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The Power of Likability: A Lesson in Leadership from Ted Lasso

By August 9, 2021 5 Comments
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For the longest time, I considered my desire to “be liked” a liability. A weakness. A sort of kryptonite for so many of us pastors.

But watching the hit series Ted Lasso (Apple TV+) has caused me re-think this. I’ve been wanting to write about Lasso for a while, but Jeff Munroe, editor of The Reformed Journal and fellow 12 blogger, beat me to it! Jeff wrote an insightful essay a couple weeks ago about his theory as to how we got Ted Lasso at this cultural and political moment. It’s worth reading, and Jeff gives a good description of the plot (without spoilers). I want to take a different angle here. As a pastor called to lead, I’m drawn to what is arguably Lasso’s greatest attribute as a premier soccer coach who is completely unqualified for the job but, in the end, is so surprisingly effective in leading change. What attribute is that?

His genuine likability.

Even when you find yourself rolling your eyes at Lasso’s cheesy optimism and coaching clichés, you can’t help but like the guy. He has a way of winning people over and cutting through defenses, of getting you to root for him and what he’s trying to do. Over time, Ted’s likability rubs off on those around him, creating connections on a human level and radically changing the culture of AFC Richmond’s locker room.

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Now, there is certainly a downside to likability, especially when it’s self-serving and employed as a tactic for manipulation and control. Or when it prevents us from making hard decisions and acting with courage. Admittedly, this is where my own desire to be liked has been an obstacle at times. Being overly concerned with what others think of me has too often resulted in the avoidance of conflict and a fear of disrupting the status quo.

But Ted Lasso shows us the upside of likability—likability as a strength. While we don’t get a window into the motives of Lasso’s heart, and we need to be careful not to flatten him into a two-dimensional character (my main critique of the show at moments), you do get the sense that Ted’s likability is born out of a genuine interest in and care for people. His optimism and encouragement seem less about ego and status and more about lifting others up and bringing people together.

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One of my favorite scenes in Season One [spoiler alert!] is when Rupert, the narcissistic ex-husband of the team’s owner, Rebecca Welton, challenges Ted to a game of darts. They place a bet and Rupert, dripping with smugness, expects to humiliate Ted as he whips out his expensive personal dart set. As Ted takes his turn and aims his dart, he says,

“You know, Rupert, guys have been underestimating me my entire life. And for years I never understood why. It used to really bother me. Then one day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman, painted on the wall there. It said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’…All of a sudden it hits me—all them fellas who used to belittle me…not a single one of them, curious. You know, they thought they had it all figured out, so they judged everything, they judged every one. And I realized that their underestimating me…who I was had nothing to do with it. Because if they were curious, they would ask questions. You know, questions like, ‘Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?’ To which I would have answered, ‘Yes, Sir! Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age 10 to when I was 16 and he passed away.”

Then Ted releases the dart and it hits a bullseye, to the cheers of all the people crowded in the pub.

This posture of curiosity over judgment and pretense turns out to be one of the secret ingredients of healthy likability. Being curious and withholding judgment is not just a motto for Lasso; it’s his way of showing up in the world. And it leads to the flourishing of those around him.

So here’s what I’m wondering: Instead of a weakness, what if likability is actually one of the most undervalued and highly needed leadership traits at this particular moment? What if likability could be a powerful tool of the Holy Spirit for bringing people together, even rivals and enemies, and helping them discover the humanity in one another?

If so, I don’t think the key for pastors and leaders is to try harder to be more likable. It’s something like what holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl said about success and happiness. The more you aim at it, the more you’re going to miss it. You have to let it happen by not caring about it, by fixing your attention on a cause greater than yourself, by caring for the people around you. “Success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

So it is with likability. We will be most likable precisely when we forget about being liked and genuinely show up with curiosity, compassion, empathy and a deep concern for the person in front of us.

That’s a great leadership lesson from Ted Lasso worth taking to heart.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

5 Comments

  • Rev. Nolan Palsma says:

    Brian:
    Loved the illustration and the challenge of curiosity over judgment. I find myself curious a lot but that has gotten me into trouble for asking too many questions! 🙂

  • I love how you connect the dots in this piece. As I have been following the path of curiosity and better listening in my spiritual practice, I am finding that it is a spacious and pleasant way to be. Beats being judgmental by a long shot, although that is still too often my habit. Binary thinking is way too easy, but rarely life-giving. Thanks for another thoughtful essay, Brian.

  • Chris Godfredsen says:

    Yes!

  • Ann Conklin says:

    Thank you, Brian! What a wonderful perspective and commentary on curiosity!

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