employees what to do. But Ted isn’t that kind of leader. He builds a culture of trust and support, and his actions demonstrate how much he values relatedness, teamwork, and helping people achieve their potential. He cares about empowering people to be the best versions of themselves — even if it means losing the game.
It’s in the fifth episode of Season One that Ted truly demonstrates the power of putting people first. He’s spent the entire season trying to wrangle Jamie Tartt, a problematic player who cares more about individual glory than his team. Although by far the team’s strongest player, he’s also a selfish, showboating bully who belittles his fellow players and refuses to pass the ball. The problem is that he’s also the team’s lead scorer — a gifted striker whose “right foot was kissed by God.”
As the big match approaches and the players gather in the locker room to pump themselves up with a “hands in” cheer, Jamie hangs back, sculpting his hair and taking duck-face selfies. When Ted confronts him about his lack of team spirit, Jamie dismisses him. “I score all the goals, and I’m the only one they come to see,” Jamie says.
As the game unfolds, Jamie demonstrates his talent, quickly scoring a breakaway solo goal to pull his team back from a 2-0 trailing score. But then his teammate, Sam Obisanya, gets injured on the field, and Jamie leans down and taunts him. It’s a shameful display and earns Jamie the rare distinction of receiving a yellow card for unsportsmanlike conduct toward his own teammate. Then, even as Sam limps off the field and Ted wrestles with how to proceed, Jamie scores another goal, bringing the match to a tie.
It’s at this moment that Ted makes his character-defining move. As the sportscasters marvel at Jamie’s abilities and wonder where the team would be without him, Ted benches his star player.
The sportscasters are stunned, and the stadium reverberates with the sound of jeering and booing. But Ted stands firm, and his decision sends a powerful message: The people on the team are more important than short-term results.
At halftime, he addresses his players. He begins by highlighting that change is necessary and hard. He then delivers a rousing speech encouraging the team to “embrace change, be brave, do whatever you have to.” Ted is doing something critical here: He’s empowering his people and framing change as an opportunity, not a threat, giving them license to try and fail. By doing this, he’s tapping into an underappreciated driver of human performance: People perform better when they’re in a toward state rather than a threat state.
The team goes on to win without Jamie, revealing Ted’s genius as a leader. He cares about the results — he wants to win — but he knows long-term success doesn’t come from being a hard-driving, bottom-line taskmaster who accepts toxic behavior. Instead, he recognizes that his role as a leader is to create an environment where team members can experiment, collaborate, and perform at their best, thereby increasing the entire team’s performance.
At a time when positivity and optimism are in short supply, Ted Lasso offers a refreshing alternative vision of leadership, one that recognizes the value of collaboration and helping people reach their potential. By inspiring and encouraging, listening and uplifting, Ted takes his team to new heights in his own unique way, reminding us that leaders who put people first can truly change the game.
Author: Marshall Bergmann