Real Leadership Starts with Real Action

I find most conversations about "leadership" little more than meaningless chit-chat. A waste of time. Talk is cheap. Just ignore it. Action speaks clearly. With that in mind, watch this CNN clip of Japan Airlines CEO Haruka Nishimatsu's attempt to manage his company through tough times -- Evolving Excellence: $20 Billion Company CEO ... Takes the Bus. (Video: here, here,)

What do you think? I've watched the darn thing a dozen times. I can't get enough. It's an inspiration. Yet, it's so stupidly simple. And it speaks quite clearly about this guy's priorities and those of his company. Can you imagine in your wildest dreams business, labor, and political leaders in modern America following this reality of leadership? Yah, I doubt it too.

Now, some of this is cultural in that the distribution of wealth in Japan is not nearly as insane as it is in the United States, and the so-called "talent" market in Japan is nothing like it is in the West as well. The Japanese think very differently about individual talent and its value in relation to an overall organization. It's difficult to explain, but I see it everywhere around here. And I can see both good and bad in it as well. So, I'm not saying that the Japanese know best in all cases. They don't. Neither do we, actually, but we tend to not recognize that. But I do find it remarkable that this story in Japan is really not a big deal at all. Should it be? Regardless of the obvious cultural differences, the United States may be forced to make some cultural changes like these in the near future. It will be fascinating to see how the country deals with it. Is all that "talent" worth all that cash? If it is, so be it. I'm all for paying for the best. But if not, can we finally recognize it, please? Can this be any more obvious now? So far the solution is simply to raid the pockets of us regular people to save all the experts and billionaires with a never ending series of bailouts. How long that will last who knows. I suspect not for very long before people get really pissed, but what do I know. I'm nobody. I have no power. I'm not special in that system, and don't think for a minute that that doesn't get me very down at times. I know, I know ... Obama is going to save us. Right. Got it.

Oh, and by the way, when I travel throughout Asia for Sun, Japan Airlines is always an option for obvious reasons. They fly there a lot. And I generally choose based on times and prices, etc -- just like everyone else (well, everyone else who flies 3rd class, I mean). So, do you think knowing that JAL's CEO is taking the freaking bus to work hanging on to the damn strap like I do and making less money than his pilots will affect my decision to choose an airline? You can absolutely count on it. Never mind that the service on JAL (and most Asian airlines) is vastly superior to every single American and European carrier in the air, I'm talking this guy's plane because he's talking the bus. Period. And Nishimatsu didn't initiate this no-frills style of management when the U.S. fell off the financial cliff a few months ago. Nope. He started a couple of years ago. Anyway, I gotta calm down. Here are some related links talking about this issue. Good stuff. All worth a read if you are just a regular working stiff trying to figure out how to retire and put your kid through college.

Ah, one more thing before I forget. And this is a big deal. If you want to build community in this new era -- one where the people have more of a voice than ever before -- do what Nishimatsu-san does. It's required. How else would you have any credibility whatsoever?

I was always taught growing up that leadership was being there in the trenches even doing the jobs that no-one else wanted to do...the behaviour of the CEO's of USA's Vehicle Manufacturers in washington recently told me that they were not leaders but opportunistic & greedy individuals more concerned about themselves than their country, shareholders, employees or any other person. To see this behaviour from Haruka Nishimatsu is a big eye opener and actually reframes my perspective of Japanese culture. Thanks very much for posting Jim...much appreciated

Posted by Che Kristo on December 30, 2008 at 10:14 AM JST #

In the U.S. there are CEOs' that take business seriously and others only in it for the money. I think "Real" leadership is lacking in the U.S. because greed has replaced it. Think of the U.S. car industry execs flying to Washington to get a bailout by showing up with hat in hand and jet in pocket. And only after the Senators made some comments about it then they changed. I believe at the present rate of decline in social, moral and common sense values in particular, the U.S. may not be able to pull out of the nose dive it is in. One example is the idea people have that President elect Obama is going to save the country and thing else: the thinking person would have to ask, "What's coming down the pike..."

Posted by Robert J on December 30, 2008 at 11:11 AM JST #

Jim, great post on leadership and action (I picked it up on a Google Alert). Mr. Nishimatsu is a great example of a leader in action. True leaders connect with their people and live in such a way the people will want to follow. It reminds me of stories I've read about George Washington. He refused to take a salary, limited his own power and was happy to retire to his country home as soon as he could. Oh yes, and he also put his life on the line many times, and often for people who didn't like him. As a society we need to get back to doing the right thing for the right reason. -Michael

Posted by Michael Ray Hopkin on December 30, 2008 at 08:20 PM JST #

Loved all three articles, thanks so much for pointing them out. That really is true leadership. Not just talking the talk about cutting costs and focusing on what's important but really walking the walk.

p.s. Don't you just love this week? It's so quiet, so easy to get stuff done! :)

Posted by melanie gao on December 31, 2008 at 01:59 AM JST #

Actions may speak louder than words, but values speak louder than actions.

I have this vision of CEO's around the country taking the bus to work and eating in the company cafeteria, because it is what "Management Gurus" say they should do. Nothing in the value system of these CEO's has changed, they are just acting the part they've been told they should act.

Be real, be yourself. If the corporate culture you have created supports being a strap-hanging CEO, do it. If it doesn't, don't just ape other CEO's who get good press, change your attitude and act accordingly.

Posted by Gunther Brinkman on December 31, 2008 at 02:12 PM JST #

I feel your frustration. I'm all for paying for "talent", but don't you know talent by what it produces? For my (tax) money, if you have to ask for goverment money to save your business, then your next breath needs to be used to say, "and we'll use some of it to hire someone better than me."

Posted by Mario Vittone on January 01, 2009 at 12:29 AM JST #

"I have this vision of CEO's around the country taking the bus to work and eating in the company cafeteria, because it is what "Management Gurus" say they should do. Nothing in the value system of these CEO's has changed, they are just acting the part they've been told they should act."

True, but the Dilberts and Dilbertas of the world know the difference.

Posted by dilberta on January 02, 2009 at 03:15 PM JST #

I don`t think Nishimatsu is following anyone, to be honest. I think he`s just doing what`s necessary to save cash for his company. CEOs are not so special that they need special rules to elevate them so far above the rest of us. My entire view of leadership has changed in the last two years since living outside the U.S., and Nishimatsu has stretched my views even further. He`s demonstrating profound respect for his company, his employees, and the situation they all find themselves in. I`d love to see this leadership emerge in other areas as well.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on January 02, 2009 at 04:05 PM JST #

Here`s another interesting article on Mr. JAL:

Sink or swim: Haruka Nishimatsu, chief executive Japan Airlines

It seems that he was "surprised" to be appointed CEO, which is refreshing when compared to CEO attitudes in the U.S. I guess leadership doesn`t always have to come from those in your face all the time because this guy spent most of his career behind the scenes. Also encouraging is the last two paragraphs of the article where direct responsibly is asserted. Again, you rarely see this in the United States:


Nishimatsu says that in the big picture, JAL's change process has to be much more than just talk - Asia's biggest airline needs to genuinely be overhauled. While some say his plan does not go far enough, particularly in terms of job cuts, Nishimatsu says pragmatism must be adhered to. He also insists that if his targets are not met that he will take full responsibility.

"If you were to ask is this the perfect, completely realisable cost-cutting plan, then that is a very difficult thing to declare," he says. "But if we don't achieve our targets, I do not intend to stay on."


Posted by Jim Grisanzio on January 02, 2009 at 04:47 PM JST #

Alan ... thanks for that link. :) I hadn`t seen that. Cool that the issue is getting picked up.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on January 02, 2009 at 04:49 PM JST #

"It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently." - Warren Buffett

We wonder why American innovation lags behind our Asian counterparts and then we see the impressively influential actions of an enlightened executive like JAL's Mr. Nishimatsu. Bravo. In his company, the ‘Three Stooges’ from the colossally out of touch Big 3 US automakers would be receiving another form of American bailout— unemployment.

Posted by Loring Barnes on January 02, 2009 at 11:14 PM JST #

Loring ... I have a lot of respect for Buffett and I think if more American CEOs would follow his lead we`d all be better off. And you`d think more of them would do just that, but I don`t understand why they don`t. He`s \*much\* more successful than they are! And, yeah, the Big 3 execs wouldn`t last 30 seconds in Japan. That`s not to say that Japanese companies are always better (they aren`t). Just look at JAL. It got itself into a great deal of trouble over the years, but the point is that the Japanese don`t create such wealth extremes between execs and regular people and most Americans execs would not be able to deal with that.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on January 03, 2009 at 02:17 AM JST #

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