The single most powerful lesson Ted Lasso can teach us
Like so many others, I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Ted Lasso recently. Apart from the comforting familiarity (I’m a Londoner who grew up going to see premier league games), the great vibe and sharp humour, I have been particularly excited to see a number of pioneering methods for developing high-performance cultures being presented to such a wide audience.
Ted Lasso is an absolute master at what we have started calling the person-centred approach. In sport we hear a lot about seeing the person first, athlete second. This is essential progress, away from the traditional approach whereby an athlete’s worth, and therefore treatment by others, was based solely on how well they performed. The person-centred approach sees that each athlete comes with their own unique set of experiences, beliefs, motivations, and so they should not all be dealt with in precisely the same way. What works to motivate one person will not necessarily be the same as what works for another. Difficult individual behaviours might have roots in an athlete’s biological or social makeup, rather than just represent ‘a bad attitude’. Coach Lasso brings to the table an innate understanding for this. Nobody is worth less than anybody else, every behaviour has a root cause which may be invisible at first glance, and everyone has the potential to be better if they are just supported in the right way.
This philosophy can be simply summarised as a belief that we are all human and fallible, trying our best under difficult circumstances, and so people should be treated unfailingly with dignity and kindness.
Illustrations of Lasso’s genius at this style of leadership come in the form of his treatment of the kit man, Nathan, on a par with any of the stars in the team; when he gifts a book to every player, each one individually and meticulously chosen; in his imperturbable efforts to find a way to connect with the egotistical star striker; and in his sharing of his own doubts and inadequacies with his team, his colleagues, his boss and even the ever-mocking british press.
But as brilliant and skilful as Lasso is in these moments, there is something else that he exhibits which points to a skill far more valuable than all that combined.
To an incredible degree, he is able to detach from his ego.
A great example of what I mean by this comes shortly after his arrival at the club, when the captain of the team fires off a biting insult, calling Lasso ‘Ronald Mc f****** donald’, before storming out of the dressing room. Without flinching, Lasso turns to his assistant, coach Beard, and says ‘He thinks he’s mad now, just wait until we win him over’.
Not for a split second did he allow his ego to try and interpret the event as something harmful, hurtful or even personal against him. In fact, it is a clear theme in each episode, and I even wonder if it is the central message of the entire series, that Lasso is assaulted and insulted from all angles - be it from the clubs fans themselves, who assigned him the nickname ‘w****er’ right from the start; by his boss, who eventually confesses that hiring him was all part of an elaborate plan to destroy the club; or the most unfathomable and unjust of all, from Nathan, who Ted had lovingly nurtured from his role as kitman to become a full coach, fulfilling far more of his potential, and who then unleashed the most bitter, torrid insults of anyone in the series. Any mere mortal would have been fully in their rights to shoot back at such a bad faith attack with equal force, but Ted’s immediate response was an apology for not doing more to recognise Nathan’s contribution. There are probably a lot of people who watch that scene and think that Ted was being weak or soft. Far from it, he was displaying the most impressive and potent capability, which is his true super-power as a coach. He recognises that these abuses are merely an attack on what he represents to these people, not who he truly is. They don’t get close to touching him on that level, so he need not engage with them in the slightest from the point of view of personal ego protection. In a way the subjects are attacking a self-constructed hologram of Ted Lasso, not the real person.
This idea is at the heart of non-dual philosophy, which stipulates that we are not defined by our behaviours, thoughts and emotions. Our true nature is to be found far deeper than that superficial level, so any insult doesn’t get beyond the thinnest veneer of who we are. Non-dual philosophy goes further to say that we are not separate and distinct from the world, the people and objects we see around us. We are all born from a collective consciousness, we are all one. I would propose that Ted Lasso is an enormously accomplished practitioner in the art of non-dual philosophy. It is only through a belief about the underlying reality of our experience such as this, that you can get to a place beyond ego- a place where you react unflinchingly to such highly emotionally charged situations, as Lasso does, from a place of pure acceptance, equanimity and love.
In the world Ted Lasso inhabits as the head coach of a top tier football team, his success is largely dictated by his ability to skilfully navigate a large number of complex and often volatile relationships - with each one of his players, with his coaching staff, his boss and other staff in the club. His ability to defuse his ego from the most heated interactions means that he can maintain perspective, see more nuance in the situation and respond from a place of compassion and rationality. This is the surest path to building bridges between people, seeing the best in them and then in helping bring that out, for the good of all. That is why I call this his super-power, and happily it is available to all of us who are willing to work to cultivate it.
In the world of high performance sport we are starting to focus a lot more on building up these person-centred environments. Coaches and leaders are being developed to understand the elements of this approach, and in how to create such cultures. What I suspect the creators of Ted Lasso understand, that has such wisdom behind it, is that all these practices would stem naturally from a first principle based on non-dual philosophy. If you truly believe that we are cut from the same cloth, that no person has more innate worth than any other, and that deep down our nature is loving, then you too will inhabit the best of Ted Lasso. You will effortlessly rise above every potential knock to your ego, and be free to embrace the world with the same openness and playful curiosity that allowed a second tier American college football coach to succeed in the cauldron of the English professional football leagues.
We can all be more Ted Lasso. I would argue that the world needs us to be, and it starts with a humane and loving philosophy that allows us to separate from the limitations of our egos.