Written by Ed Voelsing on March 3, 2023

Ted Lasso's Leadership Problem

If you are a super fan of the Apple TV+ show Ted Lasso like I am, then you are eagerly anticipating the launch of the third season on March 15th.  If you have not seen the show, please stop reading because there will be massive spoilers ahead and I strongly encourage you to watch the first two seasons before doing anything else with your life.

Photo by Emilio Garcia on Unsplash

Ted Lasso is a show that covers a broad range of genres, the obvious being sports, rom-com(munism), and a deep journey into personal growth and mental health.  It is also a great show about leadership and the workplace.  The show has struck a chord with a diverse audience, from professional footballers to people like me that are focused on leadership and workplace dynamics. 

Coach Lasso is the epitome of a servant leader as a coach.  He leads from the heart.  His primary focus is getting everyone around him to become the best version of themselves, and in the process, building a cohesive team that produces wins.  Ted is a complex person – who projects infectious enthusiasm, is perpetually optimistic, and most of all he believes in what he is doing.  He gets people to believe in the mission he’s trying to accomplish. 

He is the kind of boss/Coach we should all aspire to be, or work for, as the case may be.  It’s no wonder that people are drawn to him (both in the show and the show’s rabid fan base).  As Sam Obisanya said in the first season, “We’ll die for you, Coach!”  He is what is known as an inspirational leader. 

If Ted is such a great leader, what went wrong with his protégé Nate the Great? 

How did Nate become so disgruntled that he would leak to the press about Ted’s anxiety attacks, and leave for a competing team? 

I have some insights, based on what I see in my recruiting practice. 

Every day I have deep discussions with job seekers about what they are looking for in their next role with a new company.  Sometimes we hear stories from job seekers of working for tyrannical or grossly incompetent managers – and that is what first comes to mind when people think of horrible bosses. 

It’s much more common that people are ready to find a new role because they are suffering from what I’ve coined as “benign neglect.”  Benign neglect is when an otherwise good manager neglects the needs of their employees without any ill intentions.  It results from managers who might mean well but spend their time and resources elsewhere.

Benign neglect is very common with high-performing, intrinsically motivated, individuals.  Managers know their high performers don’t need a lot of handholding under normal circumstances.  With the added stresses of business during the pandemic, these managers had more faith in them to self-manage while working remotely. 

Time is always a limited resource, and it’s natural for managers to spend less of it on the employees that are squared away.  It is the intuitive choice for most managers.  It is also the wrong one.

It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, if the Pareto Principle is true, then managers should spend most of their time with the 20% of employees doing 80% of the work.  Great managers should spend their time working with their high-performers to be even more effective.  Instead, they spend all their time with their low-performers – concocting performance plans, additional training, and hands-on leadership trying to turn a C-player into a solid B-.  In the meantime, the A players carry on in a vacuum. 

They put up with it for a while, and then start to question why they do.  Then they will start looking for a new job where they might feel valued. 

One of the unfortunate hallmarks of high-performers is they will give very few indicators that they are unhappy in their work up until they blindside you with a resignation.  

At the end of Season 2, Nate the Great reveals (in a brief form of an exit interview) that felt he was angry more about being ignored by Ted than anything else.  

Ted’s actions, or rather inactions, are why Nate left the team.

Great television needs drama and conflict, and if Coach Lasso was a perfect individual, there would not be a show.  If this were a real-life situation, perhaps the outcomes would have been different if Ted had communicated to Nate that he had some personal issues going on and he needed Nate to step up and carry more of the load. 

A great employee will gladly do more if asked by a great boss.  He could have asked Coach Beard to be a mentor to Nate in how to be a good coach, beyond just understanding game strategy.  Coach Lasso spending 1:1 time with Nate more often (ideally daily) would have potentially kept the feeling of being unappreciated and ignored at bay. 

There’s no getting around it - great leaders find that time to spend with their employees – all their employees, even the ones working remotely.  Great leaders get to know their people “off the pitch” as well as on it.  They learn what motivates them. What they need to be successful, even if that means the space to fail and learn.  Great leaders are like great coaches – they push them to be the best version of themselves and the team is greater than the sum of individuals.

This kind of leadership produces not only happy employees.  Inspired teams produce results.    

On display on the wall of Coach Lasso’s office is Coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success.  Coach Wooden developed this formula as a young coach, completing it in 1948.  He also won 10 NCAA championships as the head coach of UCLA.  He was also famous for the deep relationships he built with his players – many of whom attributed to him as the reason they became successful in life. 

It’s clear that is the kind of coach Ted aspires to be.   

I can’t wait to see what kind of coach Nate turns out to be.  I suspect that Nate gets something of a comeuppance – since head coaches get all the blame for losses as well as the credit for the wins.  

I also hope he has redemption.  Because like Coach Lasso, I believe in people becoming the best version of themselves, and I think Nate can finally become Nate the Great.    

If you are a leader, coach, manager, or parent, I also suggest you take a hard look at your performance of late.  Are you guilty of benign neglect? 

When was the last time you spent quality time with the people on your team?  If you “don’t have the time” then is it because you are too busy with unimportant stuff?  That is a problem of priorities.  Or is it because you just don’t want to have the time?  That is a whole other bucket of problems to unpack.    

You can be the leader your people need.  As Ted would say, I believe in you. 

If you read this and identify with the high performers feeling neglected and have reached a point where you are ready to explore new career opportunities, then we’d like to hear from you. 

Alternatively, if you are climbing the pyramid of success and you need people for your team, we’d like to hear from you too, and discuss how we can help.  We have a lot of great people looking to work for great leaders. 

Thanks for reading and go Greyhounds!

The Rivet Group is a Veteran-owned Executive Search and Consulting Firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina.    

Article written by Ed Voelsing

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