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Humility and leadership – finding a sweet spot

WPP’s Kota Takaichi – in Japan – says it’s possible to lead with humility, even in the global context, without being negatively humble

In Japan, silence indicates agreement. A smile means appreciation. And humility still underpins business etiquette.

Silence is hard to comprehend globally, and it becomes even more challenging in a digital environment. When no one asks questions – even though minds are racing – a meeting can fail to achieve its objectives and issues are relegated to side conversations outside the group. The desire to show humility – and not appear arrogant – is what keeps Japanese meeting rooms quiet.

However, the international business community may interpret silence as disinterest, shyness, suppressed disagreement, or even hidden anger. Outside Japan, silence can breed confusion. This is a tough lesson for new Japanese leaders to learn.

Beyond silence

Japanese business leaders stand out from their global counterparts not only in the way they respond also in their unique behaviours.

In Japan, even seating arrangements – in meetings or taxis – are determined by seniority. And when you make a point in meetings, you must wait for the most senior person to speak, and you must wait to speak until your turn – by rank – is reached. Hierarchy still dominates in Japan.

And it’s not just in Japan that we see these humble behaviours. In Korea, it is even frowned upon for a junior member of staff to look at their seniors when they are drinking. It is a minefield for anyone looking in from outside to navigate.

The shortcomings of this approach are becoming increasingly clear when contrasted with international company behaviour. For example, a subject-matter expert might not be the most senior person in the room so why wait for more senior people to speak first? Meetings are scheduled for a finite period – that might not allow for everyone to speak.

For global companies, leadership is about empowerment, and supporting the right to speak up; it’s not about hierarchy.

Impact on portability

What does all this mean for role portability in Japan? It can be hard for talented Japanese individuals to join global companies and adjust to different cultures. This needs to be addressed.

That is why I make it my personal mission to nurture the next generation of leadership in Japan. Leadership is about being bold, brave and progressive, and it is about giving your juniors the opportunity to participate and grow. Anyone who enjoys the privilege of leadership should enable their juniors to achieve their highest ambitions.

But what gets in the way of making this shift towards personal and professional growth is the enduring concept of ‘humility’. Japan is currently undergoing an economic transformation. It is crucial for Japan to demonstrate its ability to lead change. This can be achieved by adapting to new circumstances and successfully navigating them.

This means its representatives should be leaders of change too. They should be present when decisions that impact the future of Japan are made, and they must engage with the rest of the world.

Impact on global growth

Japan is the world’s third largest economy. It enjoyed an economic boom in the 1980s and 1990s – and it did so despite its tendency to look inwards.

But today’s world is digital and connected. We think less about borders when we contemplate growth. Now GenZ has dispensed with traditional, limiting ideas and is much freer in its behaviours.

Brands are flowing into Japan and Korea, and with them come new experiences, fresh thinking and new ways of doing things. Already, students who have studied overseas are bringing back to Japan their own leadership styles that are informed by global practices and nurtured in a more progressive environment.

But business and government in Japan are slow to change. They still operate with a traditional mindset. It's important for new leaders to show future leaders what a global leader looks like, especially those in Japan.

But let’s not be too hasty in being dismissive of humility. With Japanese humility comes a huge source of pride in Japanese and Korean qualities associated with precision and engineering excellence, amongst other things. We still need a progressive mindset, and we need to nurture leaders in Japan who can take a shot at the goal, unapologetically and with pride. In Japan – going forwards – we need strikers.

While tradition can be charming and have its place, when it discourages participation – especially in global trade – it can become a problem, and Japanese leaders need to be heard internationally. But there is a sweet spot.

Kota Takaichi

Managing Director, Marketing and Growth, WPP

published on

05 December 2023



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