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THE Leadership Japan Series by Dale Carnegie Training Tokyo Japan

Dec 23, 2020

I met the owner of a successful business recently.  He had bought the company twenty years ago and then pivoted it to a new and more successful direction.  So successful, that he employs over 230 staff and was recently listed on the local stock exchange.  It was a business meeting to discuss collaboration and I was expecting an entrepreneurial leader, charismatic and personally powerful.  Why was that my expectation?  Being raised in Australia, that is what successful entrepreneurs in the West are like, so I expected a Japanese equivalent.  He was totally different to what I expected.


He had no personal power at all from what I could see.  One reason may be that we were speaking in Japanese. It is a subtle, circular language that masks and obfuscates like few others.  He had two senior staff members with him, his direct reports and they too were rather underwhelming.  It got me thinking about what does it take in Japan to become a successful leader?  Here were three of them in front of me and I wouldn’t have crossed the road to meet any of them.


Position rather than personal power counts for lot in Japan.  You meet a lot of people here with big titles and pretty much no personal firepower.  That is not to say there aren’t charismatic, powerful leaders here.  Mr. Nambu who founded the massive Persona organisation is a very charismatic person, who has tons of personal power.  He has nearly 20,000 employees spread across his 67 subsidiaries and 11 affiliates.  I know him personally and he is very good at dealing with people, both high and low.  He started the company while he was still at university, so he is a rare bird in Japan, to take a start-up to serious stardom and himself to billionaire status.


What is the difference between some of the successful Japanese I have met and the nobodies leading many firms.  When we teach leadership, we make a point of differentiating it from management.  Managers make sure the processes are running on time, cost and at the required quality.  Leaders do all of that, plus they set the direction and build the people.  By this definition most Japanese leaders we meet in business would be classified as “managers”.  Japan is a country of detail, long term planning, caution and perseverance.  You can go a long way on the back of that line-up and many do.


My new acquaintance is a manager I would say.  I am guessing that he fell into the business he is in, rather than it being the product of strategic planning.  What a contrast with Jordan Wang.  Jordan is the Dale Carnegie franchisee in Sydney and took the business over two years ago from basically nothing growing it very quickly to a substantial size.  I was attending his talk to the Franchisee Association on how he runs his business. 


His planning frameworks were very sophisticated.  Because they started with basically nothing, he said, he had to come up with a road map. He spent some serious time studying the various frameworks out there and then adjusted them to his reality.  Over the next two years he shaped and crafted those frameworks into a formidable machine, to help run his business.  One of the very experienced and successful American franchisees commented that “I am feeing less smart” after listening to Jordan.  I know exactly what he means, because I too was blown away by Jordan regarding his thinking, energy and that word – charisma.


In Japan, trust is a key requirement for retaining staff, gaining clients and remaining successful.  This is the same everywhere, but somehow Japan just brings a much great intensity to the word.  If you can gain trust with others, you can build a business here. Over time you can build it, if you happen to have chosen a niche or a sector that is growing and profitable.  Being high on trust and low on charisma is no impediment to success here in Japan.


So when you meet a Japanese leader and they are a fizzer in the charisma stakes, don’t necessarily write them off.  Look at their numbers, particularly staff numbers as an indicator of how much credence you should attach to them.  In my experience, few Japanese excel individually, but put them together in a group and they are most formidable.  To keep the group together, their leaders need to have been able to build the trust.  The other question you need to ask is have they been able to sustain this over decades?   If they have, then you may have a business partner in front of you, even if they seem grey, dull and boring.