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Ted Lasso, John Wooden & A Different Way to Lead

It’s probably not a surprise to those who know me that I know very little about sports. I always joke that I’m not good at any sport involving a ball or coordination. Which is why I didn’t watch Ted Lasso until a few weeks ago … and then I binged watch the whole series in just a few days. 

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Ted L & John W

I am still in awe of the fact that there is a successful show about a different way of leading. Not the overwrought, iron fisted, do-what-I-say kind of leadership. Nor the “we must win every battle at all costs” approach. Just a clear-eyed belief that winning in the long run comes not from strong-arming every game but from showing up and doing the work day in and day out. 

The show also makes this important point - you don’t need to know how to do every task in order to lead. Ted doesn’t even know the rules of the physical game when he starts - it’s his command of a different game, moral and psychological, that makes him a leader. 

I've experienced this when I've had teams that did work that I had no idea how to do. When you can’t just step in and do it yourself, what you’re stuck with is leading. 

I find it interesting that leaders who follow the iron fist, win-at-all-costs school of leadership, unironically love Ted Lasso. I suspect they appreciate him as an ideal, but have endless excuses for why it just wouldn’t work on their team. 

I don’t buy it. More likely, they just aren’t willing to let go of control because "someone might make a mistake." 

But to quote John Wooden, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.” 

There is no question that Ted Lasso is in part based on John Wooden. Ted quietly puts Wooden’s famous “pyramid of success” on the wall in episode 1 … but it doesn’t really get acknowledged until the very end of second to last episode of the series when Ted’s boss says “Do you know this John Wooden?”

Bookends with the all the action in between. 

I caught the reference. I only know about John Wooden’s legendary UCLA basketball career  - a record 88 consecutives wins, 10 championships in 12 years, including 7 in a row - because I’m a leadership fan, not a sports fan. 

For me, these John Wooden’s quotes get at the heart of leadership: 

“Never try to be better than anyone else. Learn from others and try to be the best you can be. Success is a by-product of that preparation.” 

“In the end, it’s about the teaching, and what I always loved about coaching was the practices. Not the games, not the tournaments, not the alumni stuff. But teaching the players during practice was what coaching was all about to me.” 

The most important activity of a doer is to learn. The most important activity of a leader is to teach. Not to win, not to conquer, not to get credit … that’s all just a by-product. A different way of leading is possible - and Wooden’s amazing run at UCLA is proof: “It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”

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