Yoshito Hori speaks about leadership lessons with enthusiasm in a suit and tie

I took part in the opening reception of the Global Leadership Summit (GLS) soon after I checked in at my Denver hotel. I had no time to rest after a snowboarding trip to Vail. Precisely speaking, I wound up with no time to recover because I was snowboarding up until the very last minute.

The global organization of entrepreneurs sponsoring the GLS is called the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO). Candidate entrepreneurs must satisfy three conditions to become a YPO member. They must be 50 or younger, hold the position of president, and turn over more than one billion yen a year. The YPO maintains regional chapters in dozens of countries and has 18,000 members worldwide. Its members employ 17 million people around the world. Companies operated by YPO members are said to post aggregate net sales equal to the world’s sixth largest GDP. YPO member presidents manage close to 180 companies in Japan.

Held at the end of each February, the GLS corresponds with the annual convention for the organization.

Several years had passed since I joined the YPO, but I had never taken part in the GLS. I made up my mind to attend for the first time because my overseas friends had recommended that I go, telling me how great it was. I needed to attend this year’s meeting at any cost because I was scheduled to leave the organization upon my 50th birthday, which wasn’t far off.

The opening reception for the GLS was held in a tent on a main thoroughfare in Denver. To compare this to Tokyo, it would be like an entire section of Ginza-dori being closed to pitch a tent. This was an amazing approach. The way the reception was held was not popular among the locals, but I figured the city office thought it was worthy of such a special setup. Those of us in the Japanese contingent arranged to meet in a hotel, went to the reception together, spoke with each other for a while and then moved to a dinner party. I went to bed early that night to sleep off my great fatigue from snowboarding.

The GLS began early the next morning. I entered the venue to a greeting by Native American drummers and dancers. The terraced venue was reminiscent of a concert hall, seating 4,000-5,000. A band was playing music, and I later heard that the band’s main member was a Grammy winner. The GLS was staged in a flashy, American way.

I took a seat close to the front of the venue, spotted some old friends and went to say hello. We hugged each other, celebrating our reunion. There were YPO members from countries such as India, Mexico and Canada, and board members I had known from the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization (currently known as the Entrepreneurs’ Organization [EO]). This all made me feel nostalgic.

After an opening ceremony, the summit got underway. Believe it or not, the second speaker was Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks fellow. He was under house arrest, but he spoke to us wearing a suit and seated on a sofa.

It was said to be a satellite relay from Norfolk, England. The YPO had treated the session with Assange as confidential but, when you think about it, this is the man who started WikiLeaks. I started to think there would be nothing wrong with sharing the contents of the session. On this train of thought, I switched on my computer on midway through Assange’s speech, and began reporting his words on Twitter. Assange defines himself as a journalist. I could tell he was analyzing the current state of affairs based on a wide variety of information. I want to share some of what he said.

“All things are connected. Information from WikiLeaks led to overthrowing of governments in Africa and the Caribbean a few years ago. Governments have just turned over in Tunisia and Egypt because of WikiLeaks information.

“Israel has helped Mubarak remain in power in Egypt. Saudi Arabia has been supporting the government in Bahrain. The power of the people is now beginning to change these systems. Mass media is undergoing changes, too. People in power have not been able to respond properly to the emerging new media.

“Eight weeks ago, US Vice President Joe Biden called me a ‘cyber terrorist.’ Ten days ago, (former Egyptian) President Mubarak called me a ‘democrat.’”

After raising these points, the WikiLeaks founder answered questions from session participants joining via satellite.

Q: Where do you think the next revolution will take place?
A: I hope it will take place in the United States. (The audience cheered in response.) But realistically, I think Yemen will be the place.

Q: What do you think about information leaks against you as a person with power?
A: Power belongs to governments, basically. I have no power.

Q: I heard you were chosen to appear on the cover of the Time magazine. Is that true?
A: People voted for me 20 times as much as for Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. But the magazine ultimately decided against me. That’s what power means. (The audience again applauded.)

I didn’t know why, but it made me excited to listening to Assange, this blond guy speaking intellectually with an Australian accent. There was certainly a likable aspect to his approach of unhesitatingly exposing the power behind governments and criticizing mass media’s hypocrisy. Two-thirds of the audience members expressed their support for Assange in a ballot taken at the venue at the end of the session.

Assange’s words were full of his fundamental beliefs and desire to “expose the hypocrisy of people and organizations in power.” The plan is to transfer him from his house to Sweden. I think he will become something of a hero when he gets out of prison there. Assange’s approach is like a double-edged sword, but I sympathize with his anti-establishment philosophy.

How Assange was able to appear at this conference was nothing short of a mystery. The U.S. government certainly must not have wanted him to make such an appearance. Listening to his words, I could tell how “dangerous” he was to those on the power side. The U.S. government is unable to cope with WikiLeaks, which this man has created all by himself. A paradigm shift is obviously underway. I can understand why governments want to label Assange a “terrorist.” In the meantime, he may be a “hero” from the people’s perspective. We label and view the same person differently, depending on our perspectives. Copies of WikiLeaks will continue to circulate even if Assange is ultimately eliminated, because they encourage many people. The world can no longer go back to the days when nothing like WikiLeaks existed.

I believe that from this point on it will become essential to act on the assumption that all things will become accessible to the public. The times ahead of us seem pretty tough. In the meantime, individuals are continuing to increasing their power. I think their growing power has a positive meaning, and in that sense I think we are moving into an exciting period. I started to feel that we can make big changes happen in Japan, too.

Assange woke me up with his compelling appearance via satellite, which followed a boring opening speech, a dull video and the first keynote address which put me to sleep. I began to feel excited.

A main feature at this GLS was a speech by former U.S. President George W. Bush, but a little after Assange’s appearance, GLS organizers announced that Bush had cancelled his speech. To my surprise, Bush was said to have chosen to skip the conference “because Julian Assange will appear on the same stage.” So I wondered if the YPO will face greater pressure from this point on. The explanation didn’t satisfy me.

During a recess, I asked other participants what they thought about Assange. Many from the U.S. spoke negatively. The reason was simple; Assange brought more harm to the U.S. than benefits. Yet many participants from other countries voiced their support for Assange.

U.S. citizen 1:
Hearing him directly, I thought Assange was a totally different person from the image I’d had until today, which was based on how the mass media has portrayed him. His mind was much clearer than I’d imagined. He had insight and impact. I came to feel I shouldn’t allow mass media reports to influence my opinion. His appearance gave me the chance to see his other facets, which I found extremely interesting.

U.S. citizen 2:
Assange is irresponsible. His leaks are placing the lives of many people in danger. They’re undermining U.S. diplomatic interests.

Caucasian business manger from South Africa:
He’s fantastic. The U.S. government is at the mercy of this one man. The U.S. reminds me of South Africa in the apartheid era when they call him a “terrorist.” Nelson Mandela was labeled a “terrorist” for many years, but he became the president of his country through the democratic process. Bush’s cancellation was fantastic, too. I never wanted to listen to him in the first place. I want more people to expose the U.S. government’s deceptive acts in the same way Assange does.

Indian citizen:
Assange is too anti-American. I want him to attack the Indian government more because it’s also quite bad. India needs WikiLeaks.

Other participants, including English, Swiss, and Bahrain citizens:
He’s interesting. I support what he’s doing.

At a dinner party that night, I asked many entrepreneurs from different countries what they thought of Assange. All those I spoke with, excluding those from the United States, supported Assange. For example, an entrepreneur from India expressed his strong wish for Assange to “expose the Indian government’s deceptive acts.” In the meantime, many interviewees were unhappy with Bush’s decision to cancel. The majority of participants shared the view that Bush “should have communicated his way of thinking to us, instead of staying away.”

Come to think of it, one point puzzled me. “How could the YPO invite Assange?” I asked the GLS organizers directly, and they told me, “Our British chapter contacted Assange’s agent.” Inviting the WikiLeaks founder to a meeting like this actually did not look as difficult as I had thought. The organizers’ explanation led me to another question. “Why doesn’t mass media report his views?”

All companies, including American Express, Amazon.com, and The New York Times Company, have dropped their business dealings with Assange. All reports on Assange since his arrest have been one-sided criticism. My South African friend says that such media reports seem to have brainwashed everyone. I think it’s OK for some of the media to report Assange’s opinions. We should decide whether or not Assange is a “terrorist” based on our own, after listening to opinions on both sides, instead of basing our assessment on one-sided reports. I think the mass media should leave decisions up to each of us, instead of making judgments on our behalf.

This conference reunited me with many friends, included those from the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization (YEO, now EO) who had served on its international board with me from 1996 to 1998, fellow members of the YEO international forum, and people I had befriended through a primary school reconstruction project in Zimbabwe and at an event in India.

I now feel like I’ll be able to reunite with friends no matter what global meeting I choose to attend, and I think this feeling is the product of the human relations I’ve spent many years developing. Socializing activities at the GLS continued into the night. The dinner turned into a dance party after 10 p.m. As with other parties in the United States, a band started playing and people started dancing.

Honestly, I love the way American parties get going like this. Dancing after dinner is already a global party tradition. Participants from India, the Middle East, and South America danced wildly to live party music. I suddenly realized that GLS participants had all studied at U.S. universities or graduate schools, and they saved their appetite for this point in the evening. Parties in my Harvard Business School days certainly got going in that same way.

Out of nowhere, someone set up a volleyball net on the dance floor and a bunch of beach balls were thrown in. Everyone on the dance floor started swatting the beach balls around, dancing to the music. The world’s leading entrepreneurs were playing hard. The women seemed to be enjoying themselves more than the men. It’s a basic rule at the conference to bring your spouse, and many entrepreneurs attending the GLS brought their wives. (Of course, many female entrepreneurs attended the conference, too.) It was all quite charming.

A friend of mine from India called out to me while I was enjoying the party atmosphere. “Let’s have a drink together,” he told me. “I need to get drunk.” We walked to the bar counter together with arms around each other’s shoulders, and he started talking to me. I want to share what I remember about what he said to me because I think his words contained important suggestions for us.

“Japan is a lost country now. It had four prime ministers in four years. Its former finance minster committed suicide. Nothing changed in Japan. In the meantime, China is lifting up its head. China will start eating up Taiwan and Japan. Unlike Japan, China will deal on equal terms with the United States politically.

“Whenever I tell these things to my Japanese friends, they say, ‘Because of what it did during the war, Japan can’t act as a leader.’ I say that’s a load of crap. Japan has made enormous contributions to the rest of Asia since the end of World War II. Considering that, I think it’s time for Japan to stop acting in such a masochistic, apologetic way. From this point on, Japan needs a new way of thinking.

“I believe that Japan has the ability to do much greater things. Honestly, I’ve learned so many things from you. As you know from your travels, many countries in Asia went through colonization. So, those of us in Asia tend to think in an Anglo-Saxon way no matter how hard we try not to. But you were different. You gave me advice from a Japanese point of view. Your advice changed the course of my life.

“Now it’s time for me to tell you something. You’ve lived in a way very different from most people in Japan. You graduated from a prestigious university in Japan, joined Sumitomo, studied at Harvard Business School, left Sumitomo, founded a graduate school of management and turned it into the best school of its kind in Japan. You set up a fund, too. Nobody I know in Japan is as unique as you.

“Looking at the current conditions in Japan, someone outside existing frameworks like you needs to stand up and carry out daring reforms. Someone like you must form the ‘F*** You’ Party and change the established frameworks in a bold, decisive way. If that doesn’t happen, Japan will stay in this lingering slump forever.

“I want you to change your country fearlessly with the same ‘f*** you’ attitude you showed when you left Sumitomo and set up a grad school from scratch. That’s how you should live.” The Indian friend of mine spoke nonstop at me, and walked away. I went back to the dance floor, and mused on his words, watching other entrepreneurs frenetically enjoying themselves. I continued to toss back glasses of wine and champagne because the party atmosphere wouldn’t let me stay sober.

The party ended a bit past midnight, and I left the venue and went back to my hotel. There was a dance floor set up in the hotel’s lobby especially for the occasion. Music was playing. I joined people on the floor and kept dancing to the music. The hotel could turn its lobby into a disco without a second thought because the GLS organizers had booked all the facilities there. This dance floor set up in the lobby of the first-class hotel was quite fun. I wish I could just once think up something clever like this for the G1 Summit. (I wonder if President Yoshiharu Hoshino of the Hoshino Resort would agree to such an idea if I proposed it.)

I woke up with a hangover the next morning from all the drinking and dancing. The GLS in Denver soon came to an end. The GLS program honestly was a bore except for the session with Assange. President Junichiro Ida of Sanyo Foods said to me, “Conferences like this show how high the level of the G1 Summit is.” I agreed. Almost all speeches at the GLS were keynote addresses, and this conference didn’t give the participants any choices. We had to listen to speeches that didn’t interest us.

I decided to pack up and head for New York. I was scheduled to spend a night in Los Angeles, two nights in Vail, two nights in Denver and four nights in New York, and my business trip continued.

March 3, 2011
Yoshito Hori
Written on my flight back to Japan

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