Paul L. Caron

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Ted Lasso, Law School Deaning, And The Power Of Forgiveness

During the pandemic, my wife Courtney and I have been watching some feel-good, positive comedies like The Good Place, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Schitt's Creek, and The Unicorn. Our latest is Ted Lasso, which has gotten rave reviews (including Rotten Tomatoes, The New York Times, and The Ringer). 

Jason Sudeikis plays the title character, who after coaching the Wichita State football team to the Division II NCAA championship is hired to manage AFC Richmond, an English Premier League soccer team. Ted knows absolutely nothing about soccer; unbeknownst to Ted, the owner is trying to ruin the team as an act of vengeance against her estranged husband (who left her for a younger woman).

Ted's calling cards are his cheerfulness, honesty, kindness, optimism, sincerity, and compassion for everyone he meets. Unlike Schitt's Creek and similar shows, where mean people move in among nice people and are changed by the experience, Ted Lasso changes the skeptical and downright hostile fans, players, media, and team management through the power of his simple goodness.

When I was a faculty member with zero interest in becoming a dean, I wrote about why then-Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (of Moneyball fame) would make a great law school dean (What Law Schools Can Learn from Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, 82 Texas L. Rev. 1483 (2004) (with Rafael Gely (Missouri)). Now, after a unorthodox journey led me to become dean of Pepperdine Caruso Law School nearly four years ago, I think Lasso's relational approach is more important to deaning than Beane's analytics-fueled Moneyball approach. Indeed, at my first AALS dean's conference, Mark Horstman (Co-Founder, Manager Tools) gave the keynote address and emphasized  that of the three sources of a leader's power  — authority, expertise, and relationships — the importance of building relationships is more important than authority and expertise combined.

There is a burgeoning genre of leadership lessons from Ted Lasso (see links at the end of this post). Here are ten lessons for law school deans from Ted Lasso:

  1. Believe in Your Law School and Your People. Players roll their eye when Ted tapes a "Believe" sign in the locker room. By the end of Season 1, even the most cynical player taps the sign before heading out to practice and to play. (The players do not know that Ted has an identical sign on the mirror in his bathroom.) 
  2. Be Kind. Ted wins over person after person with his remarkable kindness. 
  3. Be Positive. Ted says “It’s the lack of hope that comes and gets you. Believe in hope. Believe in belief.”
  4. Be Humble, Give Credit to Others For Your Law School's Success, and Notice the 'Little People'. Ted tells the press that “You could fill two internets with what I don’t know about football.” When Ted is asked by a reporter who came up with an especially great play on the pitch, Ted gives all the credit to his equipment manager. 
  5. Be an Empathetic Leader. Ted says “If you care about someone and you’ve got a little love in your heart, there ain’t nothing you can’t get through together.”
  6. Be a Goldfish. When a player's mistake results in a goal by the opposing team, Ted tells him “Do you know what the happiest animal on earth is? A goldfish. Got a ten-second memory. Be a goldfish.”
  7. Accept Criticism With Grace. When fans shout obscenities at him, Ted says with a smile “I appreciate your opinion and hope we’ll have your support in the next game.”
  8. Empower Your Leadership Team. Ted leans heavily on the soccer expertise of his assistant coach and elevates the equipment manager to the coaching staff.
  9. Cultivate Faculty Leadership. Ted encourages the aging team captain to lead by example. By the end of Season 1, the star player hands the captaincy to a younger player.
  10. Focus on the Big Picture. To the dismay of the press, Ted says he doesn't care about wins and losses. Instead, he says his role as manager is to help each player “become the best versions of themselves, on and off the field.”

Although Ted Lasso is not overtly religious, Jason Sudeikis says that the show's motto is “Leave space for God to walk in the room.” There is an incredible forgiveness scene in Ted Lasso that resonates deeply with me because of the importance the power of forgiveness has played in deepening my Christian faith, which I have written about several times on this blog:

Rebecca Welton, the owner of AFC Richmond, hires Ted to destroy the team, and does everything she can to ruin him (she hires a photographer to take salacious photos of him, enlists a reporter to publish a hit piece on him, and transfers their best player to another team). As David French writes:

As Lasso’s fundamental decency relentlessly breaks down barriers and remakes his team, Rebecca realizes not just what she’s done, but who she’s done it to: a person she’s grown to love and respect. Lasso has become a friend, but it’s a friendship stained by a lie, and until that lie is exposed, the relationship can’t be real. So Rebecca knows she must confess. We, the viewers, brace for the moment.

[I]t smacks you in the face with its sincerity and power. Rebecca walks in and tells him what she’s done, in detail. With tears in her eyes, she walks through all her sins. She’s desperate to preserve their relationship, but he has to know what she’s done.

At that moment, her heart is completely in Lasso’s hands. In the era of “they’re waiting,” this is when they pounce—she deserves pain, and she’s going to receive pain. But something else happens. There’s a pregnant pause. He shakes his head. He stands up, and he simply says, “I forgive you.”

She’s stunned. “Why?”

“Divorce is hard,” he replies. “It makes folks do crazy things.” They embrace. That’s it. That’s the moment. Just like that, she’s forgiven. There’s no meltdown. There’s no rift between them. Lasso doesn’t punish Rebecca, not in the slightest. There’s no rom-com period of anger followed by tearful reconciliation. Lasso’s mercy is immediate.

In fact it was the speed of Lasso’s response that was so profound. That’s when television art connected with divine reality. It reflected the character of God. His mercy is immediate. Even better, His forgiveness transforms our souls.

My former pastor was fond of describing the “upside-down” Kingdom of Heaven. In that kingdom, the last are first. In our weakness we are strong. If you try to keep your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life, then you preserve it. Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you.

This analysis increasingly applies to repentance and confession. In our diseased culture, the words “I’m sorry” often represent an end. They’re the end of your career, or your relationship, or your reputation. You can only survive if you push through, if you deny and spin and evade, and if you fight—especially if you strike back, hard, at your flawed enemy.

In the upside-down kingdom of God, however, the words “I’m sorry” represent a beginning. They bring a new birth. They renew and restore. Repentance is an expression of love. It shows regard for the person we’ve wronged. Forgiveness is an act of love. It’s a display of mercy and grace when a vulnerable person is in our power. Why did that moment in Ted Lasso hit so many of us so hard? Because, just for a moment we saw the world not as it is, but as it should be, and it was a far better world than the one we’ve made.

David French, How a Fictional Soccer Coach Showed What the World Should Be: Ted Lasso and the Simple Power of Forgiveness

More on the Christian faith and Ted Lasso:

More on leadership lessons from Ted Lasso:

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