A Japanese Lesson in Leadership

Popular business folklore (oxymoronic as it may seem) in Japan has it that there are only three styles of leadership, epitomized by three of Japan’s most famous leaders in history: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokygawa Ieyasu. The three leadership styles are illustrated by the parable of how each of the three would approach the challenge of getting a silent nightingale to sing. Oda Nobunaga, the first, would threaten “Sing! Or die!” Toyotomi Hideyoshi the second, would exclaim, “Perhaps you don’t know how to sing. Very well, I will teach you.”   Tokugawa Ieyasu, the third, would simply smile and remain silent. If pressed for his response to this recalcitrant bird, he would quietly reply, “I will wait until the nightingale is ready to sing.” Invariably when this story is told, the third option is considered the most sage, with the justification that the greatest leader is one who is able to recognize the natural flow of things in the universe, and is self-disciplined enough not to force his petty will on things unless absolutely required, especially if he is ignorant of the consequences that may arise out of such a disharmonious disruption. In this context the Zhong article and the Ghosn case study provoke an interesting reflection of Ghosn’s actions in Nissan, and their subsequent outcomes.

In essence, Zhong argues that while, “power increases goal-directed behavior…Western and Eastern cultures differ in their salient and enduring goals,” where in Western cultures, “the experience of power leads to assertive action” and in Eastern cultures, “power may promote restraint” (55). In this context, the Japanese preference for the third leadership style discussed above makes sense, as does their typical disapproval of the first leadership style.  How does this play out in the case of Carlos Ghosn were he arguably takes an aggressive approach, and yet is hailed in Japan as one of its great corporate leaders, and is unquestioningly its greatest non-Japanese leader by any reckoning?

The key point, I would argue lies in Zhong’s astute observation that “the default orientation of an East Asian is not to take action unless the situation requires otherwise. This contrasts with the Western concept of individual agency, or tendency to take action unless the situation prohibits it” (my emphasis, 63). So, while Ghosn’s actions are radical, his underlying argument is that they are absolutely necessary (“we have no choice and the fact that we have no choice is the strength of our plan”), which is further consolidated by Nissan President Yoshikazu Hanawa’s assertion that “the plan is tough, perhaps even severe, but then our situation is severe” (quoted in “Redesigning Nissan,” 8). On the other hand Ghosn is equally insistent that no action be taken on issues that were not absolutely relevant to the task at hand: “We are not missionaries…. We are going to fix Nissan, that’s all. Any issue that does not contribute to that is of no concern to us” (Ibid, 2). Finally he clearly took responsibility for his actions, especially accepting the whole responsibility if things were to fail, and sharing the responsibility with everyone for any successful outcome.

Still, despite the resounding success of the NRP, and Ghosn’s consequent reputation, he did come under fire from the press in November 2005, when one of Nissan’s consolidated steel suppliers was unable to meet demand at one of its factories. Having cut off the majority of regional suppliers as a part of the 1999 NRP, he was unable (or perhaps unwilling) to go back to them, cap in hand, to ask for their assistance in this emergency. The bulk of the media criticism, with its proverbial 20/20 hindsight vision, castigated him for the radical policies he had instituted, the consequences of which were coming back to haunt him now.

Having lived in Japan during those tumultuous years , the figure and actions of Ghosn were enormously influential to my developing cross-cultural consciousness. While I initially exhibited the traits that Zhong suggests are more typical of a Western response to power, I learned through my mistakes that patient assessment and avoiding grandiose (if seemingly justifiable actions) was more effective in successfully achieving my goals in Japan. This insight, (which I internalized more though instinct than conscious reflection) served me well, whether in negotiating a favorable agreement when I started my own consulting company, courting the lady who was to become my wife, or even throwing an opponent in karate: no action unless required, but keeping a constant vigilance of the situation while developing a strategy based on necessity, which, when executed at the most needed moment, produced not only a successful result, but also appreciation from both the participants and observers.

The learning experience that arises from my readings this week is therefore a value judgment. While I have consciously avoided making value judgments based on cultural differences, in this case, I will go out on a limb and consciously attempt to model myself on the so-called “East Asian” reaction to power, which I find more aesthetically and morally satisfying. What is specifically useful to me about the Zhong article (and the perspective it offers on the Ghosn case study) is that I am now more conscious of exerting more patience and discipline on myself, and ensuring that my actions are more governed by responsibility to the collective, as I hopefully assume positions of increasing power in the course of my professional career and personal life.

(900 words)


Hughes, Kathryn.“Redesigning Nissan (A): Carlos Ghosn Takes Charge.” Fontainbleu, France: INSEAD, 2003.

Zhong, Chen-Bo, Joe C, Magee, William W. Maddux and Adam G. Galinsky. “Power, culture and action: considerations in the expression and enactment of power in East Asian and Western societies.” Research on managing Groups and Teams, Vol. 9 (53-73).

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