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The Archetypal Empathic Leader

What can we learn from Ted Lasso?

Key points

  • Ted Lasso is an amalgamation of successful leaders in sports and follows a line of American coaches with an empathic approach.
  • A successful sports coach on TV has to be empathic to be believable.
  • Empathic teams are cohesive and full of athletes reaching their potential.
Apple TV+
Source: Apple TV+

Throughout my work in elite sport, head coaches have offered examples of archetypal empathic leaders. The media often mentions Gareth Southgate, England’s football head coach, Liverpool FC’s Jurgen Klopp, and American basketball coach Steve Kerr. The larger-than-life head coach of the fictional English football team, AFC Richmond, proposed a new candidate.

“Yes sir, Steve Kerr.” —Ted Lasso

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht once suggested that if art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors. Fittingly, many of us have been screen-mirroring episodes of AppleTV+’s "Ted Lasso" from our iPhones to our TVs. We go to such bother because Ted Lasso is worth it. Once we have met him, we just want more. Ted’s personality is infectious, and spending time with him makes us feel good. He is funny, enthusiastic, and charismatic. More than that, Ted is honest, authentic, caring, and highly empathic. And so, it came as no surprise when Ted Lasso was suggested to me as the archetypal empathic leader.

Pete Carroll

Although there’s plenty of the German Jurgen Klopp about him, the character of Ted Lasso is very much American and emanates from a line of empathic leaders in American Sports. A famous early adopter of an empathic leadership style during the first decade of this century was Pete Carroll, a successful American Football coach from the University of Southern California (USC). Carroll won seven NCAA championships in a row and broke records for being ranked the number one College team for the longest time before having more success with the Seattle Seahawks. It became evident that the time was right for empathic leadership in sport. In his book, Win Forever, Carroll claimed that anyone pursuing such an approach any earlier would have been “laughed right out of the locker room.”

Carroll says that his style was influenced by the psychological theories of Maslow in Toward a Psychology of Being (1961) and Gallwey’s Inner Skiing. He focused on building solid relationships and instilled an open-door policy to athletes, which he believed helped develop a positive mentality throughout the team. Carroll explained that this also provided him with valuable information: “It is through the strength of my relationships with my players that I gain insight into how to guide and challenge them to their best. If you really care about helping people maximise their potential, then you must try to uncover who they are and what they are all about.”

"For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field. And it ain’t always easy, but neither is growing up without someone believing in you." —Ted Lasso

Steve Kerr cites Carroll as a significant influence on his leadership style, along with two empathically minded leaders from his sport of basketball: Phil Jackson (his former coach) and Gregg Popovich. The former’s empathic style was well documented within the popular Netflix series The Last Dance, and Jackson’s understanding of the Bulls star Dennis Rodman’s unique personality was particularly captivating.

Gregg Popovich

Popovich displays a similar approach with his athletes. Earlier this year, he responded to criticism of his players by expressing his understanding of their fatigue, saying, “Overall, it’s just hard to get away from the fact that our cup was pretty empty after some tough travel, some tough losses, and the schedule...I have to have a little bit of empathy for that.”

Similarly, Kerr says that he tries to understand how his athletes feel when they arrive each day and through their experiences because that’s what they remember when they get home and what they look forward to the next day. His approach certainly reaps the rewards.

Kerr reached the NBA finals five out of six times with the Golden State Warriors, winning three titles.

“Call Me Dumbo cos I’m all ears.” —Ted Lasso

Like Lasso, Kerr shows that he listens to athletes’ experiences on an individual level and talks of the importance of players being able to talk. For this, a safe climate is required, and safety enables creativity.

“I think one of the neatest things about being a coach is the connection you get to make with your players.” —Ted Lasso

Kerr gives the example of his efforts to understand what it was like being a black athlete by talking to his athletes about their experiences of growing up, their families, politics, and personal issues. Lasso takes this on, too, with the Ghanaian footballer, Sam Obisanya, played by Toheeb Jimoh, and the concerns the character has with his sponsor. This organisation is engaged in damaging his homeland.

“Heck, you could fill two Internets with what I don’t know about football” —Ted Lasso

It’s not just about understanding the sport or the athletes. Kerr speaks too of the importance of understanding himself. This is a struggle Ted Lasso continues to invest in with the help of Richmond’s psychologist, Sharon Fieldstone, played by Sarah Niles. Self-empathy is a fundamental part of empathic leadership.

Emotional Contagion

As with all empathic leaders, Ted Lasso’s empathy proves to be contagious and spreads to the athletes he leads who get to know and understand each other’s personalities and backgrounds. This influences the way they communicate with and recognize one another, something illustrated when Sam Obisanya says of his lovably blunt teammate: “Jan Maas is not rude, he’s just Dutch.”

Good Communication Brings Cohesion

Empathic teams are cohesive and full of athletes reaching their potential. Empathy in leadership and teams brings the kind of success that Klopp, Carroll, Jackson, Popovich, and Kerr are used to.

Ted Lasso and AFC Richmond seem to be heading in that direction. I’m not the first author to note that watching "Ted Lasso" could make you a better manager. Ted’s style is mirrored in reality and a successful one at that. At the pinnacle of elite sport today, it seems that anything other than an empathic approach to leadership would be laughed right out of the locker room.

References

Brecht, B. (1949) A Short Organum for the Theatre
Carroll, P., Roth, & Garin. (2011). Win forever: Live, work, and play like a champion.

Gallwey, W. T. & Kriegel, R. (1977) Inner Skiing, Random House.

Kerr, S. (2020) Dr Adam Dorsay's SuperPsyched #24

Maslow, A. H. (1961) Toward a Psychology of Being. Wiley.

Popovich, G. (2021) https://www.essentiallysports.com/nba-news-phil-jackson-and-greg-popovich-golden-state-warriors-warriors-steve-kerr-reveals-his-influences-as-a-head-coach-golden-state-warriors/

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