How Toothpaste Will Make You a Better Leader


Not long ago, toothpaste had an identity problem. If you remember, all tubes looked like this:

  • They took up a lot of prime shelf space in the medicine cabinet.

  • They’d only lay flat, unless you put it in a cup.

  • Getting the last of the paste out of the tube was hard work.

  • (Let’s not even get started on the little cap that liked to go missing.)



Then, something wonderful happened.Some smart people created a better tube of toothpaste.  And now we have this:And  this:What in the world does this have to do with leadership?

It turns out that those smart people did something that great leaders do.

Those smart people were the design team at IDEO, the world’s best known design company.  (They also brought you the Apple computer mouse.)

IDEO didn’t start with prototyping a new tube.  They started with a process they created.

They used Design Thinking.Design Thinking is about two things:

  1. Understanding people’s needs

  2. Creatively discovering the best solution(s) to meet those needs

The foundation of understanding people’s needs is empathy.

Empathy is also the key to leading well.Take Roberta, for example.Roberta is the VP of Operations for a high performing financial services company.  Roberta is exceptional at bringing out the best work in her team.

Last week, her whole team gathered in New York for an off-site.   It was the first time they’d had a face-to-face for the operations team in longer than anyone could remember.In preparation for this meeting, each team member had filled out an anonymous survey detailing what they thought about how the team was performing.

The results were mixed.  But that was no surprise.  Everyone knew there were issues.  Between acquisitions and countless re-organizations, the operations team had been playing catch up for over a decade.  When they walked in for the meeting, there were at least three elephants in the room (technology, budgets, and compensation) begging to be addressed.

You could sense the team was nervous.Roberta got up to address the team.  She exuded calm.  She spoke about the challenges they faced.  She shared how she was feeling, and what she imagined they would be feeling.  In an instant, she created psychological safety.

As she spoke, you could see the bodies in the room relax, and exhale a collective sigh of relief.  Roberta is a master at empathy.

As a leader, it’s not enough to think you know what your employees are thinking.  You need to go, observe and plunge yourself into the pool of their experience.  Ideally, you want complete understanding of your people’s experience.  Some things to notice:

  • What do you already know? Think you know?

  • What don’t you know?

  • What do they see?

  • What do they hear?

  • What do they think?

  • What do they feel?

  • What do they say?

  • What do they do?

  • What are their frustrations?

  • What are their aspirations?

  • How do they best like to communicate?

  • What are their values?

  • What are their beliefs?

Once you understand their needs, you can build a better team.  Or a better tube of toothpaste.  And your leadership won’t suffer from an identity problem.

What techniques do you use to create empathy with your team?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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