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

Partly because of jet lag, I woke up at 5 a.m. By the time I was done replying to my e-mails, it was already 6:30a.m. Wearing snow boots, cap, scarf and gloves I had bought for Davos and carrying a sizable backpack, I left my hotel room a little after 7 a.m. Outside it was still dark and sprinkling snow. It must have snowed all the night before; the ground crunched with my every step. I walked the descending street, checking my every step so that I wouldn’t slip.

The hotel in which I stayed stood atop a hill two blocks up from the main street. In front of it was a church. Descend the narrow path between the church and the hotel, and you reach a backstreet where the shuttle bus stops. Go down that backstreet further, and you come to the main street with all its luxury brand shops. Turn left on the main street, keep going, and you reach Congress Center, the main venue. Walk about ten minutes and you’ll enter a security check lodge. Come through the security checks – which are equivalent to those of an airport – and you finally arrive at the main venue. I checked in my coat, cap and scarf at the cloak and headed to the venue for the breakfast reception.

The “World Conference” of developing companies was scheduled for 7:30 a.m. It consisted of just over ten members: one from the United States, three from Europe, one from the Middle East, two from India, one from China, and myself representing Japan. I arrived at the room ten minutes before the scheduled start and few had arrived yet. I quickly took my seat directly in front of the organizer – a position that Japanese would call kamiza (“seat of honor”), where they would hesitate to sit. When you start participating on the world stage, the early bird catches the worm; the more you make yourself stand out, the better. You don’t want to remain humble.

The meeting got underway. As I expected, participants from India and the Western nations spoke actively. Some would even speak out when another person had their hand raised. I decided to speak up unyieldingly. I would have to start talking just as the person talking is – or I think is – about to end, and turn the conversation to my favor. I was thoroughly trained in such methods of speaking at Harvard and through later experiences in international committees of the YEO (now the EO) and APAX board meetings. 
I’m always convinced that how much you contribute at a meeting determines how people evaluate you later. People who don’t speak out at all keep minimize their presence, while conversely those who speak heighten their presence. Once that happens, people start paying attention to you, which makes it easier for you to make the next comment, and you create a positive cycle.

This meeting ended just before 9 a.m. I exited the room and looked at my schedule list for the day, which my secretary had made for me.

There were ten to twenty sessions going on simultaneously here at Davos. With close to 2500 participants, even with 20 sessions there was an average of over 100 people attending each seminar. Everyone would rush to the popular sessions, which as a rule required prior registration online.

If you forget to register, the session will fill up, and you will have to wait in line until the session has an opening. It’s almost like going on a waiting list for an airline and staying in line. I had read through the program before I left Japan and had filed applications (or had my secretary file applications) right when registration began, so I was fortunate enough to get a seat at almost all sessions that I wanted.

I met Mr. Heizo Takenaka [former Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications] at the venue, and we spoke for about an hour. Come to think of it, I hadn’t had a decent conversation with a Japanese person since coming on this business trip. And I’ve been using English constantly in meetings and conferences since the previous day. There’s always a time during a business trip when you crave to speak Japanese.

At 10:15 a.m., I attended a session titled “Next Generation Materials” At a venue called “Studio” where the entire front wall of the room was a monitor screen, a professor from the Harvard University Graduate Scool of Design(a Japanese woman) and a professor from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT were debating on what next-generation materials would be like. They said that the materials of the next generation will not be titanium or plastic, but will in fact be local soil and stones. And they said that the indicator that would be most important in architecture is “Efficiency of CO2 consumption.” In other words, the key issue will be the extent to which the total CO2 consumed in construction and in maintenance can be reduced. The session began with a slide presentation that showed the production processes in making Coke cans and how much distance they travel and how much CO2 they consume, and then explained the importance of using soil and stones of the local area. It was quite convincing.

Next, at the same Studio, I attended a session that discussed “The Information Age and Human Behavior I” There was nothing particularly new here, but it got me thinking about what kinds of education are appropriate for children who are born in an age of the internet and mobile phones and grow up participating in social networks and playing games. I personally feel that the human capabilities required in the knowledge society are basically the same whether we have the internet or not.

I didn’t schedule any appointments for lunch, so I went around “networking” with many participants at the main venue as I ate my sandwich. I walked around, and whenever I met an acquaintance, I approached him, shook hands and updated my recent status. I repeated this many, many times with each person I met. While I was eating on a sofa, I talked for quite a long time with a person who manages an airline company in Kuwait. I felt that, by talking from the heart, our relationship shifted from the “acquaintance” stage to the “friendship” stage. When you can ultimately take the relationship to a “comrade” or “close friend” stage, it enriches your life further. Nothing is more exciting than when you can increase your friends around the world in such a way. Even if you can’t meet them face to face later on, you can stay connected by exchanging Christmas cards or by occasionally reporting how you are doing by e-mail.

Speaking of “networking,” I’d like to introduce to you here an interesting research presentation at the aforementioned session. It stated that when you keep track of people who actively go around networking at a reception for a business plan contest, you ultimately find many of them are recipients of some kind of award. The presentation didn’t explain the correlation, but I thought it was interesting that it claims you could tell who would succeed just by looking at how he or she behaves.

In fact, much of the value of Davos comes not from what you learn from the sessions but from what you gain from informal conversations outside the sessions. I could talk indefinitely on this topic but rather than going into details, I’d like to move on.

I left the main venue and headed to the Hotel Belvedere where I would be taking part in a session. It was snowing. I trudged along, thinking, “This would prevent some people from attending events in places other than the main venue.” It was just around 8 p.m. in Japan. I decided to use the time on this walk to call home.

My eldest son was about to take the entrance examinations for junior high school. I was also worried about how my other four children were doing. It had become custom for me to talk with each one of them whenever I called while on a business trip. Once I ended a call without talking to one of my children, thinking that it wasn’t necessary since I had talked with him on the call I made just prior to that one. A while later, I got a call and was told that he had cried about it. Since then, I’ve made it a rule to talk properly with everyone. This ultimately makes my calls home quite long. I reached the hotel, passed the security gate, checked my coat in at the cloak, and went to the session room.

The session I would take part in started at 2:30 p.m. I keep saying that I would “take part” in it, but I wasn’t speaking as a panelist, since the session was in the form of a workshop. I was to lead discussions for a table of several people as a discussion leader and ultimately share what we discussed. It was the same format as the Group Discussion & Class Presentation style that we often use at Globis University.

The topic was on “New Corporate Governance in the Post Crisis World” The underlying theme for this year’s Davos Conference was, “Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild.” In other words, it aimed to rethink what the new “normal state” is after the global economic crisis, and to redesign and rebuild new systems. As symbolized in the expression “New Normal,” we’re not returning to the previous state. This year’s Davos Conference discussed what the next, new and normal state is.

The table I was assigned to consisted of a Spaniard, a Mexican, a Canadian, an American and a Japanese. Six people made the perfect group size to conduct a discussion. And it was highly diverse in terms of nationality and personal background.

The session first raised the vague question, “What is corporate governance?” and did a full-room discussion, and then split into tables for group discussions.

There were five topics: “Values,” “Board Structure,” “Wage System,” “Inheritance” and “Governance of Subsidiaries.” Each group was assigned a topic. My group was assigned “Board Structure.” We were to discuss how many members of what kind and with what considerations would best make up a board of directors.

We had about 40 minutes to discuss the topic. After introductions, I had each participant raise a case example at his company and then we discussed its problems and possible improvements. The board of a Japanese company mostly consisted of internal members, with only two external members: an attorney and an experienced corporate owner. The American company had 13 board members, of which everyone other than the CEO was external. The external members each had clear roles, such as customer representative, shareholder representative, representative of business partners, and a representative who was a former government official. The Mexican company, on the other hand, was owned 100% by the government – probably because it was an oil-related company, and its board consisted of five members from the worker union, five from the government (current ministers) and four external members under political assignment.

We discussed their problems and debated on what organization is best. The American company that participated in my group had managed to weather this economic crisis with comparatively little damage, and, according to another participant (representing Europe), is doing very well.

The group discussion time ended, and I stood up and presented a summary of what we discussed. After every group made their presentations, we went into full-room discussions. As I mentioned earlier, your active comments (contribution) here determines how the people around you evaluate you. Not saying anything is the worst thing you could do. I, as always, presented my own opinion two or three times at moments I deemed was right.

The discussion led to the consensus that boards would ultimately shift from an Anglo-Saxon style of placing the focus on shareholders to a more Japanese style of emphasizing stakeholders – a state that I had been talking about all long and had been incorporating into the Globis philosophy. In other words, corporate management would shift toward maintaining a balanced relationship not only with shareholders but also with employees, customers, business partners, and society in general.

Time came for the hour-and-45-minute workshop to come to a close. I thanked the participants and left the hotel. I wondered if I should go back to the main venue or walk towards where I came from and return to the hotel first. With jet lag and fatigue from attending the meetings early in the morning, I decided to return to the hotel first.

After a little rest, I headed to Japan Night just after 7 p.m. The event had already started when I arrived. After going around greeting all the participants from Japan, I decided to treat myself to some food. I hadn’t eaten anything decent since I came to Europe. I almost cried with joy (I may be exaggerating) when I saw that there was oden. I didn’t hesitate for a second helping and enjoyed a happy chat over some sake.

The Japanese participants were all prominent people as well. From the business circle were presidents Yasuchika Hasegawa of Takeda Pharmaceutical and Sadayuki Sakakibara of Toray, chairmen Toru Nagashima of Teijin and Junichi Ujiie of Nomura Holdings, and president Takeshi Niinami of Lawson representing the younger generation. Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura of Sumitomo Chemical, who is already named as the next chairman of Keidanren, was also at Davos, although he wasn’t present at this venue. From the academic world were President Atsushi Seike of Keio University, Professor Hiro Takeuchi of Hitotsubashi University, and Mr. Heizo Takenaka, among others. Also present were leaders from a wide variety of areas, such as Sadako Ogata of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Haruhiko Kuroda of Asia Development Bank, and Yukiya Amano of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Unfortunately there were no politicians in attendance. I can understand that the Diet is in session, but to have no one there was quite sad.

Korea has its President and several cabinet members attending Davos. From India are two important ministers. From China is Li Keqiang, who is tipped to be the next President. In contrast, not a single minister is here from Japan to attend the first half of Davos, which is the most important part. Only primary ministers can take the podium at these Davos sessions. And this is where public opinion is formed. We’re seeing public opinion quickly take shape and Japan is not present for it.

Takenaka-san, who felt the danger of this situation, called on the Democratic Party of Japan, which decided to send Yoshito Sengoku, the Minister of State for Special Missions, Hirotaka Akamatsu, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and Masayuki Naoshima, the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. But they will be arriving on the fourth day, which is when the Davos Conference is winding down. I’ll be leaving Davos on that day and so will a fairly large number of other people as well.

While Davos holds this Japan Night every year, its sponsor has constantly changed over the years. Initially it was funded by business circles, but the University of Tokyo and Keio University supported it last year, and this year JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) was a sponsor. I figure that circumstances are tough for the private and academic sectors to offer funding.

The Nightcap was a session beginning at 10:30 p.m. that featured James Cameron, director of the movie Avatar. It was at a movie theater in downtown Davos. I arrived there at 10 p.m., but, unable to enter yet, I decided to go to a cafe across the street to chat and exchange information with Hiroshi Tasaka [President of SophiaBank] and Kumi Fujisawa [Vice President of SophiaBank].

Having been on my feet for so long, I had a pleasant time chatting as I relaxed. I was able to register to Avatar in advance, but my two acquaintances were unable to do so because of the popularity of the program and said they were going to line up and wait for cancellations.

I left the cafe and entered the theater. Shaking hands with Mr. Cameron, I sat at the center first-row seat in front of the screen. Here at this year’s Davos, I tried to sit at the very front as much as possible so I could feel the energy of the speaker close up.

The theater was, as I had expected, quite empty. It was snowing quite heavily, so many people probably decided not to go out so late at night. I went outside to my two acquaintances in line and gave them a thumbs-up sign, letting them know that the house was empty and that they would be allowed in for sure. Kumi Fujisawa was trembling with a scarf wrapped all around her long hair, but I was able to note that her face turned to an expression of relief. There’s a huge difference between waiting in line thinking it might all be in vain and knowing you’ll get in for sure.

Everyone who waited for cancellations was ultimately allowed in, and the Nightcap began. It started with a speech from the CEO of Fox. “Avatar beat the box office record held by Titanic for 12 years. Everyone in the movie business said no one could beat that record, but the one who did it is none other than Jim Cameron himself (who also directed Titanic).” With this introduction, Mr. Cameron entered. As his long gray hair rustled, he stood in front of me and started speaking. I list below some words from his speech that left an impression on me.

– The filming of Avatar took four and a half years. Two of them involved no filming at all and were spent on developing and coordinating the technology.

– What is important is the mentality to venture out. “The only limit is your imagination” – I agree with this. Put another way, you’ll never see any limits as long as you keep imagining.

– Some people say that the success of Avatar lies in its 3D technology, but that doesn’t explain everything. The spiritual aspects, the notion of community, considerations of nature, love, and all other factors that run at the base of the story are what combined to make the film a success.

– Achieving this success involved strict discipline and the fusion of art and technology.

After the speech, he showed us three scenes that he said were his favorite clips. The audience put on 3D glasses and enjoyed watching them.

The first was a scene where the protagonist arrives at planet Pandora and first encounters his own avatar floating inside a test tube.

The next was from the scene where three enter an unknown land as avatars and are chased by an unknown animal and end up jumping from a waterfall.

And the third scene showed the protagonist riding a bird called Icon for the first time and flying with his comrades.

Mr. Cameron explained how he shot these scenes. Using computer graphics in all the scenes, the team created an environment that was similar to the setting of the scene and used the motion capture process in order to create realistic, human movements. That’s “the only limit is your imagination” in action.

He went on to explain the possibilities of 3D, showing us clips of basketball and auto racing, and then accepted questions from the audience.

To one of the questions, “3D technology has been around for several decades; how was it that you were able to succeed with it?” he answered:

– Many movies in the past were made for the sole purpose of showing 3D images. In other words, 3D technology was the primary focus. With Avatar, the story was the main focus and we’ve kept 3D as something that merely complements the story.

– Technology has obviously improved dramatically from the past. Projectors have made particular progress, and many theaters today are now capable of projecting high definition images that are created using advanced technology. And of course, innovation in the camera itself has played a major role as well.

– And finally, there was strong will. You need great will to change things (great will for transformation).

What inspired me most were his words about fusing art and technology, and fusing intuitive and analytical thinking. What’s great about Mr. Cameron is his intense curiosity, depth of knowledge in technology, and uncompromising mentality. I felt that film directors of the coming age would require an understanding of technology as an essential skill.

When the session ended, I had a question that I desperately wanted to ask him, so I immediately approached him and asked. My question was, “The Avatar story has many similarities to Japanese animation, like Princess Mononoke and Mobile Suit Gundam. Have these animation works inspired your work?”

This was his answer: “These concepts have been around for 30 to 40 years, and I didn’t learn them from Japanese animation. They basically learn from each other.” I didn’t fail to notice his expression show a sudden and instant change. He probably gets the same question quite often. I personally wanted him to say, “Of course, they’ve inspired me.” It wouldn’t have reduced Mr. Cameron’s ingenuity or greatness even if he had said so. In fact, it would have heightened them.

I left the theater and headed to Music Night, sponsored by Wipro Technologies of India. It was a nightclub (or a “disco,” in ancient terms) where people could dance. A video of an Indian singer was projected on a huge screen, and Indian men and women danced on the dance floor to Bollywood music. The experience was new to me, as I was used to Western nightclubs, but I also felt that we could be seeing more of such scenes as India increased its economic presence.

I was very tired, so I walked around the floor and greeted people I knew, and then left the nightclub. Carefully protecting myself in my cap, scarf and gloves, I decided to walk up the steep hill to my hotel.

January 30, 2010
At Zurich Airport,
Yoshito Hori

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