Jo Owen 4 Sep 2017 02:42pm

Make tea, not war

There are more theories of leadership than there are leaders, but if you want to shine an original light on leadership you need to look no further than your teapot

In the spirit of pushing the boundaries of leadership theory and practice, here are two teabag theories of leadership.


All you need as a leader is an infinite supply of tea bags. You do not need endless corporate life support systems to succeed. Finance, IT, HR, computers, mobile phones and the demands of email both enable and imprison us with constant support and demands. In practice, the humble tea bag is more useful than all of these systems.

This lesson was taught to me by a leader who had been put in charge of a national plant hire business. Plant hire is Bob the Builder country. It is a boys’ club, and the new leader had many qualities, but she knew she was not a boy. She was unlikely ever to become one. Inevitably, she was met with deep scepticism: what could a girl know about diggers?

So she decided to do what she did best: listen. She set out on a tour of the plant hire depots armed with her tea bags. She sat down everywhere and listened to staff tell her what could be improved. At one depot, they were proud to raise the Union Flag each morning, but ashamed it was old and tatty. Next day, they had a brand new flag and their pride was restored. At another plant, the staff did not have secure lockers for their kit and change of clothes. Secure lockers duly appeared. Small changes at low cost had a big impact.

By the end of her tea bag tour, she had been transformed from outsider to leader. She was the first leader who had bothered to listen and to act on what she heard. This meant she was able to secure the commitment, not just the compliance, of staff around the country.

She then made tough decisions, such as shifting resources, with the support and goodwill of staff. Performance improved vastly, all because of the tea bags (and some listening and smart management).


Leaders are like tea bags: you only know how good they are when you put them in hot water.

The real test of a leader is not when you are in easy street, when things are going well. Life in the comfort zone tests nothing and says nothing about you as a leader. The acid test is when things go pear shaped. Corporate life is full of moments of ambiguity, uncertainty and occasional crisis, when no one is quite sure what to do. These are the moments when career survivors step back: they wait to see how things shape up and then jump as they see fit. It takes real courage to step up, not back. If you lead and it goes wrong, you will quickly find that failure can be very lonely. On the other hand, success has many friends who will happily claim your success on their behalf.

Leaders know that there is a difference between survival and success. Where survival means avoiding risk, success means you have to take risks. Leaders have to step up at those moments of truth, when they can watch power visibly ebb and flow within the organisation.

This means that leaders often enjoy accelerated careers: they succeed quickly or they fail fast. But the risk of failure does not worry the best leaders. They have the confidence to see every setback as a chance to learn, grow and become stronger.

The more they deal with crises and moments of truth, the better they become at facing such challenges. In short, they do not avoid hot water but instead they seek it out.

So if you want to be a great leader, sit down and have a cup of tea. It could do you a power of good.

Jo Owen is an author, a keynote speaker and the founder of eight NGOs. His latest book is Global Teams (FT Publishing/Pearson)