#MBOY2019 Three theories of leadership inspired by tea bags

25 March 2019 -


One award-winning author takes a lighthearted look at the power of tea in management

Guest blogger Jo Owen

I have spent over twenty years trying to work out what makes a good leader. In that time I have hunted for the secrets of leadership with hunter gathers, and hung out with tribal people from Mali to Mongolia, from the Arctic to Australia, to Papua New Guinea and beyond. I have tried to discover the essence of leadership with the Royal Marines and on our nuclear deterrent. I have interviewed thousands of executives, entrepreneurs, sports people, spies and academics. I have even tried leading myself, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that theory is easier than practice, although practice is more enjoyable.

But I have learned one real secret of leadership: you can learn about leadership anywhere, anytime and from anything. If you look, you will find. A good colleague of mine scoffed at this idea. She pointed to the tea I was drinking. “So what does a tea bag teach you about leadership?” she challenged.

Here are three teabag theories of leadership to get you going.


1. The tea bag theory of leadership

Leaders are like tea bags: you only know how good they are when they land in hot water. If you want to be a good leader (or a good tea bag) you have to take the risk of landing in hot water occasionally. These are the moments when you accelerate your career: you succeed fast or you fail fast. But even if you fail fast, you learn faster recover quickly and move on. Hot water moments are the moments of truth when you learn and grow as a leader.

2. The tea bag theory of influence

This was taught to me by Clare, a manager who was put in charge of a national plant hire business. Plant hire is construction territory, full of diggers and cranes. Clare was not welcome: ‘what does a women know about diggers?’ was the sentiment. So Clare went round every depot in the country armed with a supply of tea bags. And she listened to all the teams she met. In one depot, they were ashamed that the Union Jack was old and dirty. Next day, a new flag appeared. At another, there were no lockers for the team. Lockers appeared. Clare soon became the first boss that everyone actually respected, even if they still doubted her ability to handle a digger. This enabled her to push through difficult changes which previous bosses had failed to achieve. Tea is a great way to build influence.

3. The tea bag theory of relationships

Sharath wanted his India-based team to build proper client relationships, which involves true working in partnership with them to solve their problems, instead of just selling them products. The team just did not understand what concept. So Sharath invented the chai (tea) test: would your client come out with you for chai, or would they invite you for chai? That is the test of relationship management versus account management. It is also a good test of whether you would want to hire someone onto your team. Ask yourself: do they pass the chai (tea) test?

After producing these teabag theories, I had to put the theory into practice in extreme circumstances. A board meeting I was chairing went horribly wrong. Our joint venture partner erupted in anger and stormed out of the meeting, threatening to have us all put in prison (it was in a part of the world where such a threat is not an idle threat). So I waited for 90 seconds to calm down and then went outside to see our partner growling in a menacing sort of way: he was ready to erupt into anger again at any moment. So what would you do?

I promptly asked him if he would like a cup of tea. He was totally taken aback, and agreed: it would have been rude to refuse. I went to the kitchen and made tea and small talk. By the time we had made tea, we were allies again and the man was back on track.

Tea does not just work in theory, it works in practice.

Jo Owen is author of Myths of Leadership, a finalist in CMI Management Book of the Year

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