Be Curious, Not Judgmental: A Leadership Lesson From Ted Lasso
Apr 8, 2022
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Most people have heard of the hit Apple TV+ series, Ted Lasso, in which an American football coach is exported to the U.K. to manage a British football team. In a particularly moving scene from the show, the protagonist Ted and the antagonist Rupert—the vindictive former owner of the team—place a significant wager on a game of darts. Taking his final turn at the board, Ted shares the following leadership lesson. “Guys have underestimated me my entire life and for years I never understood why – it used to really bother me. Then one day I was driving my little boy to school, and I saw a quote by Walt Whitman, it was painted on the wall there and it said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ I like that.” (Ted throws a dart.) “So, I get back in my car and I’m driving to work and all of a sudden it hits me – all them fellas that used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. You know, they thought they had everything all figured out, so they judged everything, and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me – who I was had nothing to do with it. Because if they were curious, they would’ve asked questions. Questions like, ‘Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?’” (Ted throws another dart.) “To which I would have answered, ‘Yes sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age ten until I was 16 when he passed away.’ Barbecue sauce.” (Ted throws a double bullseye to win the game.) MORE FOR YOU
What you might not remember about this scene is its opening—when Rupert asks, “Do you like darts, Ted?” and Ted answers, “Oh, they’re okay.” This question and the corresponding answer leave Rupert to infer that Ted is a novice dart player even though Ted’s an expert. Rupert’s question is close-ended—one that has a limited number of responses. Most close-ended questions are considered weak because their answers are more likely to narrow a discussion than expand it. If Rupert were deeply curious about Ted’s expertise, he would have asked a broader question that invited Ted to expand upon his experience playing darts. In fact, Ted suggested that very question at the scene’s close, “Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?” Even though Ted’s suggested question is closed-ended, it is broader than Rupert’s original question. Still, an open-ended question that was generated from a place of curiosity would have been much more powerful. The power of open-ended questions lies in their ability to withhold judgment and invite curiosity. Open-ended questions allow responders to take the conversation in one of many directions and allow them to choose the direction that is most meaningful to them. Not only are open-ended questions more powerful than close-ended ones, but some open-ended questions are more powerful than other open-ended ones. The power pyramid for questions helps us understand this hierarchy. In 2003, Vogt, Brown and Isaacs defined the power pyramid for questions in their work titled The Art of Powerful Questions . These authors deemed questions at the bottom of the pyramid less powerful than those at the top. Questions with less power start with the word which or have yes or no answers. The pyramid then climbs in this order of questions starting with: who, when or where; what; how; and finally, why is at the top. If Rupert had used this power pyramid, what questions might he have posed to Ted in this scene? Rupert might have moved up one level of the pyramid and asked: When is the last time that you played darts, Ted? Ted’s answer about the recency of his dart skills may give Rupert powerful information. Rupert might have moved up two levels and asked: What’s your best score in a dart game, Ted? Ted’s best score may give Rupert more powerful information, even if Ted’s best score has little to do with his typical score. Rupert might have moved up three levels and asked: How good of a dart player are you, Ted? Ted’s answer about his consistency of play—as a novice, expert or somewhere in between—may offer Rupert even more powerful information. Rupert might have then moved to the top of the pyramid and asked: Why do you play darts, Ted? Why questions can be tricky, given that some why questions are perceived by the respondent as curious, and others are perceived as judgmental. The listener’s perception often depends upon the assumptions behind the question and the tone in which the question is delivered. When asked from a place of judgment, a why question can shut down the conversation. When asked from a place of genuine curiosity, a why question can elicit the most powerful information. In Ted’s case, a why question may have sparked a conversation about the deeper meaning or purpose behind Ted’s dart game. For example, Ted may play darts because the game reminds him of spending “every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with [his] father” or because he likes to win. Either of these answers may have offered Rupert valuable information about what to do next. What do Ted, Rupert and darts have to do with leadership? Like many of the lessons in Ted Lasso, it is quite simple. Leaders need to question their questions—ask what you can do to make your questions more powerful. Use this pyramid of questions to inform your own leadership. Powerful questions come from a place of curiosity, not judgment. And when leaders lead with curiosity, remarkable things happen.