Do you remember the TV series The Office? The American series aired in 2005, ran a total of 201 episodes, won several awards, and surely made it to the list of favourites for many viewers. Probably echoing the perceptions of many, I would argue that the series was indeed quite entertaining and funny, especially because we could all relate so well to the depicted characters and situations. The latter naturally allowed for reflections and take-away messages, especially in the leadership domain. Michael Scott, played by Steve Carrell in the series, is a great impersonation for several Don’ts of leadership, isn’t he? 🙂
Although learning from bad practice is very useful, it seems that the TV industry has recently provided us with an even better learning opportunity – a straightforward leadership masterclass by Ted Lasso. The eponymous series follows an American football coach Ted, who relocates to England, London, to coach local soccer team AFC Richmond. The series is a well-executed comedy-drama, which is about sports, relationships, teams, and characters… Yet, stemming from my academic interest, I see Ted Lasso series foremost as a story of leadership in a multicultural environment, where ‘multi’ signifies both, multiple layers of culture and multiple origins of culture. Indeed, right from the beginning Ted encounters the challenge of leading a team of players with different cultural origins, in a sport he doesn’t understand well (the new culture of sports), and in a country in which he doesn’t fit (the national culture of England). If it would have been a proper process of expatriation, Ted would have arrived to his new job in the new destination with several hours of cultural awareness and cultural intelligence training behind his back. Moreover, upon arrival, he would be supported by a local mentor, provided with all the necessary information, and received in a friendly manner by the team… As you might already sense, if it would have been so well-planned and easy, the show wouldn’t be so funny, engaging, and popular. Without spoiling it for you, there are abundant moments of culture clash and cultural mistakes. Luckily for the curious viewer, there is also an ongoing display of adaptation, coping, progress, and specific leadership tips.
What is it that every leader in a multicultural context could learn from Ted Lasso then?
- “Be curious, not judgemental”!
It is Ted’s curiosity, his courage not to know, to admit mistakes, and to be corrected and taught by the people he leads. In his striving to connect with people and understand them better, Ted immerses himself in the new culture, asking questions, observing, and listening. He also actively solicits feedback and suggestions for improvement. For example, he introduces an anonymous suggestion box to the team, launches a ‘biscuits with the boss’ initiative, and practices shared lunch dates. Coach Lasso is a great demonstration of what Adam Grant terms confident humility and Brené Brown celebrates as courage to be vulnerable. Specific to the cultural context, academics would describe Ted’s characteristics with a concept of cultural humility, which entails self-awareness, respect towards other cultures, openness and willingness to learn from other cultures, or what my colleague Tsedal Neeley and I recently termed downward deference, the practice of lowering oneself to be equal to lower power individuals in a context where you lack expertise, networks and influence.
- Ted shows us how to be an authentically inclusive leader
The series is not just funny, it is also a perfect candidate for the ‘feel good’ category of TV production. Indeed, the viewer quickly becomes part of the kind and inclusive environment created by the folksy and optimistic American. Ted Lasso gradually wins over the team by making everyone feel that they matter, by appreciating the differences, by believing that everyone’s ideas matter. Indeed, Ted is quite explicit about such inclusion: “I want you to know, I value each of your opinions, even when you’re wrong.” Research on multicultural diversity reinforces Ted’s way, because in a positive and cohesive team environment, diversity may benefit the team outcomes through more perspectives, more solutions, and more creativity.
- Ted’s leadership is about empathy and compassion
I believe that after watching the series, it is only natural to want to become more like Lasso (within bounds;-). It is natural to feel good about being good to and with other people. Yet, empathy and compassion are more than nice-to-have or feel-good soft skills. Research on leadership, and specifically global leadership, indicates that empathy is a crucial part of cross-cultural communication and a required skills for global leaders. Also, a growing body of research builds a strong case for compassion at work and in business. In compassionate climates people feel valued and they increase attachment, commitment, and gratitude towards the organization. What’s more, compassionate people are perceived more strongly as leaders. No wonder Ted wins over his team—and his audience…
In The Office, when asked about his leadership, the boss Michael Scott says: “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” I seriously doubt that many of us would appreciate the Michael Scott types that are out there… yet, after being through with just the first season of Ted Lasso, I am already afraid of how much I love him 🙂