Leadership Lessons From Japan

May 3, 2013 — 5 Comments

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I have frequently done business in Japan throughout my career. It is interesting how the country and the culture have changed over time, but beneath its surface lies an extremely productive and effective society.


To the outsider – or gaijin, as we are known to the locals – Japanese business customs appear to be so deeply entrenched in culture and tradition that they couldn’t possibly be applicable to the rest of the world. But don’t be too quick to write off the value that Japanese business practices offer the rest of the world…

Over the past few weeks I have had the privilege to engage with several colleagues, all global executives, who provided some rather interesting views relating to the differences in business customs between Japan and the rest of the world.  It became interesting as the various views on doing business in Japan differed, but there were also some thought-provoking similarities…

Look past the cultural barriers and you may find some differentiators that are well worth emulating. Here’s a breakdown of some of my favorite leadership lessons from Japan:

1.             Defer To Your Elders

Both age and professional hierarchy are observed in Japan, and visibly respectful behavior is important. Being disrespectful or rude to an elder can be an unforgivable offense. It’s customary in a meeting in Japan to always direct one’s initial comments to the highest-ranking person in the room. One never disagrees with an elder and always gives complete respect.

What it teaches us:

Japanese business culture values elders for the wisdom and experience they provide to the company. More often than not, age equals rank in Japan – the older the person, the more important he is.  There is nothing that builds wisdom like experience…

How we can adapt it:

Always show respect to those with seniority, or anyone who ranks above you. If you disagree with an “elder”, state your position in private, but never question authority in front of the group. Acknowledge and realize that most leaders are promoted to higher levels because of their skill and experience – appreciate that with age comes wisdom…

2.             Learn To Listen.

There is one objective when Japanese business associates listen to one another: comprehension. They always seek to understand what is being conveyed. The Japanese do not listen to critique, object or refute – only to thoroughly understand the issue at hand and to form their opinion over time, after consideration.

What it teaches us:

Listening and understanding are highly valued in the Japanese culture. Comprehension helps you absorb necessary information, but the Japanese know it is more than that – it is also the greatest sign of respect you can give someone.

How we can adapt it:

As you become a senior leader, it’s a lot less about convincing people and more about benefiting from complex information and leveraging it to get the best out of the people you work with.  Listen without judgment and always try to comprehend what the other person is attempting to convey. Listening for comprehension will allow you to become more relaxed in what you do and be more open to new ideas. Listen to comprehend –  you will find your capacity for understanding increases in a very meaningful way.

3.             All For One & One For All

In Japan, businesspeople think in terms of the group’s well-being above one’s own interests. The individual is secondary to the larger group’s welfare – the Japanese recognize that one’s interests are best served by being a member of a successful, healthy and comfortable group. Individual identity is defined by the groups’ to which one belongs.

What it teaches us:

Working for the common good is good for everyone. A “We” mentality is consistently more beneficial than an “I” mentality, as it facilitates shared understanding and common goals.

How to adapt it:

Stop and think about how your professional goals align to organizational goals. Are you a team player? If we learn nothing else, it should be that when everyone is contributing toward a common goal, things get done much more efficiently – not to mention smoothly.

4.             Leverage Connections As Endorsements

Connections are very important in Japan, and often required as a prelude to negotiations. Being in the good graces of powerful people ensures you are taken seriously in other circles. It’s common for businessmen to arrange meetings with high-ranking executives solely to request their endorsement. It’s particularly impressive if the endorsement comes from a person of the same rank as the one you are dealing with.

What it teaches us:

Having the approval of another accomplished person speaks volumes about your trustworthiness and ability to succeed. The Japanese feel an obligation to be loyal to the endorsement of a well-respected peer – and so should we.

How we can adapt it:

This practice is extremely valuable as it underscores the importance of focused networking. Connect and build bridges everywhere you go – leaders will think highly of you and be willing to provide that all-important endorsement when you need it most. If you do not deliberately focus on building higher-level connections, you will find yourself unprepared and ill-equipped when the occasion comes for a well-timed endorsement.

Becoming more familiar with Japanese methods of conducting business and observing how certain actions and behaviors are weighted differently than in other cultures can make a real contribution not only to achieving your goals while doing business in Japan, but also in doing business everyday… wherever in the world you might be. The Japanese offer us some excellent qualities to develop in working relationships that are likely to produce highly successful business interactions on a daily basis.

Observing different cultures can always teach us a thing or two about success and inspiration in our own environment. Like adding  exotic spices can change the way you view food, integrating cultural variations into your work environment can significantly impact your ability to see the world differently and facilitate your own success.

Where has your Amazing Race taken you and how has it changed your views on how you do business… and life? 

Please engage the discussion and let us know how you observe and integrate leadership lessons from abroad. Feel free to contact me at Sheri.Mackey@LuminosityGlobal.com or by visiting our website at www.LuminosityGlobal.com. Check back next week for the next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries and Borders.


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Sheri is The Global Coach, founder of Luminosity Global Consulting Group, Global Executive Coach, Speaker, Writer and Global Business and Cultural Expert.

5 responses to Leadership Lessons From Japan

  1. Excellent post. Being aware of different cultural norms can be critical for startup companies as they look to expand globally.

  2. James Armstrong @tjamstr May 10, 2013 at 10:03 pm

    Very insightful.

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