Ted Lasso (and Marcus Freeman) > Brian Kelly
Letter to the Editor | Friday, January 14, 2022
“Have you seen Ted Lasso yet?! Did you hear it was nominated for 20 Emmys (and won 7!) this year?! It’s sooo good! You have to watch it!” I’ve heard this conversation countless times over the last several months, and I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. Ted Lasso is a brilliant TV show, and its eponymous figurehead — a fictional amateur American football coach turned British Premier League manager (co-developed and played by Jason Sudeikis) — is one of the most loveable and uniting characters to grace television screens in years. Lasso’s character hooks you immediately, and I’ve yet to encounter someone who isn’t wildly fond of him.
Another conversation entered the Notre Dame public sphere last month. “Did you hear Brian Kelly is leaving Notre Dame for LSU? Did you hear he spent just four minutes with his former players the morning after the news broke explaining why he’s ditching them right before bowl season? Did you know he also blindsided his Cincinnati team when he came to Notre Dame? Did you hear he didn’t even mention the Irish by name at his introductory LSU press conference, right after telling his Notre Dame players that his love for them was “limitless”? The whole thing is quintessential Brian Kelly.”
These two men — Ted Lasso and Brian Kelly — are a perfect case study in servant versus transactional leadership. Like all leadership styles, the desired outcome is the same: accomplish the goal or beat the competition. But the primary motive of many leaders that utilize these different styles — which affects not just how they go about trying to achieve their organizations’ goals, but also all involved in the process (both directly and indirectly) — could not be more different. And the results are notable. It is both beautifully and painfully obvious: Lasso, a servant leader, is in the business of leading for the greater good. Kelly, a transactional leader, is in the business of leading for himself. Lasso serves to lift those around him; Kelly for his own
self-advancement. Lasso prioritizes the humanity and long-term growth of his colleagues; Kelly will leave his team at a moment’s notice if a shinier opportunity comes along.
These contrasting leadership styles have significant effects on organizations, those that comprise them, and those who are influenced by them. Since Ted Lasso has only 2 seasons to reflect on, let’s mostly consider Brian Kelly’s 12 years of transactional leadership at Notre Dame.
In Kelly’s first year as head coach of the Irish in 2010 — my junior year at Notre Dame — the greater Notre Dame community lost one of its own to a heartbreaking accident. This occurred when my classmate, Declan Sullivan — who was employed by the football team to film practices — fell forty feet from a scissor lift while shooting drills during a windstorm. It was unbelievably tragic and a situation that could and should have been prevented. (Notre Dame had an indoor practice facility at the time; the decision to practice outside was Kelly’s). How Kelly failed to keep my classmate safe is not the point. The point is to reflect on how Kelly — as the leader in charge that day — handled the horrific situation, and why. How did Kelly handle it? He let the president of the University of Notre Dame, Rev. John Jenkins, shoulder the blame.
Why did Kelly side-step responsibility for the fatality of a member of his own program? Why did he not resign, as many felt he should? From my vantage point, there was simply too much at stake for Kelly personally in his first season at the most storied college football program in the country. Admitting mismanagement of such magnitude could have cost him a significant sum and the chance to continue moving up the proverbial career ladder. Kelly’s actions typify that of a transactional leader because this style of managing — most prevalent in corporate America and professional sports — is primarily oriented toward two things: short-term, narrow thinking and the preservation of those near the top of the pyramid. We all know a variation of the saying: “Character shines brightest during moments of crisis.” A transactional leader is almost never capable of doing so for their organization during times of hardship because it is contrary to their motive for leading in the first place. Most transactional leaders’ end goals are simple: look out for yourself first at all costs. Information that could potentially challenge your position: ignore it, bury it or have someone else take the blame. Avoid responsibility as needed, and not dare risk your own skin.
Let’s consider how Kelly’s transactional leadership affected members of the wider Notre Dame community. Early in Kelly’s tenure, we devastatingly lost another student, Saint Mary’s Lizzy Seeberg, to suicide a few days after she had the courage to report sexual assault by a Notre Dame football player. How did Kelly handle this awful situation? He advised the accused player to avoid it, let him continue to take the field as if nothing happened and again, passed the buck to keep the focus on football. I wonder what message that could have sent to other women around campus.
Paling in significance, Notre Dame was also forced to vacate 21 wins over its 2012-2013 football seasons due to academic dishonesty under Kelly. In sum, Kelly’s transactional leadership reinforced certain aspects of Notre Dame’s culture that favor winning above all else: human dignity and academic integrity; the very Catholic values the University of Notre Dame supposedly exists to perpetuate.
Ted Lasso shows us another way. A master of human psychology and soul-craft, Lasso leads via authentic selflessness and empathy for everyone around him — from his star player all the way down to his club’s equipment manager. His leadership style is to act as a figurative mirror for his team and organization, forcing his players and colleagues to see not just their own narrow self-interest, but the big picture and others involved. He recognizes the flawed human nature of himself and those around him but knows and trusts that at the end of the day, if he shows them how, even the rottenest among them will become decent human beings — and perform better and live better as a result. The outcome is infectious. The players benefit. The entire organization and wider community benefits. Even another country benefits when rising star Sam Obisanya mobilizes his team to protest the parent company of the team’s biggest sponsor, Cerithium Oil, for its crimes in his homeland of Nigeria.
Leaders’ actions always affect people across and beyond organizational pyramids, both directly and indirectly. It is the nature of the office, the nature of human psychology and the nature of human culture: we learn from and model our behavior after those above us more than we might admit. For this reason, organizations — especially those who claim to stand for something beyond their bottom line — should vet leaders for motive and moral alignment more than anything else. Obviously, talent and skillset must be thoroughly considered. But the short and long-term ramifications of having a talented, selfish leader at the top can be significant and affect organizations and their wider communities for years.
As I’ve contemplated Kelly’s legacy in the context of our beloved University’s unofficial but widely accepted motto, “God, Country, Notre Dame,” I keep coming back to the following questions: did we prioritize the preservation and status of the latter at the expense of the former during Kelly’s tenure? How deeply ingrained is Kelly’s transactional nature in our wider Notre Dame community, given what we tolerated for the sake of a winning football team (but still no national championship)? How did the decision to keep Kelly around amidst the controversies influence the character development of the future leaders Notre Dame aimed to educate for our country (and world at large) over the last 12 years — both inside and outside the football program?
Father Hesburgh once said, “If our lives in education have any meaning or significance, it will be in our reading of the times and in educating the young of our times in the visions and values that will civilize and make for reasonable human progress and lasting peace on earth.” Servant leaders — like Ted Lasso (and Marcus Freeman, from initial looks!) — understand the reality and necessity of this long-term vision, and practice their alternative way of being because they know how powerful it can be for both them and everyone around them. They have studied the human condition and know that lasting happiness and joy — the things we are all after in our short time on this struggling planet — do not come from serving the self, but from serving others. To lead and live this way — especially in the face of our win-at-all-cost culture — takes a notable amount of courage, humility, internal investigation and recognition of the bigger picture: what it means to be one in eight billion; what it means to exist in the context of generations to come; what it means to be part of something greater than our lonely little selves.
I think we will all be better off watching more Ted Lasso and less Brian Kelly. I am grateful for your character, Ted. We all need more of it.
2022 M.N.A. Candidate; 2012 B.A. Sociology
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.