Ted Lasso's workplace

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It’s not hard to understand why so many people are watching Ted Lasso (Apple TV), nor why it was nominated for twenty Emmy Awards and won seven. Believe it or not, it is twenty years since The Office first premiered on the BBC. Not since then has a comedy series cut so close to the bone of our cultural needs and anxieties.

The first scene of The Office shows the infamous boss, David Brent, (played by one of the series creators, Ricky Gervais) lying about the first aid credentials of a person that Brent wants to employ. While on the phone, Brent pretends that his nose is growing like that of Pinocchio. The scene set the tone for all the excruciating moments that were to follow.

The Office is the story of a workplace where there is opportunity for advancement but none for authenticity; there is a career structure but no personal growth. Brent was the model of the self-absorbed leader whose main mission was to make himself feel good. In a beautiful irony, the firm that employs him, Wernham Hogg, is a paper wholesaler. It sells appearance, not substance.

Ted Lasso touches the same nerve but in a much more endearing way. The series speaks to a world that is weary of encoded leadership, the idea of career advancement through learning the right things to say and pushing the right buttons. It addresses the lifelessness of the scripted workplace. People long for leadership that sets them free, liberates them to make a genuine contribution the human family, rather than patrolling policies and procedures. Lockdown has revealed to many people the central place of human connection in a healthy workplace, the sense of belonging to others for which cliches such as ‘well-being’ and ‘resilience’ are plastic substitutes. Working from home, some people have started to ask themselves what they are actually doing with their lives.

Enter Ted Lasso, the most unlikely coach ever to take over an English Football Club. His unique approach to leadership is poignant, funny, humane, wise and successful in ways that really matter. Of course, there are many elements of fairytale in this show, especially the glorious Christmas episode which will stand for the ages alongside the Christmas episodes in The Vicar of Dibley and the Festivus episode of Seinfeld. But don’t forget there are elements of fairytale in Cinderella as well, not to mention Jack and the Bean Stalk, not to mention reality.

 

'The series speaks to a world that is weary of encoded leadership, the idea of career advancement through learning the right things to say and pushing the right buttons. It addresses the lifelessness of the scripted workplace.'

 

When he arrives at Richmond FC from Kansas, Ted Lasso hardly knows the rules of football. He says he has a better idea of who killed Kennedy that of the offside rule. But he knows people. He reads them like a comic book. They respond because they are more in his eyes than the numbers on their back or positions on the field. It takes time but time is what he gives. He knows that, at first, the owner of Richmond FC, Rebecca, is taking advantage of him to get back at her ex-husband by destroying the club he loved more than her. But Ted keeps turning up with special biscuits which she pretends not to like. Her pretence is so flimsy that it eventually brings down her other more sophisticated pretences. Initially, she treats him as a pawn in her game, as an object. But Lasso refuses to be frightened by her and gradually she starts to move beyond the anger that controls her life. Ted gets results because he knows that life is ultimately not about results. People are not cars to be driven.

Lasso has an unending string of wonderful quips, one-liners and nuggets of wisdom, usually memorable and original. He never asks anybody to bring more to the table, take a deep dive, work on their brand or any of that managerial gobbledy-gook. He says ‘even Woody and Buzz got under each other’s plastic.’ He sends up the burble culture. When Rebecca asks him if he believes in ghosts, he says that it is more important for ghosts to believe in themselves.

In other words, Lasso embodies the difference between leadership and management. He never dodges hard questions, fronting every press conference. Even when clever journalists try to trash him, he answers honestly, with dignity and often with the kind of humour that gets the journalist to think again. There is a festival of celebration in his voice when he says ‘that’s a heaped spoonful of truth soup right there.’ Truth soup is a lovely image: the good stuff that nourishes and brings flavour. 

Ted invests in the dreams of others. Lasso allows the lowly helper, Nate, a man whose spirit has been crushed by an overbearing father, to fulfill the impossible dream of joining the coaching staff. He knows that Nathan knows the game with greater integrity than people who have learned coaching skills from within the system. Eventually, Nate will have to find his own voice. Rebecca and Keely, the marketing manager, will help him and this is beautiful to watch. Later Nate will get too big for his boots and he will also need to learn the meaning of ‘sorry.’ Everyone in this series is growing.

Ted sees the world from ground level, not a pedestal. His office is next to the locker room and is off limits to no-one. It has no symbols of status. He doesn’t go to fancy restaurants. He shares sandwiches with his colleagues. He tells the team: ‘I promise you, there is something worse out there than being sad. And that is being alone and being sad. Ain’t no one in this room alone.’

 

'Ted Lasso actually doesn’t talk much about leadership, a notable quality in many true leaders. He only talks about people. He loves life with all its mysteries and confusions. It rubs off on others and so he changes a poisonous culture into a creative one.'

 

Most revealing is Ted’s relationship with the psychologist, Dr Sharon. At first, he does not appear threatened by her. He allows Sharon full access to everyone and doesn’t try to provide instructions for her. He is fascinated by the diversity of the human circus. He tells his boss when he meets her mother: ‘I like meeting people’s mothers. It’s like getting an instruction book for what makes them nuts.’ Yet the one person to whom Ted does not give Sharon access is himself. His own grief is profound and it appears that he brings a smile to the world so that he has a place to hide. Ted is a wounded leader whose deep pain will become creative. He is estranged from his own family and has trouble accepting the fact that his wife wants to separate. This is part of what has brought him to England, even though it makes connection difficult with his young son. He finally connects with the psychologist after she opens up about her own struggles with alcohol. As professionals, their relationship was formulaic and wary. As vulnerable and frail people, it is much richer, more honest and more generative. They both need to befriend reality. Reality does not have a mission statement.

Ted Lasso actually doesn’t talk much about leadership, a notable quality in many true leaders. He only talks about people. He loves life with all its mysteries and confusions. It rubs off on others and so he changes a poisonous culture into a creative one. He says ‘Be curious. Not judgmental,’ but needs to apply those words to himself, benefitting from the unfailing positive regard he has for others.

Ted Lasso inadvertently addresses the existential aridity of so much contemporary workplace culture. Among his many fans, he constantly provokes stories about quirky and eccentric colleagues who made work so much richer. Sadly, many of these stories relate to the past. Please God, Ted will open the door slightly to allow people not just to bring their best selves to work, but to bring their whole selves. Ted Lasso lets us think about what it might be like to work for the common good. He is worth a shelf full of books on leadership.

 

Michael McGirrMichael McGirr works for Caritas Australia. His new book, Ideas to Save Your Life, will be published by text next month.

Michael is the bestselling author of Snooze: The Lost Art of Sleep, Bypass and Things You Get for Free. He has reviewed almost one thousand books for various newspapers; his short fiction has appeared in Australian and overseas publications; and he has been a publisher of Eureka Street and fiction editor at Meanjin.

Topic tags: Michael McGirr, Ted Lasso, Apple, Jason Sudekis, workplace culture, The Office, leadership

 

 

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Existing comments

‘Reality does not have a mission statement.’ What a great line. It’s time I had a look at this show. Or maybe it would be taking coal to Newcastle!


Steve Sinn | 21 September 2021  

If he’s that good, he’s wasting his time with Richmond FC. He should be shuttling double-shifts, AUKUS to France, AUKUS to China, perhaps starting with training wings, Boris to Scotland.


roy chen yee | 23 September 2021  

A wonderful article. A message to find the Ted Lasso within us all. A man invested in people, rather than procedures and curiosity rather than judgement!


Joe Keenan | 23 September 2021  

It is such a refreshing way to look at your workplace. We need more Teds and fewer Ruperts. Kindness rules!


Nicole Aarts | 24 September 2021  

'Reality does not have a mission statement'. Agree with Steve - great line. I feel very encouraged that so many people are watching Ted Lasso. Is it touching a deep desire for authenticity in the human heart/s?
Thanks Michael


Mary Nolan | 24 September 2021  
Show Responses

Having watched and thoroughly enjoyed both seasons, I have to give Ted Lasso high praise. Finally, something that made me laugh out loud as well as provide a point of reflection. Curious without judgment really characterises it well. Ted's own personal issues that emerge serve to humanise him and enable a greater empathy.
To Mary Nolan's point about access to Apple TV, it is a fair question. I remember when Rage Against The Machine were playing in Sydney and despite lining up outside Ticketek office from 4am to purchase tickets and being 5th in line, we missed out. All tickets were sold out from 9am through online credit card sales. It struck me as ironic that a group who despises capitalist culture were oblivious to operating within the system! I guess the same issue prevails.


Damien D'Cruz | 10 October 2021  

It would be interesting to know how many ES readers have access to Apple TV and how many have the potential to access it. While I welcome diversity of opinion, it seems to me that ES is silencing underdog voices it seeks to encourage. My comments have been been blocked and deleted in paste months/years. It make me wonder why a free ad for Apple TV is published but my views are blocked.


AURELIUS | 25 September 2021  

Thanks Michael. Enjoying a model here of leadership without the “speak”. That might just be “authentic leadership”, but I just ruined it with the term. Thanks for an insightful read. Will watch some of the show.


Margaret McCarthy | 26 September 2021  

OK, Aurelius. Consider yourself heard by at least one of us. However, given that Michael Furtado is published, a low bar to off-planet thinking, if anything, maybe you could be heard too if you changed a style or two? Perhaps, that’s all it is. If Michael were to choose to acknowledge your plaint, I’m sure he would say much the same thing, perhaps with a small rebadge.


roy chen yee | 27 September 2021  

Thanks, roy chen yee. It's heartening to know that another human being welcomes quirky opinions - and this is especially significant given that we are probably on differing extremes of the traditional binary/political spectrum - (and admittedly sometimes can't grasp the point you're trying to make, being an earthy country bumpkin!)


AURELIUS | 29 September 2021  
Show Responses

Thank you too, Aurelius. ‘differing extremes of the traditional binary…spectrum’ Let’s unpack this. Ultra-men (if they exist) would be at the opposite pole of the spectrum to ultra-women (if they exist). ‘Normative’ (let’s call it that for the moment) males are closer to the middle and the same apply to their counterparts, the ‘normative’ (let’s call it that for the moment) women. LGBTIQ* swing around the middle and the more * they get, the more middle they become until *(XX) is indistinguishable (in their own minds) from *(XY), and vice-versa. In the middle of the spectrum, one is (in one’s mind) neither man nor woman, or both, or neither. As for ‘political’, ‘subsidiarity’ is as distant from the Coalition as it is from the ALP because the 'consciences' which make up 'subsidiarity' should be taking their cue from the Church which is only in the world, not of it.


roy chen yee | 01 October 2021  

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