Demystifying the “L” Word

I’ve always been skeptical of the word “Leadership.”

Leadership has always been a word that’s proliferated with the vague context of “creating” and “nurturing” young leaders, but it’s never explained how this nurturing happens. The question arises — what are the leadership qualities that should be instilled in these young people?

You can only imagine the distress this passive aggressive introvert felt when she heard the term five years ago, especially as said introvert was trying to enter the job market. It was pretty intimidating.

Thankfully, it became a little easier to grasp after entering the job market, through a few helpful introductory courses that outline the useful skills of a leader. These included listening skills, negotiation skills, teamwork and time management, among other things.

Which is all great, and it makes sense. But it sounded hollow to me. Like it’s a manipulation for the greater good of the corporate culture.

Most of these skills are almost always learned through on-the-job experience, which is why role-playing during these courses was almost jarring — it felt like ticking a box for demonstrating said skill, rather than understanding how it could be applied in real life. In real life the introvert within me still exists, parrying external pressures to “come out of the shell” and exude these intangible leadership qualities, whatever they may be.

To some extent, being surrounded by people at different stages of the career ladder helps put the word “leadership” into perspective. After a while, you can easily recall the familiar qualities of a leader; charismatic, appears to “lead” his or her team towards a certain goal (all the while being a “boss”), and ultimately, achieving that goal. Somewhere in there, you learn that a leader is also assertive, capable of steering meetings, making sure everyone is heard, and making sure everyone does what they’re supposed to.

A few months ago, I stumbled on an article by Yancey Strickler, co-founder and CEO of Kickstarter, about what drives a business culture. It’s a great article that conveyed how even successful people are trying to make sense of their role and circumstances — one of the things he spoke about was leadership and management, citing Konosuke Matsushita.

Konosuke Matsushita was born in 1894, Japan. After his family lost almost all their inheritance and fortune, it fell on Konosuke to restore the family fortunes. At the age of nine, he began working odd jobs, like apprenticing at a charcoal brazier shop, and at a bicycle wholesale store, before he landed a job at Osaka Electric Light Company at the age of 15

At 22, with a loan from a friend and money from kimonos his wife pawned away, he decided to strike out on his own and fund his own invention.

In 1918, his company Matsushita Electric Appliance Factory, was launched, later named Matsushita Electric, and finally settled to the company we all now know as Panasonic.

In Japan, he was referred to as the “god of management”, and wrote books of his thoughts on the topic in Thoughts on Man and Not For Bread Alone — the latter is what Strickler recommended in his article.

In the preface of Not For Bread Alone, Matsushita wrote:

“If you grant that a business exists because it is necessary to society — because it responds to people’s needs — the basic rule of management is self-evident: learn what the people want and respond to it.”

With that noble chord, I was hooked. Throughout his book, Matsushita never wavered in the sincerity of how he delivered his lessons and messages on effective leadership. He was honest, claiming that he possessed neither charisma nor wisdom when he managed his company. So instead of the learned and tried corporate skills, he shared his principles for what makes good management.

For the sake of this article, we should state the difference between leadership and management:

  • Management makes sure subordinates who report to the manager do the work, and almost always includes authority figures.
  • Leadership inspires followers to get the job done, and doesn’t involve an authoritative figure.

While Matsushita never calls it leadership, there was something about how he explained effective management that convinced me he was an effective leader too — the honesty of his tone, his admittance that even though he was the CEO of a company, it didn’t mean that he knew more than his employees, and his constant wish to always try to do best by his people and customers — it was inspiring.

Here are a few useful things about being a good leader that you wouldn’t necessarily hear at a leadership course:

Know thy self

“The person with a sense of self is aware of his own imperfections and, at the same time he is determined to be accurate in his evaluation of a situation.”

Matsushita maintains that one has to have an objective view of themselves. Be honest with yourself on what your strengths and weaknesses are. Practicing that sense of clarity on oneself can also be applied to how you make decisions that come your way.

Trust your people — The Collective Wisdom

“I would rather overrate the abilities of my employees than underestimate them.”

An individual will always have one perspective or idea in any given situation, which limits the overall potential of what could be achieved. To truly think of all sides of a solution to a problem, Matsushita encourages his readers to trust. Exercise to build this trust between you and your peers. That’s one of the ways they’ll feel esteemed in the work that they do.

And when they know that they are trusted to contribute their opinion, they feel valued. Everyone has something to offer to the table whether they know it or not, so invite them to contribute their view to the issue at hand.

This leads to the second most important theme in the book; the “Collective Wisdom.”

This was a recurring theme in his book, and it is interlinked to the teamwork culture. To Matsushita, a company or a team should act like a beehive, utilizing all viewpoints and expertise to arrive at the right solution.

What I love about the idea of the collective wisdom (which, if you think about it, is an obvious concept) is that it brings peers into one single, focused unit, bent on solving the problem.

You are the culture you create

“Positive attitudes on both sides will augment the productivity of the team, and contribute to the personal growth of all concerned.”

This is another very obvious concept, and not all that different from “Treat others like you want to be treated.”

We all have certain behaviors that we’re either aware of or oblivious to. These behaviors could be either good or bad, and if they’re bad, well, we’re all humans in the end.

What Matsushita suggests though, is to be aware of specific negative behaviors and curb them before they infect your surroundings. For example, spreading rumors or gossip, or other behaviors that actively chip away at the efficiency of the workplace are counterproductive to the collective vision and mission of your team.

Matsushita recalls a few of the things he did to encourage the culture he aspired for his company to have, and that is to constantly share his vision of what he wanted his company to become with his employees. He told them what he wished to achieve, and in the broader sense, what the goal of his company is (to make the lives of the Japanese people easier with the inventions they produced).

“First, I wanted to give my employees a chance to dream of the future…. To have dreams is to have a vested interest, a motivation. The man who can inspire a vision is a good manager.”

In doing that, he removed any vagueness to the overall purpose of his employees when they come to work at his company.

We’ve all heard the phrase: Negativity begets negativity, and positivity begets positivity. So be the kind of individual you want your team to be, whether it is instilling clear work ethics and values, or creating an environment that relies on the collective wisdom of the whole.

After reading the above, you probably feel cheated. After all, at first glance, it doesn’t seem that remarkable, right?

But it kind of is. What I truly admired about Matsushita was that he dared to keep his sense of idealism alive in his company. Not to say that he lacked business sense (from the anecdotes in his book, he was a sharp man!), but he believed that he could bring a sense of himself to work, allowing it to infiltrate the ranks of his company and to his people.

Instead of following the steps of what a CEO should be, Matsushita created the type of leader that resonates with him. He put those principles for himself, so he could steer his company in the right direction.

In the end, you can pick and choose the qualities and seek advice of what makes a good leader, but it’s important that a leader begins with the best version of himself or herself, and evolves from there.