The Reason Why Ted Lasso Might Not Be a Great Leader

October 7, 2021

The Reason Ted Lasso Might Not Be a Great LeaderPerhaps you are asking yourself the question, “Who is Ted Lasso?” Ted Lasso is a character played by Jason Sudeikis on an Apple TV comedy series. The series recently won seven Emmys. Ted is an American football coach who was hired to manage an English Football team. Why was an amateur football coach hired to coach an elite British Football (what Americans refer to as soccer) team? The team’s new owner, who is recently divorced, wants the team to fail to spite her former husband. Ted has a management style that is very high on empathy and relationship building. He is fully committed to putting the needs of the team members first. Throughout the season, he works with players to help them deal with emotional struggles and conflicts to build a positive environment. By the end of the first season, Ted managed to win over almost all of the players and even the team owner. The only problem is, they don’t win many matches. Watching the show makes almost everyone walk away saying to themselves, I will be kinder, nicer, and more caring to others.

Having empathy and building positive relationships with others is a very important leadership trait. Looking at 360-degree assessments of over 100,000 leaders where Building Relationships was evaluated by on average 13 raters, that competency was rated 12th in terms of effectiveness and 7th in terms of importance. I would rate Ted in the 90th percentile on his Building Relationships and empathy skills. He has what I call a profound strength. Based on our research with thousands of leaders, a person with one profound strength has a leadership effectiveness rating around the 64th percentile. That would make Ted a good leader, but not yet great.

While Ted has a profound strength in building positive relationships, I would not rate Ted very highly on his competitiveness. He seems to be much more concerned about his team members than he is about winning. Some people think about this as an either-or contest where there is only one winner, but our research is clear that leaders can perform both skills well.

Recently, I created a self-assessment measuring the preference a person has for being competitive. I used correlations between the self-assessment and results in our Extraordinary Leader 360-Degree Feedback database to identify items in a competitive index. The five items in the competitive index assess the following behaviors:

  1. Willingness to challenge the standard approaches
  2. Encouraging others to consider new approaches and ideas.
  3. Willingness to become a champion for new projects or programs.
  4. Energized and excited to take on challenging goals.
  5. Brings the group a high level of energy and enthusiasm.

I analyzed data from over 100,000 leaders to uncover the impact of building relationships/empathy versus competitiveness on leaders’ overall perceived effectiveness. As seen in the graph below, leaders who were low on both skills (a score below the 75th percentile) rated their overall leadership effectiveness at the 35th percentile. Being effective at relationships (e.g., above the 75th percentile) raised the overall leadership effectiveness score to the 69th percentile. Being high on competitiveness raised the overall leadership effectiveness slightly more to the 74th percentile. But being high on both jumps the overall effectiveness score to the 91st percentile. I call this a powerful combination, where combining two competencies yields a substantial increase. Based on this research, I would estimate that Ted’s overall leadership effectiveness is at the 69th percentile. Because as Coach Beard wisely cautioned Ted, “These are professionals, and winning does matter to them…and that’s ok.”

In any work environment, winning matters. We need to feel the rush that comes from achieving great things, from pushing boundaries, comfort zones, and reaching stretch goals. Empathy matters, but so does accomplishment.

Correlation between Relationship Building and Competitiveness and Overall Effectiveness

Impact on Team Members

To assess the impact of these two variables on team members, I looked at a dataset composed only of the direct reports to leaders. I asked each direct report to indicate the extent to which they were willing to “go the extra mile” and give additional effort. I refer to this as discretionary effort. Every day an employee starts working, they make a decision. Are they going to do the least amount possible to keep their job, or are they going to give all their energy, intelligence, and effort to achieve goals? Having 10 employees who are willing to give 10% more effort yields the work of one more employee. The graph below shows the percentage of direct reports willing to give additional effort and go the extra mile. Note in the low relationships, low competitiveness condition, only 26% of employees are willing to give additional effort compared to the high relationships, high competitiveness condition where 62% are willing to do more and go the extra mile. Consider the atmosphere in a low relationship, low competitive condition. It’s just the oddballs willing to do more, but in the high relationships, high competitive condition, it’s the majority of the team.

Correlation between Building Relationships and Competitiveness and % of Employees Discretionary Effort

Check out the latest episodes of The 90th Percentile: An Unconventional Leadership Podcast

I believe that Ted Lasso has taught the world some valuable leadership lessons. Being a leader who is empathic and builds positive relationships creates a wonderful team atmosphere. Everyone is trusted, and people feel accepted and part of the team. In the words of Trent Crim (The Independent), “If the Lasso way is wrong, it’s hard to imagine being right.”

However, adding more competitiveness to that makes it possible for the team to be more successful. These two behaviors make a very powerful combination. They can work together. People can feel that your drive to push them to achieve greater things as a team means you care. Ted taught us all, “as a man once said, the harder you work, the luckier you get.”

—Joe Folkman
Connect with Joe Folkman on LinkedIn, Twitter,  or Facebook.

(This article first appeared on Forbes)

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