The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Shinya Katanozaka, president of ANA Holdings Inc., came up with a genius idea: Allow passengers to order breakfast, lunch, or dinner whenever they please. Passenger surveys showed that clients were in full agreement. What he had not anticipated was that passengers would order the meals immediately upon takeoff, making it impossible to deliver on the promise. The plan was soon scrapped.

The point here is not about being willing and unafraid to try new things. That courage and motivation is exemplary. The point is that no one inside ANA told the boss that the emperor has no clothes.

When you have dynamic leaders, you often get the “success at all costs” dynamism that comes as part of their personality package. They are mentally strong, persuasive, disciplined, hard-working, intolerant of weakness, tough, masterful, and basically a handful for everyone around them.

Is this you?

As leaders in Japan, one of our biggest fears is ignorance. The age, stage, and power hierarchy ensures that no one wants to stand out by “speaking truth to power.” Subordinates learn quickly that taking personal responsibility for anything is a risky business; better to make it a group decision, so that blame evaporates and never settles on any one person.

So, the odds are stacked against anyone reporting potentially bad news to a powerful boss. In a Japanese context, it is much better to be a yes-man and blend in with the office shrubbery as much as possible. As the boss, though, we need people who can speak back and tell us that we are not considering all the negative ramifications of our genius decision.

This sounds simple. However, if you have built a career on getting things done—despite everyone telling you it can’t be done—your ego gets pretty puffed up.

You become a powerful advocate for your own opinion, you are ace at debate, and you can wrangle with the best of them to get your way. Hasn’t that been your formula for massive success so far? Why change what is working?

Here is where we run into trouble of our own making. We have browbeaten the troops reporting to us to genuflect when the genius boss is speaking, to doff their caps to our cleverness, to tug their forelocks in submission to our superiority.

Like Katanozaka, sometimes we don’t have full command of the situation or enough facts about the gemba (現場)—the on-site reality—to know everything needed to make the best decision. If the people around us don’t feel they can speak up, without being decimated by our forceful personalities, then we will keep on building our ladder higher and higher up against the wrong wall.

So, when we hear hesitation, see doubt, or sense reluctance, let’s not launch a preemptive strike to wipe out any possible resistance to “Our Word.” Instead, let’s bite our tongue, put on our best poker face, shut up, and listen to what they have to say without riposte, without immediate evaluation, without issuing the death penalty to their idea. Let’s tell them: “Thank you. This is an important consideration and I want to take sufficient time to mull it over.”

Listening to others is a new skill for most bosses. The key is to slow down, to give 100 percent concentration to the person in front of us, to really listen to them, to switch off all the white noise in our mind. We need to hear this person if we want to hear from the others. Everyone is watching like a hawk to see what happens.

We have built up a reputation of not listening, of being the bulldozer, of pushing through regardless, and of being oblivious to dissenting opinion. This will not get turned around in a day; this is the work of months of effort. This must become the new behavior change we install if we want to draw on the full power of all the opinions at our disposal.

Engaged employees are self-motivated. The self-motivated are inspired. Inspired staff grow your business—but are you inspiring them? We teach leaders and organizations how to inspire their people. Want to know how we do it? Contact me at

We need people who can speak back and tell us that we are not considering all the negative ramifications.