Why CEOs need to be more like Ted Lasso

The popular TV show Ted Lasso depicts a haplessly optimistic American college football coach as he is hired to take over an English football (soccer) team. He needs to win over a team, fans, and a national audience. And he has no choice but to do it in his inimitable folksy and whimsical manner. But between the laughs, there is wisdom in Lasso’s philosophies.

I think that you might be so sure that you’re one in a million, that sometimes you forget that out there, you’re just one in 11.

In other words, good teammates can put ego to one side and focus on achieving success as a collective. This applies to almost anyone. But it especially applies to business leaders.

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Kindness not softness

For decades, many businesses saw a singular assertive type of leader emerge as the ideal candidate for senior management roles. But out of this grew toxic workplace cultures alongside unflinchingly pale and male leadership teams.

Now we know better. Today, leadership isn’t about shouting the loudest or being extremely direct. Modern organisations encourage and nurture new forms of leadership and people who look and sound like the society their businesses navigate – placing a keen focus on the adoption of thoughtful management based on warmth, empathy and kindness. More Ted Lasso than Miranda Priestly.

That doesn’t mean some principles of old no longer have a place. Instead, they need to ensure they are meeting the demands of the modern workforce. Those in leadership positions do not exist in a vacuum, and when the world moves on, they must too.

Ted Lasso shows us that true leadership starts with empathy, and that kindness is not the same as softness. It’s about putting yourself in someone’s shoes – reacting to and encouraging different traits and personalities to bring them to the fore. If we create any culture of uniformity, overcompetitiveness or blame, then we’re stifling kindness, progress and productivity.

More progressive approaches are proving more productive too. At the start of my career in advertising, agencies were macho cultures based on the alpha male attitude of the creative department, which originated and produced the actual advertising. But despite the popularity of Mad Men, these environments are no longer appropriate, or effective. Especially in an industry that is making headway to find a greater diversity balance, of people and thought.

Despite this, there is still a pervading sense from more ‘hard nosed’ business types that warmth, kindness and empathy are characteristics of weak leadership. That what’s needed to drive teams forward is a no-nonsense alpha approach from the CEO.

But this is not the case. If you need to resort to fear to motivate teams, you are not a leader.

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Addressing bias leads to greater empathy

Leadership positions can put us in front of an uncomfortable mirror. These mirrors are good at revealing biases – even ones we didn’t know we had – and they, whether conscious or unconscious can lead to less empathy.

Biases influence our behaviours and decision making constantly, but it is those that are unacknowledged or unnoticed that are dangerous. With knowledge comes power, and with awareness comes action. The more we understand what we think and why, the better we become to recognise our biases and challenge our thinking.

More than anyone else in an organisation, leaders must be more hyper-aware of their own biases. Only by addressing these can they begin to build the empathetic and inclusive work culture demanded by today’s workforce.

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Build positive experiences

People at work now want their leaders to do more in terms of creating ‘shared identity’, meaningful interactions and, above all, providing a fulfilling experience that allows them to grow and express themselves fully, according to 2021 McKinsey research on ‘The Great Attrition’.

To support this, it’s not only about financial incentives such as better pay and bonuses (though these are always welcome), but mainly the ability to create cultures that facilitate advanced collaboration that encourage individual development.

For instance, at VMLY&R, we’ve worked hard on combining groups of people that you’d never have put together in another context, creating exciting moments of overlap, combinations, and friction. We also work to ensure teams have autonomy, giving them the right tools to grow and develop their careers.

These ways of working not only foster creativity and build a more collaborative and positive experience for everyone involved, but they help build a business’ competitive advantage.

The key to the success of this culture is empathy and equity – and this comes from the top.

I favour working amongst my employees, swapping a personal office for a collaborative desk space. It allows me to embed myself within my team and create an environment where we can share ideas and stories about our families and personal lives. It’s about coming together and building genuine human connections.

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Business leaders are important pieces of a puzzle. But they can’t let ego and bias cloud their vision. As Ted Lasso notes, even the club captain is just ‘one of the eleven on the field’.




This article was originally published in CEO Today.

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