The Wise Leader

May 9, 2011

I just read this interesting article in Harvard Business Review by Ikujiro Nonaka. It really digs deep into the differences between Japanese leadership culture and Western style leadership. His thesis is that today’s leaders aren’t even asking the right questions before they start any project or in their executive roles. Questions like

Where are we going?

Who gains, who loses?

Is this development desirable?

What should we do?

I was impressed by how powerful yet simple these questions were, mainly because I don’t know anyone asking these questions, it’s all about ROI, we talk in dollars. This is the where we are mostly different from our Japanese friends. This is why Toyota was able to withstand probably one of the biggest recalls in automotive industry hardly unscathed, they were able to acknowledge their deviation from their tested principles and correct it. Simply; they were being wise.

Ikujiro then identified the following six abilities of wise leaders:

  1. Wise leaders can judge goodness.
  2. Wise leaders can grasp the essence.
  3. Wise leaders create shared contexts.
  4. Wise leaders communicate the essence.
  5. Wise leaders exercise political power.
  6. Wise leaders foster practical wisdom in others.

After reading and reflecting on these abilities, I was startled of how simple these abilities are to learn, and I noticed how these abilities are not typically linked to organizations, shareholders, customers, etc. as I’ve seen in some of the western literature on leadership. To the Japanese leaders making a profit is a by-product of doing the right things, while in the west is everything.

I will close this post with this thought from Ikujiro:

“…Unless companies create social as well as economic value, they will not survive in the long run…”



I was revisiting a great book “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You there” by Marshall Goldsmith this weekend, and saw how these three simple words can kill almost every initiative. I renamed them the “The Three Assassins of Ideas”. They are also three of the most used words in our personal and professional lives and every time we use any of them we hinder our possibilities of establishing a true open conversation. Our nature is to discard anything that doesn’t fit our belief or knowledge system; it’s hard wired into our brains since the dawn of mankind. We are simply scared of change and the unknown, especially in the corporate world.

Assassin # 1: However

This word is the most powerful of the three, when it’s inserted into the conversation the real message is “My point of view is better than yours”, and typically is done in front of an audience where the person can show their “superiority” of ideas.

Assassin # 2: But

No matter how good an idea is, we think we can make it even better by adding our personal touch with the typical: “Yes great idea, but if we also do/change/add/modify…” this kills the initiative of the originator, since it’s not his or hers idea anymore and the credit will be taken by the person who added the extra part.

Assassin # 3: No

To be fair, the word “No” if used wisely can also be a relationship builder, unfortunately is mostly used as a powerful deterrent to new/radical/opposite ideas. Some companies are very risk averse, and when people notice that all ideas are rejected, they simply stop proposing them. How many “Dr. No” exist in organizations killing many good ideas from the onset?

You might be asking by now, How can we stop these assassins? Well it theory is pretty easy. All you have to do is “Shut up and listen” and then just say “Thank You”; the person will feel that you cared to listen without judgment of the idea, and after careful consideration the you can tell that the organization can’t pursue it because X or Y reasons. In practice, very few organizations or people actually do this.

Every journey starts with the first step, yours will be to think before you use any of these three words.