Who comes to mind when you think of great leaders? Lincoln, Gandhi, Mother Theresa? What attributes do you associate with leadership? A quick Google for leadership definition will return results that include words like act, position, align, execute, follow, and accomplish. Another quick Google of top leaders today returns images, including Bill Gates, Elon Muck, Greta Thunberg, and Jacinda Ardern.
This week marks the end of the third and likely final season of Ted Lasso. Like so many, I stumbled across the show during the turbulence of Covid. I was living on U.S. military base in Japan under very stringent restrictions in an environment where consequences would be enforced. One pizza Friday, my husband said, ‘What the hell?’ and we watched our first episode, then our second, then our third. Last night we watched the final episode.
Two months ago, Jacinda Ardern stepped down as Prime Minister of New Zealand.
And while these things may not seem connected in any way, but I believe they are because I believe leadership is about authenticity and leading as you are from where you are. Both of these leaders demonstrate authenticity and lead in a manner that diverges from the expected norms of their roles.
In her final speech as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, “You can be anxious, sensitive, kind and wear your heart on your sleeve. You can be a mother, or not, you can be an ex-Mormon, or not, you can be a nerd, a crier, a hugger, you can be all of these things, and not only can you be here, you can lead, just like me.” In an interview as part of the Live to Lead series on Netflix she said that she never imagined herself in many leadership roles, but when others recommended or nominated her that she felt a responsibility to lead.
When Ted Lasso unexpectedly becomes the coach of an English Premiere League team, he responds to the challenge by saying, “Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.” This is not a position he sought; it was an offer he accepted.
Both rise to the occasion. They lead with curiosity and compassion rather than coercion. They bring others in. Jacinda Ardern said, “To me, leadership is not about necessarily being the loudest in the room, but instead being the bridge, or the thing that is missing in the discussion and trying to build a consensus from there.” Ted Lasso asks for help from someone with more knowledge of the sport on the staff. He seeks to understand the struggles of those around him.
Bruce Avolio from the University of Washington emphasizes Ted Lasso’s empathy, curiosity, kindness, and relationship focus as strengths of Lasso’s leadership approach. Many times these characteristics are associated with weakness; however, Ardern addresses her own similar traits stating, “One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”
What both leaders demonstrate is that you can be who you are and lead. You do not have to subscribe to traditional models of leadership. By showing up authentically, you can more fully leverage your strengths while creating space for others to do the same. You can lead just as you are.