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Need a model for empathetic management? Look to Ted Lasso

Ted Lasso isn’t just entertainment, it’s a masterclass on leadership in a multicultural setting. European leaders should take note

Apple TV+
Zaharenia Atzitzikaki

By Zaharenia Atzitzikaki

I’m sure I’m not the only one who constantly gets asked if they’re watching Ted Lasso. The award-winning TV series has managed to cut through the cynicism and brooding of the last couple of years. The eponymous hero, an earnest American college football coach, employs his deep knowledge of people to patiently turn around an English football team that was failing, hard.

There’s constantly a tension between straight-shooting American Ted and his cautious, cynical British colleagues. The show isn’t just entertainment, it’s a masterclass on leadership in a multicultural setting. And there are many ideas that European managers can adapt from Coach Lasso, especially as tech companies hire more global talent.

1/ Build trust by starting with small wins

“I do love a locker room. It smells like potential.”

When Ted first meets the team, everyone treats him like a joke. Who could be worse to coach a football team than an outsider that hasn’t even watched a single game? However, the first problem Ted solves for his team doesn’t have to do anything with football: he makes sure his players get better water pressure in the showers after hearing multiple complaints.

That is a stellar opening move for a new manager. European managers tend to be more rational and focused on problem-solving. They tend to see problems as complex systems, forgetting the negative impact of a single, repetitive annoyance. Fixing a papercut issue like this can help build trust with your team and pave the way for you to handle more significant matters.

2/ Empathy as a management tool

“You beating yourself up is like Woody Allen playing the clarinet. I don’t want to hear it.”

European managers are considered problem-solvers first and foremost, employing what’s called “rational” leadership. In contrast, American managers are expected to embody company values and rely on an emotional bond with their followers to inspire and lead.

Ted Lasso’s telltale empathy is evident from the moment he steps into the locker room. Even though he knows nothing about football, he finds common ground with his players and manages to cut through their initial cynicism and hostility. When faced with internal conflicts between players, he takes time to understand their motivations and needs. He then uses a personalised approach to solve their issues, knowing that a blanket approach to leadership won’t work.

3/ Praise publicly, criticise privately

“There’s two buttons I never like to hit: that’s panic and snooze.”

In Europe, we often fail to accept positive feedback gracefully. People tend to be sceptical and suspicious of praise, especially in a corporate environment, considering it manipulative.

Even if Ted admits that he does not know much about European football, he knows one thing: people respond better to praise than critique. Instead of berating or intimidating them, Ted often praises his players and assigns them stretch goals to improve their skills. On the other hand, he doesn’t hold back his correctional feedback. Still, he delivers it privately and empathetically, developing a growth mindset in the team.

4/ Make your cause visible

“Believe.”

European managers tend to be more hands-on with their teams, working alongside them to solve problems. We tend to scoff at inspirational posters and roll our eyes at the rally for self-improvement, so coaching is not our main focus.

Early in the series, when the team faces an impossible task, Ted writes “Believe” on a piece of paper and puts it on the locker room wall. That sign is met with jeers and becomes ridiculed, but Ted’s commitment to his cause turns the team around and inspires them to give their all to the upcoming challenges.

5/ Anyone can contribute ideas

“I shouldn’t bring an umbrella to a brainstorm.”

One of my favourite character arcs is that of Nate, the ball boy-turned-coaching assistant. Early in the series, Nate is stupefied when Ted shows interest in knowing him better. Little by little, Nate starts to open up and offers valuable advice to Ted because he knows the team and its problems better than anyone. Ted is always willing to hear Nate’s ideas and incorporate them into his strategy throughout the season.

As managers, we often focus on making all the decisions ourselves without asking for our team members’ help. However, your team could provide valuable insights and productive input, so you should give them the means to contribute to decision-making without asking for permission.

***

There’s a lot to learn from Ted Lasso’s open-hearted, transparent, empathetic approach to leadership. The compassion he shows to his team members, the way he handles conflicts, and his bottom-up approach is not only entertaining television. It’s an inspiring lessons for all managers.

Zaharenia Atzitzikaki is a design executive who was previously VP Design at Workable. 

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