Leadership Lessons from Japan

Deb and I just got back from a three and a half week trip to Guam, Saipan, and Japan. Most of the time was spent teaching, with occasional breaks for fun and time with friends. On the last leg of our trip, we spent nine days in Tokyo.

Japan is a fascinating country!  Everywhere we went, there were valuable lessons on leadership and service.  

Lesson #1

Japanese people are extremely courteous and well-mannered.  In our travels, via trains and through crowded sidewalks, we did not witness any rude or inconsiderate behaviors.  Although we don't speak Japanese and it is obvious that we are not from Japan, everyone treated us the same. In fact, there was only one gentleman, at the train station booth in Kamakura, that displayed an impatient, demanding approach, which really stood out. He was the exception, not the norm.

Leadership Lesson:  Treat others with dignity and respect.

Lesson #2

On our first two days, we decided to go to Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea. We needed to refresh our neoteny! Lines were very long, often taking up to an hour. What surprised us was the patience of those waiting in line, especially the children. Everyone calmly moved along, conversing with their family members, exhibiting no signs of frustration or anger. Deb and I were so impressed!

Leadership Lesson:  Demonstrate patience and understanding even when things are not as you may want them to be.

Lesson #3

Another astounding observation we made at Tokyo Disney were baby strollers, filled with overflowing bags of purchased goods and diaper bags that were left unattended as families waited in lines for hours. No one touched or disturbed the strollers or their contents. This clearly demonstrated how “bowl-centric” the Japanese people are. If the behavioral code says, “don’t steal,” then people abide and trust that others will too.  

In America, these items would be gone. In fact, people probably wouldn't have enough trust to leave their belongings unattended.  

Leadership Lesson:  Live by the “bowl!” Demonstrate integrity and people will not only trust you but you will provide others with a sense of security and certainty.

Lesson #4

Service at Japanese stores ranks several notches higher than any service we’ve received elsewhere in the world.  Part of their secret is the concept of “kikubari,” or the “act of anticipation.” Japanese workers are trained to identify customer needs and fulfill them before being asked. It’s another version of "lagniappe."

For example, at our hotel near Tokyo Disney, we discovered a laundromat and decide to wash some clothes. After we put our clothes into the washer, we realized that we didn’t have any detergent.  As we were strategizing where to buy some, Debbie noticed that the washing machine included an option to automatically dispense soap, if needed, for a few extra yen! We were so relieved and appreciative that someone thought through all possible scenarios and created a washing machine with a soap dispensing function.  That’s kikubari!

Leadership Lesson:  The next process is the customer.  Anticipate your customers and employee needs and do what you can to make their encounter with your products and services seamless.

Lesson #5

Lastly, while in Japan, I was honored to work with a group of young Japanese business leaders, which I was introduced to by Duane Kurisu, aio founder and chairman. One is a senior executive at Pokeman. Another created an organization, called "very50," that trains and sends students overseas to countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Nepal, for the purpose of developing sustainable businesses (social entrepreneurship).  Many were graduates of top institutions, such as Tokyo University.  Everyone could speak and understand English.

Despite their many accomplishments and credentials, they possesed a high degree of humility, openness to learning, and inquisitive minds.  As successful as they all are, they listened attentively and were glowing in their appreciation for what we shared. One even taught himself how to play the ukelele in a few months and played/sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" for us as a parting gift! We were so honored and touched by their enthusiasm, genorisity and demonstration of the aloha spirit.

Leadership Lesson:  Stay humble and be willing to learn from others. Operate from a “sense of imperfection,” not arrogance, and your mind will open to many possibilities.

Debbie and I love Japan. We have a strong affinity to the culture and the way of the people. If you haven’t visited Japan, put it on your bucket list. You will learn a lot about leadership, customer service and process improvement from our friends across the Pacific.  

Domo Arigato Gozaimasu!


You were lucky to live there for five years.  Japan is certainly fantastic.  We look forward to going back.  Not sure if we had a previous life there, but we certainly feel close to Japan, as my grandparents were from there.  Would love to hear your story one day! Thanks for sharing.  Happy Holidays, glenn


Thanks, Nate!  We did have a great visit to Japan and learned a lot from all of you young leaders across the Pacific.