The Teabag Theories of Leadership

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Home > Articles > The Teabag Theories of Leadership

 The Teabag Theories of Leadership

Jo Owen | Today's Manager
September 2, 2019

Leaders are like teabags: you only discover how good they are when they land in hot water. Read on to find out why.

If you want to discover leadership, buy a teabag. Here are three ways in which teabags reveal the essence of leadership.

Leaders are Like Teabags: You Only Discover How Good They are When They Land in Hot Water
Crises are moments of truth when leaders step up and followers step back. There are always crises and moments of uncertainty and ambiguity where no one quite knows what to do. These are moments of truth which separate the leaders from the rest. Followers avoid stepping into hot water, because that is risky and hard work. The person who steps up is often not the most senior person, it can be a team member who has the courage to see a solution. Leadership is not about your title, it is about what you do. If you are the person who is willing to step into the hot water, then you are the leader. The good news for leaders is that there is always hot water to step into.

Followers see the risk and focus on survival: they step back and wait to see what happens. Leaders see the opportunity and focus on success: they step up and take control. By stepping up at such moments you accelerate your career: you succeed fast or you fail fast. But the reality is that crises are more opportunity than risk. By stepping into the power vacuum and taking control you achieve power, without the need for a formal promotion. If you succeed in addressing the challenge, you win recognition for your leadership skills. Even if things go wrong, you have learned far more than followers who hide in the shadows. The more you step up, the more you learn, the better you perform, and the easier it becomes to step up again. If you never step up in a crisis, you will never learn how to deal with a crisis.

You never know how good a teabag is until it has landed in hot water, stewed for a while and you taste the results. It is exactly the same for a leader: you will never know how good you are as a leader until you have landed in hot water, stewed a bit, and delivered some results. Don’t avoid a crisis: lean into it, take control, and learn from it. Start your learning early: it is better to mess up on small day-to-day crises early in your career, than to mess up when faced with a major crisis later in your career.

As a leader, you will not be defined by what you do when you are living in easy street. You will be defined by those moments of truth when everything goes pear shaped. Seize the moment.

Teabag Lesson One: crises define leaders. Step up, not back at moments of truth.
Teabags are the Best Way to Solve a Crisis If teabags and crises are the way to discover a good leader, the next question is how do you resolve the crisis? The answer, of course, is with a teabag.

This was a lesson I learned when a board meeting with our joint venture (JV) partner took a turn for the worse. The leader of our JV partner jumped up from her chair and declared that if she did not get her way, she would have us all put in prison. This was not an idle threat given the country we were in and her proximity to influential government ministers.

Having made her threat, she stormed out of the meeting. What would you do?

I decided to put the teabag theory of leadership into practice: if it did not work I could look forward to drinking something worse in prison at the end of the day.

I found my JV partner pacing up and down the corridor. She was ready for an argument. Time to deploy teabags: “Tea?” I asked her.

She was totally surprised. She was ready for any argument, but she was not ready for tea. Realising that it would be discourteous to say ‘no’ she agreed to tea. We then went and made tea together, which was better than having staff make the tea. Making tea gave us the chance to talk about important matters such as why the Brits put milk in their tea and whether to pour the tea or the milk first. By the time we resolved the tea question, the situation had calmed down and we could talk sensibly about the dispute.

Forty minutes later we returned, smiling, to the boardroom. Everyone looked pale and tense, and the atmosphere was icy. My JV partner by now was converted to the teabag theory of leadership and simply said: “five-minute tea break…”. The atmosphere changed instantly and smiles broke out: prison was off the agenda and tea was on the agenda.

I had learned not just about different cultural approaches to making tea. I had learned the power of listening. If I had argued my case, I would have lost. Even if I was logically and legally correct, I would have lost the emotional battle and she had all the power. By listening to her, I showed that I respected her; we could build personal rapport; we both had time to calm down and gain perspective.

Teabag Lesson Two: tea is a great way to foster listening and build the trust needed to resolve a dispute. And all the best leaders not only have two ears and one mouth: they use them in that proportion. Listen at least twice as much as you talk.

Teabags are How You Can Become the Leader People Want to Follow
Cynthia had a challenge: she had just been put in charge of a national plant hire business. This was not a business about flowers and pot plants. This was a business about hiring out diggers, cranes, machine tools, drills, and excavators. Diggers are ‘Bob the Builder’ territory. It is full of men who like machines. It is a boys’ club: women were not very welcome in the club, let alone running the club. Although Cynthia was a leader, she was not a boy and she had no intention of becoming one.

The men in the plant hire depots suspected that Cynthia did not know how to repair a dodgy digger. They were right. And Cynthia did not even want to learn how to repair diggers: that was not her role. But she also knew that she needed the support of all the mechanics and staff in the depots to make some much needed changes to the way the business ran. So how could she gain their support when there was so much suspicion and open hostility to the appointment of a girl to run a boys’ club?

Cynthia did what any good leader should do: she bought a box of teabags. She then started a nationwide tour of every depot with her teabags. At every depot, she sat down with the team, drank tea, and listened to what they had to say. At one depot, they were very proud to hoist the national flag each morning above the depot. But they were ashamed that the flag was old and tatty. A week later, they had a brand new flag to admire above their depot. At another depot, the mechanics complained that they had no lockers to store their personal equipment. Personal lockers duly appeared. At the other depots, the staff simply wanted to let off steam about the way previous management had never listened to them and had never even visited them.

By the end of her national tour, Cynthia had become a leader that staff wanted to follow: previous management had been leaders they had to follow. Even if they did not trust her with a spanner, they did trust her to lead. That mattered, because when it came to changing work practices they were prepared to listen to her explanations: staff could see why changes were needed to stay competitive and keep their jobs. She was able to push through difficult changes with the full support of staff: she succeeded where previous managers had failed. Her teabags paved the way for success.

The secret of the teabags in this case is about building trust. Trust is not just professional trust, which comes from having the right qualifications and background. It is about personal trust, because no contract or terms of employment can ever cover all the things I really need and expect from you as a colleague, boss, or supplier. I need to know that you will look after my interests, especially if you are my boss with the power to make or break me.

Teabag Lesson Three: if you want to build trust with your new team, take time to listen to them. Show that you care for them and their careers. Teabags are a great way to start the listening exercise. As with teabag lesson two, the secret to good leadership is listening in both good times and tough times.

Teabag Lesson Four: you can learn about leadership anywhere, anytime, anyhow, and from anything, even teabags. Learning to lead is mainly about learning from experience, not from abstract theory. You have to learn what works for you in your context. So keep on looking, keep on learning.

All of this leaves one fundamental question unresolved: can a coffee drinker ever become a great leader?



​Mr Jo Owen is the author of Global Teams and 14 other management books. He is a founder of the UK’s largest graduate recruiter, Teach First, and has started six other charities, a bank, and a business in Japan.


Copyright © 2019 Singapore Institute of Management

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Today's Manager Issue 3, 2019

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