Ted Lasso (2020) is a show about an American football coach who’s hired to lead a British soccer team. At the beginning of his tenure, he’s met with open hostility from the players, fans, and team owner, thanks to his complete ignorance of British culture and soccer. Recently, I was watching the show with my husband (who’s British), and he (rightly) found the coach’s naivety and missteps hilarious. However, I couldn’t help but notice that beneath the comedy, Coach Lasso embodies some key leadership principles that not only carry him through a new and strange situation, but also highlight some important lessons that educators at any level of leadership can benefit from.
When you’re faced with a toxic culture or colleagues, it’s difficult to stay positive. Defense mechanisms kick in, and we naturally want to retaliate by saying or doing something that’s equivalent to what others said or did to us. It’s human nature to want to fight back. However, as a leader, you must resist that impulse and stay positive.
Coach Lasso maintains a positive attitude and response in every situation thrown his way. When people are rude, he smiles and makes positive remarks. When others are hateful, he models encouraging behaviors. His nonverbal behaviors match his verbal behaviors as well, as he maintains open body language (smiles, relaxed facial expressions) and a positive tone (an even and controlled voice).
In times when you want to fight back, resist the urge. Instead, let your behavior and words represent the attitude you want others to emulate.
Coach Lasso finds himself in a culture so unwelcoming that building relationships seems impossible. This can happen in a school or team setting as well. When you find yourself in a situation like this, it’s important to start small.
Leadership is all about finding those who want to follow your lead and improve the school. Just as Coach Lasso begins by connecting with Nate the equipment manager, it’s okay to start with one person who has great ideas but may be hidden in the background. Sometimes you can find your best allies in those quiet observers who just need encouragement and support to find their voice. Look for the potential in every person and find ways to make a connection.
Relationships are key to building a healthy culture and establishing trust and commitment. Trust means doing what you say you are going to do and making sure your actions match your words. Trust opens the door to innumerable possibilities. In toxic settings, this kind of trust can take a long time to establish, and that’s okay. Just don’t give up.
Find Your Leaders
In the show, Coach Lasso butts heads with a popular player who is controlling the negative energy on the team. We can all think of “that person” in our own lives, both personally and professionally. However, rather than confronting the negative leader head-on, Coach Lasso focuses on the team’s most veteran player. He relies on the player’s wisdom and experience and gives him permission to step up. In doing so, this positive leader had the coach’s support to do what was right instead of getting sucked into the negativity.
The way peers influence each other is often more powerful than a leader’s attempts to influence from the top. This is true both in the classroom and among the teaching staff. Therefore, it’s wise to seek out the potential leaders among your staff, and focus on coaching, inspiring, and guiding their actions. In turn, they will inspire and influence others to support the organization and ongoing improvement efforts. Although it may not seem like it at first, indirect leaders — those quiet, subtle leaders in the background — can often hold as much power and influence as people who are assertive and constantly put themselves out front.
Although it’s tempting to focus on the behaviors of obstructionists, you’ll be better off focusing on those who can lead change in the direction you want to go. Stand back and let good overshadow negativity.
Treat Everyone Equally
This is a hard one! The greatest challenge for any team member, regardless of the setting, is to treat everyone equally, especially when some don’t deserve it. When you’re a leader, it’s particularly important to treat everyone equally. All eyes are on you at all times.
If you’re a leader, your team is watching how you treat the protagonist as well as the antagonist. Even when others speak or behave outrageously, it is imperative for you to maintain civility and respect. Controlling your actions will speak loudly to all involved. It will provide a model for what’s appropriate for those who want to learn and will silence those who are trying to get you to lose control.
In the show, Coach Lasso treats everyone the same — the bully, the quiet leader, the willing followers, and the obstructionist. If you emulate his perseverance, you will impact the culture and others’ actions in the end.
Stay the Course
Baby steps are big steps when you’re heading in the right direction.
These are words I used often when counseling teachers and leaders who faced adversity. Staying the course is hard to do when you feel beaten down with every effort you make. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to find the next small step that will enable you to keep moving forward.
When you face resistance or even hostility, remind yourself of your vision for where you want to go, how you will get there, and how you will garner support from others to turn your vision into reality.
By the end of the season, Coach Lasso’s small steps led to a more positive culture, improved relationships, and acceptance of his leadership. If you take the time to invest in people and keep taking baby steps even when it’s hard, you will see improvement. Just stay the course!
You can find lessons on leadership in many places, even a comedy show. Studying the actions of great leaders (even fictional ones) can be beneficial as you reflect on your own leadership abilities and seek to improve your skills. The role of every leader, whether direct or indirect, is to inspire, guide, and support individuals to come together as a team. Only then can you identify goals and work together to improve your team, your organization, and your future.