It’s Not About the Tea

Tea for Two

As a leader, have you ever been inspired to create positive change in others or in circumstances?

Author Greg Mortenson’s tale of getting lost on his way down the second highest peak in the world known as K2 in Pakistan and finding his calling is a story of leadership inspiration. He tells a tale of building schools and building other bridges of hope for the mountain villages of Afghanistan and Pakistan that fills readers with altruistic determination to create positive change.

Inspiration and Determination

Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea, is inspirational, but also provides some very practical lessons for leaders.

The essence of the book, reflected in the title, is this:

With the first cup of tea you are a guest

With the second cup of tea you are a friend

With the third cup of tea you are family

Is It The Tea?

So what does this proverb teach us about leadership?

That it’s not about the tea! It’s never about the tea!

It’s about the depth and intimacy and collaboration that happens when leaders take the time to stop moving forward and stay in one place to connect with others.

When the tidal wave of the urgent is brought to a standstill and the waters are calm, leaders learn:

  • Patience
  • Perspective
  • Relationship
  • Generosity
  • Respect

The Back Story

In his book, Mortenson tells how he was growing impatient with his Afghan friends who didn’t share the same sense of urgency to get schools built as he did. Our western worldview tells us that we shouldn’t have to wait for things to take place, for change to happen, and we become frustrated, even angry, when we don’t see immediate results.

The wise village chief told Mortenson, “this village has been here for 600 years, what is one more winter without a school?”

It’s important for leaders to learn patience and develop a long-term perspective in the midst of constant change and the pressure of stakeholder demands for immediate return on investment.

Because I Said So…

Leaders often assume that when they have a compelling vision people will automatically follow.

Or you hire people whose job it is to follow.

And that may be fine at some level – a vision has been translated into specific tasks and hands are hired to get those tasks completed. But in the increasingly knowledge-based workplace with intellectual capital and more complex tasks that require more than “butts in seats,” leaders must become relationship savvy.

Of Time and Resources

It takes time to have three cups of tea with someone. In Afghan culture this doesn’t happen in one sitting, it happens over weeks or months, or sometimes years. But as the guest becomes a friend and the friend is adopted into the family, a great bond of service, respect and support is strengthened.

Mortenson describes the “butter tea” offered to him in the mountain regions of Afghanistan as “hot green tea, made with salt, baking soda, goat’s milk, and an aged, sour butter churned from yak’s milk.” You probably won’t find this on the Starbuck’s menu anytime soon and we may not have a taste for such a concoction, but it reflects a generosity of spirit we don’t understand in our resource-rich culture.

Milk and butter, as well as other ingredients, are often hard to come by, but it would be unthinkable to deny a visitor, even if it used up the last of a poor villager’s reserve. Prolific leadership author/speaker John Maxwell identifies generosity as one of the “21 Indispensible Qualities of a Leader.”

Giving away what we have comes from a positive frame of mind, an attitude of abundance even when it appears that resources are low.

Valuing People

Sitting down with a stranger to have a cup of tea is a sign of respect. It shows that we value the other person and are willing to stop what we were doing and make them the priority, and not just as something to cross off our to-do list, but to really interact, ask questions, see what the world is like for that individual.

How often do leaders really get to know the people supporting their vision? When immediate return on investment and the bottom line are seen as the ultimate goal, we’re really not talking about leadership anymore and we are the poorer for it.

Keeping Things Positive

There is a growing body of research in Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) that underscores the importance of the lessons drawn from Three Cups of Tea.

Positive Leadership, by University of Michigan professor Kim Cameron, asserts that leaders go from successful to exceptional by creating a profoundly positive workplace. And that starts with taking time to connect and move to deeper levels of interaction, just as Mortenson learned in his adventures in Afghanistan.

Todd Conkright is Owner at Cornerstone Global Training & Performance Solutions
He serves his clients by building strategies that lead to net gains
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter |  Web |

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One response to “It’s Not About the Tea

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