Japan isn’t going to end decades of economic malaise, nor will its corporations meet the challenge of overseas rivals, unless bold changes are made, warns an expert on leadership from Harvard University who was in Japan recently to give a series of lectures.
“You must have people with vision and bigger sense of purpose than the interest of your own political parties,” said Dean Williams, lecturer on leadership and public policy director at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, speaking about Japanese politics. “You’ve got to support those who are really willing to make changes.”
The scholar was in Japan earlier this month to give lessons on leadership to students, businesspeople and public servants, shortly before the Liberal Democratic Party swept back to power.
In an interview with The Japan Times, Williams said politicians need to learn how to disappoint people, rather than trying to constantly please them.
“Real leadership means challenging your groups and letting them know you can’t have what you want all the time,” he said.
In his eyes, Japan is suffering from an unwillingness to let go of a strategy that produced the postwar economic “miracle” but is no longer relevant.
“You do something so well that produces a certain level of success, and people take for granted that success, and they believe that their strategies for generating success are correct, but the environment around is changing and shifting,” he said.
Williams first came to Japan in 1976. After later spending time here in the 1980s, he wrote a dissertation on Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, better known as Matsushita Seikeijuku, which was established in 1979 to nurture Japan’s future leaders.
He has worked on major change initiatives throughout the world, serving as the chief adviser to the president of Madagascar and as a consultant with the Singapore government’s National Productivity Board. He was also an adviser to Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader who became the first president of East Timor.
But his leadership philosophy, which de-emphasizes focusing on attracting followers and instead mobilizes others to address real problems, was deeply influenced by his time in Japan, said Williams, whose 2005 book “Real Leadership: Helping People and Organizations Face Their Toughest Challenges” was translated into Japanese in 2011.
While in Japan, Williams met Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic Corp. and Matsushita Seikeijuku. Later, he also interviewed Akio Morita, the late cofounder of Sony Corp.
Williams said everyone at the school had to develop their own leadership project. Each was required to go out and orchestrate some kind of change, such as working for a city mayor or starting an environmental project.
“He knew change can never occur unless someone was taking actions to make change happen,” he said of Matsushita.
Matsushita Seikeijuku has so far produced many politicians, including former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, ex-Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and ex-Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa.
Williams said students shared Matsushita’s vision in the early years, but later the institute’s managers became more preoccupied with placing graduates into positions of authority or getting them elected, rather than exercising leadership to solve tough problems.
On the other hand, Sony’s Morita grasped the meaning of leadership and stimulated the imagination and creativity of his employees, he said.
“He was a shaker,” Williams said. “In every meeting he participated in, 80 percent of what he said was around new ideas, challenging the status quo.”
Overtaken by overseas rivals, such as Samsung Electronics Co., in the consumer electronics market, Japan’s once-proud symbols of rising global status in the world — Sony, Panasonic as well as Sharp Corp. — are suffering from declining market shares.
“The real work of the modern corporations is to innovate at a pace that gets you to respond to the demand of the changing marketplace. So your eyes, your ears and your feet have to be out there in the marketplace,” he said. But now, too many managers who focus on cost-cutting and overseeing the engineering process are controlling the firm, he added.
He said Japan should step away from its culture of emphasizing stability and harmony, and develop a more global mindset. The talents and capabilities of women should also be more fully utilized, he said.
“Look at the difference between Samsung and Sony. Samsung has a lot more foreigners involved in senior management. It’s not exclusively Korean. It’s innovating in terms of creating new products in a way Sony hasn’t done for 20 years,” he said.
Because Japanese firms don’t value those who challenge the status quo, it is difficult for an agent of change to succeed in Japan, he said. “Conflicts are essential for any culture to grow,” he said.
Williams said Japan should embrace globalization and use it to stimulate the changes that Japan needs to make.
“There is a big world out there, and you can play a much greater role in helping to share that world and partnering with your Asian colleagues and countries. . . . You cannot afford to become excessively nationalistic at a time like this when you’ve got to be opening up,” he said.
Though it is important for a country to have a vision for the future, people shouldn’t simply wait for politicians or others to provide one. What’s important is to initiate discussions on what the country needs, Williams said, and that could be done by anyone in civil society, the business community or by journalists putting problems in front of people and asking tough questions about how to deal with pressing issues.
“Anyone can start doing this work,” he said.