How to Build Leaders: Frank Feedback and Empathy

What’s the best way for me to keep my employees motivated? It’s an issue I’ve been thinking about ever since I first set up my business in 1992. As far as I’m concerned, the most important function of a leader should be to create an environment where everyone does their job with willing enthusiasm. Ordering people around and dishing out penalties and rewards has never inspired anybody. People must be self-motivated.

I discovered the secret to getting people to self-motivate through belonging to the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), an organization for executives and entrepreneurs from around the world. The YPO’s most popular program is something called the forum.

Each forum consists of around 10 business leaders who get together to share the challenges and problems they face, provide each other with suggestions for dealing with those problems, and, hopefully, grow as a result.

I took part in four 3-day-long YPO forum retreats every year (i.e. one per quarter) which brought together eight leaders from Asia and Australia.

The forums have four clear principles.

・Emotion trumps logic. Showing empathy (even non-verbally) is all-important.
・Avoid making judgments. Personal criticism is an absolute no-no. Focus on the feelings of the other people and withhold judgment.
・Never impose your opinions on others. Never say “You should do such-and-such.” Say something more roundabout like “When I was in a similar situation, I did such-and-such.” In this way, you can offer suggestions while leaving it entirely up to the other person whether or not to take your advice.
・Observe the confidentiality rule. An environment where secrets are 100% safe makes people far more comfortable about sharing their anxieties and problems.

Running my company on a day-to-day basis, I apply these principles to my interactions with my staff. For instance, when something’s gone wrong, I don’t blame the person and give them a hard time for screwing things up. My starting point is to think about how they must be feeling and to make an effort to empathize and encourage.

I also never order anyone to do anything. I try to take a Socratic approach, asking my employees what they think we should do, sharing my own experiences, and volunteering the occasional indirect suggestion of the “Well, if it were me, I’d probably do this” kind. Via this combination of questions and suggestions, I try to find a balance between what the individual wants to do and the overall vector of the company.

I actually use the same method at home with my five sons—being sensitive to their personalities, discussing things with them in complete confidence and using questions and suggestions to get them to reach their own conclusions, so that whatever they end up deciding to do, they are acting very much on their own volition.

Building Young Leaders

In fact, I believe so strongly in the forum method, that I apply it at GLOBIS, the business school I set up. Every year we assemble the whole graduating class of MBAs and talk them through the forum’s four principles. I then encourage the students to divide themselves up into diverse groups and to meet once a quarter once they’re out in the real world. (Obviously, not all of them do it, but around 30 percent do.)

There’s no great benefit in freshly minted graduates getting together just to socialize over a meal or drinks. In normal social situations, people tend to skirt around difficult or uncomfortable topics. 

But when you apply the forum principles, the environment changes radically. The graduates know that they are in a safe space. That means they’re happy to share their experiences and accept helpful pointers from their friends.

This is not therapy; it’s an extremely effective approach to building empathetic leaders. The forum method is at once a safety net and a network that leverages the trust students have for one another to foster self-motivation and objective empowerment and make them passionate about their work.

Why not try applying these four principles to your work life?

I guarantee that they’ll make you a more effective leader and a nicer person, while also bringing out the best in everyone you work with.

Photo by Grekov's

Mr. Yoshito Hori established GLOBIS Management School in 1992 and GLOBIS Capital Partners in 1996. In 2003, GLOBIS started its original MBA program which, in 2006, received accreditation from the Japanese Ministry of Education and gained “university” status. GLOBIS started a part-time MBA program in English in 2009 and a full-time MBA program in English in 2012.

A Harvard MBA graduate and former Sumitomo Corporation employee, Mr. Hori founded the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) Japan Chapter in 1995 and became the first board member from Asia in charge of Asia Pacific region in 1996. He also served on the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s New Asian Leaders Executive Committee and Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership, as well as the Harvard Business School Alumni Board from 2005 to 2008. Currently, Mr. Hori is a board member of the Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives), and serves as co-chair of WEF’s Global Growth Companies.

In 2008, he launched the G1 Summit – a Japanese version of the WEF’s annual Davos forum. This led to the foundation of G1 Summit Institute in 2013, which Mr. Hori serves as Representative Director.

Just days after a huge earthquake struck northeast Japan in March 2011, Mr. Hori launched Project KIBOW to support the rebuilding of the disaster-affected areas. The following year Project KIBOW was incorporated as the KIBOW Foundation, which Mr. Hori serves as Representative Director.

An avid enthusiast of the Japanese game Go since age 40, Mr. Hori has been Director of the Nihon Ki-in (Japan Go Association) since June 2013.

Since October 2013, Mr. Hori has hosted a weekly TV program in Japan called Nippon Mirai Kaigi (Japan Future Conference). He has authored several books including Visionary Leaders who Create and Innovate Societies, Six Dimensions of Life, and My Personal Mission Statement.

Mr. Hori received his BS in Engineering from Kyoto University and his MBA from Harvard Business School.

He is an avid swimmer and enjoys spending time with his family, especially his five sons.

Follow him on
LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.