'Be a goldfish' and 16 more Ted Lasso lessons for hospital leaders

Executives looking for a way to enhance their own leadership style need look no further than Apple TV's Ted Lasso. Disguised as a show about a British football team, the series just might be a master class in leadership and management that could up any healthcare C-suite member's game.

Ted Lasso chronicles the roller coaster of wins and losses of a soccer team managed by a very unlikely fish-out-of-water guy from Kansas. He doesn't like tea and gets constantly hung up on the differences between American and U.K. English. He's not even a great soccer team manager; the team loses far more than it wins.

But a closer look and listen to the show, which also follows the ups and downs of the team's back office and characters' personal lives, reveals that game-changing leadership lessons can come from those you would least expect.

For example, how often do you find yourself frustrated with something or someone and ruminate about it for far too long? Ted Lasso's advice? Be a goldfish. Don't allow one bad deed to define who you are. Think about it for less than 10 seconds and then forget about it — like a goldfish.

Becker's spoke with several hospital executives — not all of whom watch the show, but it doesn't matter — who said "Ted Lasso's Lessons in Leadership" truly resonate with them.

Here, 16 healthcare leaders comment on Ted Lasso lessons they believe has affected their own leadership style.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Lesson 1: Lead with empathy.

Christine Albert. Chief Experience Officer at LCMC Health (New Orleans): Empathetic leaders encourage diverse viewpoints, promote open communication and ensure that everyone's voice is heard. 

By incorporating empathy into our culture, our leaders create a positive and inclusive work environment, foster strong relationships and, ultimately, enhance the experiences of our patients. This approach improves teamwork, creativity, innovation and drives greater engagement, productivity and success within our organization. It enables us to deliver better services and better experiences to our patients, their families and the communities we serve.

Lesson 2: Being vulnerable doesn't make you weak.

Frank Beaman. CEO of Faith Community Hospital (Jacksboro, Texas): When I started at this hospital, the place was in bad shape. The community had a love/hate relationship with both the hospital and the only doctor in town. But it was all they had. I knew that if we were going to change things, I'd have to be the frontman. Many people didn't want anything to change. They didn't want a new leader and they were negative about everything. I faced considerable skepticism from many in the community.

I became vulnerable in an effort to prove change was necessary. To the extent of making myself vulnerable, I actually published my cell phone number. And I told people, "I'm the guy. If you have a problem, you need to call me."

If you are vulnerable, you're willing to take responsibility. If you have a weak personality and you are not an optimist, you may not be able to handle the vulnerability. It might make you curl up in a corner or make you hide from the situation. That's a recipe for disaster. On the contrary, if you make yourself vulnerable and embrace the challenges, you're going to come out on top.

Lesson 3: Optimism is infectious.

Michael Dowling. President and CEO of Northwell Health (New Hyde Park, N.Y.): I'm an eternal optimist by nature. Being positive isn’t a skill that you learn; it's a lifestyle. Positivity and optimism stem from leadership. As a leader, you must exude genuine confidence about the future. You need to have the courage to persistently believe tomorrow will be better. Resolve to beat the odds. Have hope that is not bashful, conditional or manufactured. 

You have to be realistic; you can't go around with a religious fervor. You have to balance reality with optimism. Yes, today's tough, but tomorrow will be better. You don't give oxygen to despair. Who wants to follow someone like that? You need to give oxygen to hope.

Lesson 4: Doing the right thing is never the wrong thing.

Greg Feirn. CEO of LCMC Health (New Orleans): At LCMC Health, doing the right thing is essential to our mission and we take pride in leading with health, care and education beyond extraordinary. We emphasize treating people like family — allowing us to show true compassion and providing that little something extra to our patients and families in the communities we serve. 

When making decisions, I am always mindful and take accountability in asking myself, "Is this the right thing?" That thought process allows me to take ownership of tough decisions and set a positive example for others. As healthcare leaders, it is critical that we always consider the potential long-term consequences of our actions, rather than focusing solely on short-term gains. 

Lesson 5: Winning and losing aren't everything.

Patrick Frias, MD. President and CEO of Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego: There's little room for egos when you are making decisions that impact the lives of children. While "winning" a debate with your colleagues may seem satisfying at the moment, it may ultimately be a hollow victory if the children in your care don't benefit. 

My leadership style looks at every decision through the lens of "what is best for the kids?" I'm happy to adjust my point of view if it becomes clear that a different approach better serves our patients and families. 

An example of this comes from the pandemic. Like most healthcare systems, our finances were under pressure and the future was uncertain. Could we afford to continue staffing our hospital and clinics and provide the highest level of care? We considered a number of options, but ultimately settled on the approach that was summed up best by our board chair: "Just remember these two things: Take care of the kids in our community and take care of our employees. Everything else will work out after it's done." We didn't cut staff or services; we weathered the storm, and in the end, we were all winners.

Lesson 6: Optimists take more chances.

Robert Garrett. President and CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health (Edison, N.J.): I definitely believe optimists take more chances and their attitude can inspire others. Being an optimist is especially helpful in times of uncertainty, such as during the COVID pandemic. As a leader, it was imperative to have hope and confidence about the future, especially when our teams were challenged like never before. 

With a positive outlook and vision, you can see the big picture and remain focused regardless of challenges or roadblocks that can seem insurmountable at times. 

A great example of this is my dream of opening a school of medicine. Why? You can't make all improvements necessary to remodel a flawed American healthcare system at the point of care. You have to instill a new way of learning with a far more expansive view of health and healthcare. It took more than a dozen years for my dream to reach fruition — and a few harrowing moments to keep on course — but it has been one of the most satisfying and epic gambles I have ever taken. 

Lesson 7: Everyone differs from everyone else.

Sonja LaBarbera. President and CEO at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare (Wallingford, Conn.): As a practicing speech-language pathologist for nearly two decades, I have had the pleasure of getting to know my patients — their families, their hobbies, their likes and dislikes. I also had the opportunity to partner with them as people first — and patients second. 

Early on, I discovered that each patient's recovery journey is unique, and that by leveraging people's individuality and discovering their motivations and goals, I could create customized care plans that resulted in optimal recoveries and clinical outcomes.

As a leader, I still apply those tools and that way of thinking daily. I work to build rapport and relationships, knowing that everyone I encounter views the world around them differently.

No single person has all the answers and it's important to surround yourself with people who can provide fresh perspectives from their own unique angles. Leveraging the different viewpoints of your staff — and embracing their individuality — often results in discovering the most innovative solutions to the toughest challenges.

Lesson 8: Embrace change.

Mel Lagarde. Chief Strategy and Growth Officer at LCMC Health (New Orleans): Healthcare is a calling that draws leaders who not only have to embrace change but also view it as an opportunity rather than a threat. We see change daily within healthcare and that is never more present than the last few years. Healthcare leaders must be open-minded, adaptable and proactive in navigating and responding to changes in the business environment. 

My ability to embrace change has had several effects on my personal leadership style. Change often brings opportunities for innovation and creativity — especially in the healthcare industry. Leaders who embrace change encourage their teams to think outside the box, challenge the status quo and generate new ideas. They foster an environment that encourages experimentation and risk-taking, which can lead to breakthrough innovations and competitive advantage.

We have seen a lot of young talent and executives joining the organization. It has been inspiring to see the enthusiasm, passion and new perspective that they bring to this work. By embracing this change, it has allowed us to evolve and move the system forward.

Lesson 9: Empowerment breeds confidence.

David Levine, MD. Chief Medical Officer at Fisher-Titus Health (Norwalk, Ohio): As a young leader with a new job as medical director of a large emergency department, I knew I was facing the challenge of "saving" a contract that had been given six months to improve or be terminated. The pressure I felt was enormous. But I was confident and embraced the challenge.

Shortly after the transition, I began to understand the dynamics of the team and appreciated the differences between the providers. Two providers really struck me as opposites. One was a very good clinician but was arrogant and clearly believed he was the best doctor on the team. However, he had very poor documentation and even worse patient experience scores. The other provider (Tim), was family practice-trained but felt insecure about his role on the team since he was not emergency medicine-trained. He had very solid clinical skills, a magnetic personality that the nurses and patients loved him.

After several weeks in the role, I approached Tim for his advice and asked him to help lead our throughput project. He had the respect of the nurses and understood what was needed. He was able to offer some very actionable solutions and engage the team in a way that they welcomed the changes. Tim's confidence was part of the catalyst that caused this change.

Lesson 10: Winning is an attitude.

Manuel Linares. President and CEO at Touro Infirmary (New Orleans): Our goal is to be the best hospital in New Orleans. Having and showing a winning attitude builds confidence and motivation in others and helps us reach that goal. By displaying unwavering self-belief and enthusiasm, you inspire others to push their limits and aim for higher levels of achievement. Leaders who promote the "winning is an attitude" philosophy often foster a positive and optimistic work environment —  a priority especially in healthcare as we experience high rates of burnout and turnover. 

This culture creates a space where challenges are seen as opportunities, and individuals are empowered to take risks and think creatively to achieve success. For any healthcare entity to be sustainable, we must look for innovative solutions to improve operations and patient care models that challenge the norms. By encouraging out-of-the-box thinking, we can implement new processes and procedures to strengthen our organization.

Lesson 11: Humor cuts through tension

David Marshall, DNP. Chief Nursing Executive at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (Los Angeles): Humor is often overlooked as a leadership trait, but it can be a powerful tool. As a new leader at Cedars-Sinai in 2019, I had big shoes to fill following Linda Burnes Bolton, DrPH, RN. I used humor to break the ice and make others feel comfortable around me. I used dad jokes, made self-deprecating comments and showed a willingness to laugh at myself.

I think humor has helped me build relationships as a leader. I take time to get to know my direct reports, and I use humor to build relationships with them. I joke around with them, tease them and show a genuine interest in their lives outside of work. This helps to create a sense of camaraderie and trust.

Throughout my nursing career, I have used humor to diffuse tension. I can remember a variety of tense situations throughout my career. I have never lost my sense of humor, even in the most tense situations. I have used humor to lighten the mood and to help co-workers, patients and family members relax.

Lesson 12: Courage is the willingness to attempt.

James Matney. President and CEO of Colquitt Regional Medical Center (Moultrie, Ga.): Over my life, I've been willing to try new things, new technology or new service lines. We embarked on establishing a new family medicine residency. This is the first new residency in 20 years for the region. What's unique about this is we are a 99-bed hospital located in a rural area of Southwest Georgia. We also started a psychiatry residency. 

Both of these were an attempt to meet the needs of the people in our community. When I told people we were going to start a family medicine residency, many folks laughed. I had the courage to go ahead and start this. One of my favorite quotes is from George Bernard Shaw:  "Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?"

Lesson 13: Nobody is bigger than the team.

Danielle McCamey, DNP. Founder and CEO of DNPs of Color and Assistant Dean of Clinical Practice and Relationships at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing (Baltimore): Being a leader will humble you in so many ways. Sometimes you think you have it all figured out. Sometimes you think you can do it all. And, then, WHAM! Something or someone brings you back down to reality. These are humbling moments.

I'm sure we all know the age-old phrase "there is no 'I' in team," which is undeniably true. Life, the daily grind of work and various obligations create demands on our time and energy but also cultivates the many layers of experience and expertise we develop over time. It seems like post-pandemic life has underscored the value and importance of meeting our mission in life is much more effective when we do it together. We are humans with a variety of lived experiences and lived expertise that creates so many depths and layers to us that are not always uncovered at our workplaces. 

When we truly embrace that nobody is bigger than the team, we can effectively work to make each other better. Ultimately, at the end of the day, that is all that really matters. 

Lesson 14 : Be self-aware and genuine. A truly authentic leader doesn't have the time or the inclination to be anyone but themselves.

Dennis Pullin. President and CEO of Virtua Health (Marlton, N.J.): Effective leadership requires being your authentic self. There will always be detractors and people who disagree with your approach, but if you show up with authenticity and conviction, you establish yourself as reliable, consistent and well-suited for the responsibility of leadership.

Lesson 15: Don't dwell on mistakes or let them define you.

Janie Schumaker, BSN, RN. CEO at the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing: When I was a very new nurse, I made a mistake with medication. Thankfully, there was no harm to my patient. However, I was mortified and certain that I was the worst nurse ever. I went to my leader immediately with my mistake. That leader helped me understand how important it is to own up to a mistake, learn from it, not repeat it and move on. That was 30 years ago and I have never forgotten it. This was a defining moment for me in my career. 

While no one wants to make a mistake, it does happen. I am a firm believer that leaders must be supportive of their team members and create a culture where people feel safe to own mistakes and share learnings and not let the mistake define them. This is how we learn and how we help others learn. Making a mistake is probably one of the best teachers out there. 

Lesson 16: Stay teachable.

Emily Sedgwick, MD. President and Chief Executive Officer of University Medical Center (New Orleans): Getting to know the team members, hearing their perspectives and understanding how I can be of service to them is a daily habit for me. We've made daily rounds mandatory for our clinical and nonclinical leaders so they can learn from the team. The resounding feedback is that it's not only a highlight of their day but mitigates burnout. By staying "teachable," I am inspired by the work of our team members every day.

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