Charisma is a good thing, right?

Don’t all successful global executives demonstrate charisma? The answer is yes, but let’s be clear about what we mean by charisma. We are not talking about over-the-top, larger-than-life sales-types who ooze charm for better or worse. I know of no follower in any culture who wouldn’t shy away from such a leader. In true charismatic leadership we find the ability to emotionally connect with others and communicate a vision with confidence, integrity, and in a way that puts others first. Leaders do it in a way that meets others where they are, and this requires the ability to adapt their styles to the situation. They attract followers. How a leader projects himself in Japan may be different than how he does it in Sydney or New York.
In Asia, for cultural reasons, these leaders walk a fine line. A leader’s willingness to project charisma strikes many as chameleon-like, a bit disingenuous and risky. Sticking out too much seems overly individualistic, while adapting or changing our leadership style seems inauthentic. Suzuki-san, Japanese general manager, felt uncomfortable adjusting his style in order to connect emotionally with others. He felt like a salesman, a fake. He was not willing to bend his style to elicit an emotional response. He was described as lacking in vision. He felt more comfortable showing himself as solid, predictable, structured and logical, but he didn’t connect with others.
So how might Suzuki alter his approach in different situations? What if he were making a presentation to global executives in the US on the future of the business? The behaviors that feel right to him in one situation may not yield the result he wants in another situation. Creating an attractive vision for others, listening more, explaining less, and connecting with his team emotionally—projecting charisma—does not amount to compromising his values around putting the needs of the business and others first. He decided to move outside of his comfort zone and practice this new leadership skill. He realized that building an emotional connection with others makes himself and others feel good. And it’s good for the business.

MIA leaders: Most CEOs haven’t transcended their economy, or corporate culture, in Japan

Half full or half empty?

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.

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