Last month we were treated to the final seasons of two monumental television series—Succession (HBO/Binge) and Ted Lasso (Apple TV). These shows offer depictions of leadership which could not be further apart; two manifestations of leadership for audiences to ponder as we face complex societal challenges. While Succession is a dystopian drama, centred around the untouchables at the centre of a family-owned media conglomerate, Ted Lasso is a manifesto by the type of leader we need, to reset and recreate a regenerative, sustainable, and just economy.
Success and Other Tyrannies
Succession follows Logan Roy, the aging oligarch of a fictional corporate and media empire. It takes four twisted seasons of Machiavellian moves and narcissistic mayhem before it is revealed who will succeed Logan Roy. This is car-crash television at its finest; the decadent and vacuous family, the grotesque manipulations, and corrupt, ego-driven tycoons all make you want to look away. Succession’s backdrop of palatial privilege, within which ‘excess’ does not exist, is incredulous. Characters charter private planes to go ‘see mum’ and enlist assistants to be sycophantic support or carry their wallets and handbags. You keep watching, even as each episode descends further into an abyss of fetishised-growth and self-destructive entitlement. Succession is a contradiction, a parable for early 21st-century hyper-capitalism, a comedy dressed as a drama. The show is our chance to laugh at a family-owned media conglomerate, and share the thrill that the makers have not been sued for defamation.
The Roy family embodies the deep contradictions of capitalist individualism. The family are destined to a life of misery despite their inherited wealth and power. They symbolise material success, influence, and status but are crippled by insecurity, self-delusion, and bastardry.
21st-Century Capitalism: A Big Mac of Wicked Problems
Like the character he is based on, Rupert Murdoch, Logan Roy is an on-screen manifestation of the self-made entrepreneur trope, a man at the top of the industry food-chain, contemplating his legacy. Despite the real-life narratives of success which often accompany immeasurable wealth, Logan Roy’s family exemplify the intergenerational sacrifices made in the hyper-masculine pursuit of money and power. Relationships have become transactional, tempestuous, and traumatic. Economic gain is paramount and elevated in importance by the Big Mac of contemporary wicked problems—insecurity and fear, the loss of social cohesion, climate change and the ecological crisis, culture wars, modern slavery, growth-fetishism, hyper-consumerism, extractive and exploitative tactics, and growing inequality.
Wicked problems are complex social policy problems societies face which require systemic change to be solved, and cannot be successfully addressed with the linear analytical approaches and isolated initiatives traditionally favoured by governments (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007); Rittel and Webber, 1973). While the range of problems that are classified ‘wicked’ are quite diverse, they all share the same characteristics:
- Multiple causes
- Many interdependencies
- Different groups/people with different understandings of what the primary problem is
- Different groups/people with conflicting goals
- No clear solution
- Attempts to address issues often leads to unforeseen consequences due to their multi-causality and interdependency
- Adaptation, because of interdependency changes to one part of the problem can have unforeseen consequences for other parts of the problem
- Context specific (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007).
In Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism, prominent economist Mariana Mazzucato advocates for a mission-oriented policy framework which enables governments to mobilise a wide variety of innovative efforts that are under the umbrella of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Mazzucato, 2022). The celebrated move from Corporate Social Responsibility to SDGs is improving transparency and enabling organisations from government to business and not-for-profits to act with unprecedented uniformity, convergence and collaboration in efforts to tackle wicked problems. However, more work is needed by scholars and practitioners to steward systemic change and evaluate collective impact.
Dr Sharon Zivkovic, Australian pioneer in complex systems theory and social entrepreneurship, offers a beacon of hope. Zivkovic has developed a framework which enables communities to create systemic change (2015). This framework includes five focus areas for increasing the coherence and adaptive capacity of ecosystems, aligned with the “now well understood path” that supports the emergence of new ways of working (Forgues and Thietart, 2011). These new ways of working require new – adaptive, distributed and generative – leadership models which emplace complexity to increase system coherence, function, and performance.
Ted Lasso: Leadership but Not as We Know It
Since 2020, viewers have been offered an antidote to the toxicity of Logan Roy, in the form of Ted Lasso—a mustachioed college football coach from Kansas sent to lead a fictional English soccer team. While the organisational context may appear trivial, Lasso’s leadership style encapsulates the characteristics of leadership that Zivkovic emphasises as essential for tackling wicked problems and enabling systemic change (2015). Lasso’s character is complex and fluid, embodying many leadership roles at once. Before turning to Zivkovic’s analysis, let us first consider three common leadership styles, how they relate to systemic change, and how we can observe these traits in the characters of Logan Roy and Ted Lasso.
Distributed leadership fuels collaboration, engagement, and collective responsibility from multiple stakeholders (groups or people) across different levels and sectors. Lichtenstein and Plowman’s “leadership of emergence” creates conditions for adaptive responses and emergent solutions in complex contexts (2009). Distributing leadership roles and creating a culture of participation and enablement requires apex leaders to give up their traditional structural authority.
We see this style of leadership reflected in Ted Lasso’s character, who never presents as an expert or wise leader. He seeks out and listens to advice from all areas including from Nate, ‘the kit man’. This leap of faith from Ted fast-tracks Nate’s career and he becomes a Premier League manager at a rival club by the end of the season. Nate’s progress was viewed as treachery by most, but Lasso shows quiet pride and even takes his son to watch Nate’s team play. In contrast, Logan Roy is tyrannical with a thrill for blood. The constant refrain, “What would Logan Roy do?” by Logan’s underlings, is symptomatic of his power and synonymous with “win at all costs”. In other words, Roy’s leadership style perpetuates itself and radiates out to other characters.
Distributed leadership models are vital to embrace the complexity inherent in wicked problems. It enables roles and responses to be adaptive and emergent, instead of shaped by hierarchy, power or privilege. Distributed leadership nurtures creativity and resilience and harnesses the strengths of the collective, thereby avoiding the paralysis and question at the heart of Succession–who will succeed Logan Roy?
Adaptive leadership is crucial to address wicked problems; systemic change requires organisations and communities to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and complex social dynamics. As noted above, a characteristic of wicked problems is that they are multi-faceted, interdependent and adaptive because changes to one part of a system or problem can have unforeseen consequences in other parts. Adaptive leadership embraces the complex reality and establishes an enabling environment where emergent, informal adaptive dynamics are fueled by creative and learning interactions and not by top-down power, privilege or authority (Uhl-Bien, 2008; Snowden and Boone, 2007).
Adaptive leadership is about addressing complex adaptive challenges by mobilising people to take on new behaviours and attitudes. Immediately on Lasso’s arrival, he creates disquiet by adopting an enabling leadership style that disrupts the status quo and creates opportunities for learning and new, unanticipated outcomes. For example, Ted Lasso’s side-lining of the young—talented but egotistical—striker, Jamie Tartt, enables the team to adjust and believe in a new team-oriented strategy. Tartt’s journey over the course of three seasons is a story of individual and collective adaptation and emergence. Tartt’s nemesis, the aging and angry Roy Kent, represents the conservative who thrives on command-and-control dynamics and struggles to adapt to a rapidly changing club. Kent’s is another tale of transformative leadership that creates moments of unexpected tenderness in a hyper-masculine and patriarchal world.
Adaptive leadership embraces complexity and provides stewardship to guide change in the preferred direction (for example, gender equality, regenerative economies and green industries). Like distributed leadership, adaptive leadership does not limit but thrives on agency, autonomy and creativity. Indeed, adaptive leadership anticipates the inevitable tensions that arise as people with distributed power and people from top-down hierarchies are required to work together to respond to complex challenges. Adaptive leadership is vital to steward society towards a just transition on wicked problems. For example, environmental challenges – climate change, regenerative food systems, urbanisation and economic disruption from green technology – are wicked problems that do not have a single narrative, anchor or catalyst for change. To steward change in the preferred direction, environmental challenges will require adaptive responses and leadership over time (decades or generations) and across diverse places and contexts.
Generative leadership fosters collaboration, creativity and innovation, and the leveraging of collective intelligence to address complex problems (Goldstein et al, 2010). Uhl-Bien et. al.’s “complexity leadership theory” (2008) is a pioneering framework for understanding the dynamics of leadership in complex adaptive systems. Consistent with regenerative leadership frameworks, Lasso creates network linkages, frames issues to match diverse perspectives, and creates open forums to assist the sharing and processing of information and ideas.
Ted Lasso provides countless examples of generative leadership: the journey of Isaac McAdoo, a new captain’s struggle with anxiety to renewed love of the game; the character of Colin who comes out to his team mates at half-time and who accept his sexuality (still yet to happen in Australian male football/soccer/rugby); to Ted’s ‘Diamond Dogs’ a workplace support group “for men who care”, where vulnerability is a strength not a weakness.
Solving wicked problems requires collective action, experimentation, cross-sector partnerships and the integration of diverse perspectives and resources. Generative leadership drives systemic change by creating a safe, creative, and motivating environment that aligns personal values with organisational and community goals. In Ted Lasso, we observe a diffusion of leadership throughout the organisation, and the establishment of an inclusive, enabling and generative culture that ultimately delivers on-field success (finishing second in the final season).
Beyond Ted Lasso: How do we Harness Leadership for Systemic Change?
Ted Lasso echoes key arguments by complex systems leadership theorists. Under the commonly used umbrella concepts of distributed, adaptive and generative leadership, I have drawn on Ted Lasso to illuminate Lichtenstein and Plowman's (2009) leadership of emergence, Snowden and Boone's (2007) tools for managing in a complex context, Surie and Hazy's (2006), Goldstein’s (2010) generative leadership, and Uhl-Bien’s (2008) complexity leadership theory. By contrast, Logan Roy is a collaboration killer. He is unflinching and even gleeful using his economic and political resources to manufacture culture wars and causing mental harm to his own children.
Zivkovic has argued that complex systems training programs alone are insufficient to achieve systemic change, and I believe the same can be said of leadership programs and stories of role-models like Ted Lasso (2019).
The complex systems’ leadership theories outlined above—distributed leadership, adaptive leadership, and generative leadership—were examined by Zivkovic to design five Focus Areas for systemic change: 1) create a disequilibrium state, 2) amplify action, 3) encourage self-organization, 4) stabilize feedback and 5) enable information flows (2015). They offer a space for emerging leaders to explore and become active. To assist emerging leaders, the social enterprise Wicked Lab has created an online diagnostic tool, and capacity building programs, to enable leaders to simplify complex strategies, making them visual and measurable.
Wicked Lab has begun applying Zivkovic’s framework to a variety of complex societal challenges from disaster resilience to local greening initiatives in South Australia, from local anti-racism initiatives in regional England to Moving Feast, a network of food focussed social enterprises in Victoria (Wicked Lab, 2023). In 2018, Edith Cowan University partnered with the Public Health Advocacy Institute of Western Australia (WA) and Wicked Lab to establish a pilot project to address food security in the rural south-west region of WA. The project evaluation found that 25 changes had occurred throughout the region (Wicked Lab, 2022a), and that the project:
- helped to raise awareness of food security in the region
- enabled participants to see themselves as part of a solution ecosystem and
- highlighted to participants how they could contribute to the system.
Based on the success of the pilot, Edith Cowan University secured funding from the WA Government to expand the project state-wide (Wicked Lab, 2022b).
Wicked Lab’s globally celebrated framework delivers our playbook for systemic change. By following a new model of leadership that is inclusive, enabling and generative, and which mobilises networks and collaborations across each of the Focus Areas, we can create coherence, and the adaptive capacity required to achieve systemic change. Wicked Lab’s community of practice and learning programs are inclusive and safe places for all people wanting to create deep, lasting change. Connect with like-minded people to explore how you can make a difference at www.wickedlab.co.