The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The Japanese word sontaku means to surmise or conjecture about someone else’s feelings or desires. It is often associated with another Japanese word—omotenashi—or superb levels of hospitality, for which Japan is rightly famous. Sontaku means supplying omotenashi-style, high-level service before the customer has realized they actually need that service, anticipating the customer’s needs based on the host’s conjecture about what they might be.

Steve Jobs did that with the iPhone. We didn’t realize we needed it when we were all happy with our Nokia or Blackberry, but now we can’t go back. Wayne Gretzky, the legendary ice hockey star, made the same point when he said, “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is now.” Gary Vaynerchuk of Vaynermedia is famous for understanding where our “digital attention” is heading before we understand it ourselves. All these cases have a sontaku—or conjecture element—to them.

What about leaders in Japan? There are many business challenges facing us here, including currency movements, government regulations, North Korea threatening our security, looming trade disputes with US President Donald Trump, oil price fluctuations, China’s military control of the sea lanes to Japan, weak consumer spending, potential collapse of the welfare system due to the aging population, government debt levels, and the fragility of the tourist boom.

Another biggie is staffing. Delivery companies can’t keep up with online retail purchase orders, soba restaurants can’t get young people to spend the many years required to learn the craft, speaking Chinese will help when we go to the convenience stores because not enough Japanese want to work there. Farmers are aging, but there are not enough successors in the pipeline. The construction industry is going to lose 1.28 million workers between now and 2025. In 2015, thirty percent of construction workers were over the age of 55—it is a physical job that doesn’t age well. The youth population up to the age of 35 is going to drop by half between now and 2060.

The decline in the population is currently being addressed in two ways. One is moving businesses offshore or buying businesses in foreign climes, where there is a growing buyer base. The other is automation. We will replace people with robots and machinery of some sort to make up for the worker shortfall. Driverless vehicles make sense when you can’t hire enough drivers. Robotic attachments for our limbs are a reality now, to help the aged go upstairs. The same idea applies to giving workers the power needed to lift heavy items in factories and on construction sites.

Leaders will not be automated anytime soon because of all the soft skills needed. Are we going to be facing a major “sontaku deficit” though because our leaders in organizations are not anticipating what their workers will want? Basic economics tells us that a dwindling supply of labor coupled with rising demand makes everything much more competitive.

Are your leaders skating to where the puck is going to be or are they racing back into the 20th century in leadership terms. Are they still working off the old playbook of worker low mobility, high loyalty, total sacrifice, and obedience? If your leaders are the product of OJT (on-the-job training) alone, then get ready for disruption. Their mediocre bosses as role models, and their own best efforts to repeat that low standard in their own leadership, will take your organization nowhere in this new world of work. The current crop of leaders expects the sontaku to be applied to them, not the other way around. Brace for impact everyone, we are about to crash!

We are entering the new day of ruthless competition to recruit and retain staff. Leader’s soft skills of getting willing cooperation, encouraging real innovation, fostering creativity, being excellent persuaders and having supreme people skills are the new reality. Technical knowledge isn’t disappearing anytime soon in terms of importance, but hard skills alone won’t be enough. If that is all you are providing to your teams, then watch your staff jump ship to your rivals who have skilled up their leaders in how to apply sontaku to their staff, as a recruit and retain strategy.