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

One thing I noticed at this year’s Davos Forum was the growing criticism toward China. There were many reasons for this trend. Heizo Takenaka explained to me that China found itself under harsh criticism because “the top Chinese leader did not travel to Davos this year.”

Top leaders from all major powers, namely the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia showed up at the Davos Forum this year. (As for the United States, a prominent political figure other than the president is also considered a top leader.) The absence of the top Chinese leader made a strong impression on participants. From Japan, Prime Minister Naoto Kan attended the gathering.

Let me explain why the participation of top leaders is important. To do so, I must first explain “what the Davos Forum is all about.”

Only about 2,000 individuals from among the billions of people on Earth are allowed to take part in the Davos Forum. These 2,000 participants are powerful influential individuals. A directory of their names supports this clearly. The directory includes heads of the states of the world’s major industrialized countries. It also includes the Secretary-General of the United Stations and top officials from practically every international agency, including the OECD, the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO. In addition, the top officials from regional institutions, such as the European Union, the European Central Bank, Asian Development Bank, and the League of Arab States, all gather at Davos. Further, top executives from the world’s 1,000 leading companies, media leaders, academics, social entrepreneurs, young global leaders, cultural & religious leaders, and tech pioneers travel to the conference.

Almost everyone who is influential in the world assembles in Davos. These diverse participants make the Davos Forum interesting, compared with other international conferences. For example, only politicians come to G20 summits. Only academics go to Novel Awards. However, in Davos, leaders from all the fields gather. This makes Davos so special.

Receiving an invitation to the Davos Forum is a privilege. Speaking in the sessions at Davos is even more difficult. Quite a few countries seek to send as many delegates as possible to Davos, and get them as speakers and panelists on the sessions there, because appearances at Davos means presence, presence means influence, and influence means power. A country can increase its voice in the international community by strengthening its presence at Davos.

There may be readers who wonder what problems a lack of voice might possible cause. A weaker voice in the international community creates a situation in which a country is forced to accept unfavorable conditions. The words of one European leader in the past come to my mind. “All weak nations can do is to avoid false accusations from the great powers.” A weaker voice means an unfavorable position in the global community.

For that reason, this Davos Forum is a battlefield for nations as well as a place where individuals show their presence. In that sense, I could say that there were two battles of “Japanese national teams” coincidently today. One was the Japanese national football (soccer) team that played in the final match for the Asian Cup. The other was the Japanese national team that fought in Davos to boost the country’s presence. Readers might call this an exaggeration, but I consider this Davos Forum as a battleground where each country and each individual displays its political, economic, and cultural strengths.

Sadako Ogata (the president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency and a former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), Heizo Takenaka (a former Japanese minister of state for economic and fiscal policy), and Junko Kawaguchi (a former Japanese foreign minister) were able to fight the battle at the high level. Yasuchika Hasegawa (the president of Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. and the chairman-elect of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives) joined them as a follow-up. Joining their ranks without official position is difficult. I have to blaze a trail on my own, because I have no position at all. Japan’s power will grow when my level rises. Asia’s strength increases when Japan’s power grows.

The question is how I can blaze a trail on my own. The answer is simple. I can do that by raising my skills and letting others recognize my ability. As I wrote in my earlier column titled “Davos Form 2011 (1): Competitive Exhibition for Leaders ,” this gathering in Davos functions as an exhibition for leaders, too. All Forum participants are evaluated the competency of leaders in the ways that I described in that column. As a matter of course, I was aware that people around me were rating me whenever I make any actions.

When forum participants are rated as “interesting,” they are asked to join groups and they get invited to various private events. When they keep silent, they are simply ignored. For that reason, participants must present themselves in ways that are both thoughtful and aggressive. As personal evaluations rise in level, invitations to private events start arriving. Then, you are being evaluated again at the higher level.

In a memorable episode, one Davos participant who had studied at Harvard Business School with me showed his great pleasure at receiving an invitation to a certain private get-together, reversing his earlier attitude of “never wanting power.” Due to meet me, my friend did not show up at the appointed time. Arriving late, he apologized: “I am sorry for being late. I couldn’t leave the meeting, because I may not be invited again. I want to be there next year, as well.”

A participant’s skills are meaningless, however excellent they may be, unless his or her organizations and titles are respected. The opposite is also true. A participant is ignored however respectable his or her organizations and titles are, unless he or she has skills. To use my case as an example, my voice will increase when GLOBIS earns greater respect. GLOBIS rises in status, too, when other participants rate my own skills highly.

I crave no power as an individual. But I can’t stand the decline in Japan’s presence. If I were a football (soccer) player, I’d want to go to the Asian Cup as a member of the “Japanese national team.” I’d naturally want to play football on the pitch and win the Cup. In the same way, I’d want to receive an invitation to visit Davos, play football on the pitch (take the platform), and win (receive high marks) there.

Only national leaders have access to the most important platform (battleground) at Davos, known as the “special address.” This stage is not open to the heads of state of small countries. All sessions are suspended during the time slot allotted to the “special address.” All ongoing sessions at Davos stop in this time slot, even though 10 to 20 sessions are held simultaneously under normal circumstances. In other words, the program is arranged in a way that makes it easy for many people to gather for the address. Prime Minister Naoto Kan was scheduled to take this platform from Japan.

“Opinions on Mr. Kan may be divided at home, and he may not be popular, but we should display monolithic solidarity to the outside world as Team Japan.” That was my opinion. In spite of political debates in Japan, internationally, Kan was the face of Japan at that point. We must give him total support. Japan’s image and reputation rise when his speech succeeds.

On this fourth visit to Davos , I found myself receiving Japanese prime minister for the first time. On the past three occasions (when former Prime Ministers Mori, Fukuda, and Aso traveled to the Forum), I was not there.

Initially, I planned to fly out of Davos on Saturday morning. But I changed my flight to late afternoon in a hurry when I learned about Kan’s schedule. I also changed my return trip from Davos to Zurich to a helicopter flight. A man who washes his own underwear in a hotel room to avoid wasting money chose to fly in a helicopter…..I thought the prime minister’s visit to Davos was well worth the expense.

And so the day of Kan’s speech in Davos arrived.

February 2, 2011
Yoshito Hori
At my house in Sanbancho

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