Three Cups of Tea as a Leadership Text

Last week I wrote about groups of executives reading non-business books as a leadership development exercise.  I am grateful to 2 of my executive book groups for permission to talk about their discussions of the recent bestseller Three Cups of Tea.

Three Cups of Tea chronicles the experience of an American mountaineer who vows to build a school for a very remote village in Pakistan near K2.  Although the building of the first school is painfully difficult, the book goes on to describe what has become Greg Mortenson’s life work- building schools primarily to educate girls in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan- and during some of the most dangerous times for Americans to be there since any of the 3 countries exist.  Here are some of the themes discussed by the two groups:

The Nature of Commitment

What was different about Mortenson’s promise?  Many climbers came through villages in Pakistan and promised to return with help. Very few followed through.  Mortenson did – over and over.

  • Where is the line (boundary? frontier?) between commitment and obsessiveness?
  • Would Mortenson have ever started if he had known how hard the first school was?
  • Was it necessary for Mortenson to live the difficult life he did in the U.Ss in order to be successful?  Might he have done better sooner if he had allowed himself to be better rested, better supported or less isolated?

The general agreement in this discussion was that like any start up, Mortenson and the village he was trying to help benefited from his frugal approach.  Like a new firm with too much resource, he could easily have been distracted by trying to do too much too fast- which was clearly not possible in the early going.  There was also a long discussion about the importance of emotional commitment along with the rational awareness of the need.  No project leader goes through the necessary pain and suffering to accomplish something so difficult unless they are emotionally committed to the outcome.

Market Intelligence

One of the groups took on an unexpected topic.  There is a theme in the book about Islam, which paints a very different picture from what we see in the press today.  It starts with an observation from one of Mortenson’s donors that “…Americans will help the Buddhist Sherpa, but not the Muslims.”  There was a long conversation about where we get the information to form our opinions, and the critical importance of on the ground observation about any transaction or project in the pipeline.

Many executives related to the importance of being on the ground often with critical teams or processes and the dangers of assuming too much from third hand reports.  One clear consensus item in both groups was something like, “If I cannot be there often myself, I want eyes and ears on the ground that I can trust not to whitewash or sugarcoat what is happening.”

Luck, Stubbornness or Hard Work

Both of the groups had some form of this debate.  As Mortenson struggles to find funds to build his first school ($12,000) he learns hard lessons about fund raising and eventually finds a sponsor.  Actually, the donor finds him.  Although progress on the school is slow and very hard won, he also starts finding other funding sources.  Actually, they also start finding him.  The book reads almost like a “new-age-ther are-no-coincidences” case study.  So a fairly enthusiastic debate broke out about the role of luck vs. focus vs., skill.

While there were differing flavors of agreement, in the end both groups ended up with more or less the same thought.  Luck (or happenstance) may play a part, but we make it more likely in the decisions that we make and the people we associate with.  Mortneson’s single mindedness and passion to make a difference put him in places where he could run into others who were interested- others with the resource to make a difference to his dreams.  One group reduced it to a formula something like this:

Focus x Passion x Action = Likelihood of Lucky Coincidence

This book evoked a number of topical discussions large and small.  The nature of fundamentalism, the importance of creating a coalition and relationships, the importance of understanding the environment and even the need to get out of the way and let the process happen in ways differently from how you may have imagined them are all themes that were under discussion.

In the end, it is a true David and Goliath tale of victory and heroism.  But the hero is quite human and even fairly naive.  In fact, more than once, the Goliath that needed slaying was his own way of doing things… yet another leadership topic.

There is a link to Three Cups of Tea in the books section to the right.  More information about the work that the author began is at The Central Asia Institue Website.