Where are Japan's leaders? And why have Japan's few corporate leaders risen to almost cult status? Leadership guru and writer Warren Bennis says—I'm paraphrasing—that great leaders rise above their context. Put another way, you might say that in Japan, great leaders rise above or push through the context of their culture and established norms for corporate behavior. They make their mark regardless. My goodness, how difficult this is - in any society, much less in Japan.
It's tough, but let's not let Japanese executives off the hook. Case in point: Surprisingly, in an era of low or non-growth within Japan, most of the elite institutions (Toyota and Sony excepted) have failed to diversity their revenues and make their mark outside of Japan, defying strategic logic and common sense. Viewing the world through the dimmed light of slow-growth Japan, they struggle to raise their eyes to the horizon. Their glass is half empty. These leaders have elected not to challenge their own corporate apparatus and cultures in order to wage and win in battle against the globalized big-boys on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in the business schools, in BRIC, you name it. The music is different out there, but Japanese managers haven't changed their tempo. And now it appears that even Sony and Toyota have proven that global success requires more than overseas assets or even a foreigner at the top.
Leaders are a study in perseverance and growth, often through painful, personal experience. Failure is inevitable, perhaps necessary. And so who would volunteer for such a hardship role in Japan, and why? Add on top of this the need for today's Japanese leaders to acquire experience in the West, or at least China, speak English, be accountable, and yet have the modesty and temperament necessary to win support of his or her team...and you have a tall order.
Leadership means more than holding a leadership position, in the same way that being a writer means more than writing things down. Ask a writer why they do what they do and most will say that they must, that writing is existential. It's not surprising then that leadership, for true leaders, is existential. They do it because they must; to not embark on the struggle to make your mark is to go somehow missing. The sheer weight of Japan's culture and behavioral context, Planet Japan's turbo-charged gravity, creates national heroes out of corporate leaders, usually entrepreneurs, who decide to break through. Let's acknowledge that true leadership is courageous.