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Leadership begins with ownership

September 16, 2022

It is said that everyone needs leadership skills while not everyone will become a business manager. For many years now, I have been considering what leadership is, and how to develop leadership skills in the first place. There have been many leaders throughout history. Some examples of outstanding leaders in Japanese history include Oda Nobunaga and Saigo Takamori. Back in the 16th century, cavalry tended to dominate the battlefield, as it took much time to light up and fire a matchlock rifle. In order to compensate for the shortcoming of the matchlock rifle, Oda positioned his soldiers in three lines; then by having the first line retreat back to the third line after firing, pushing the second line to the front, and then continuing this cycle, he reduced the effective time to fire the matchlock rifle by two thirds. His imaginative approach won him many wars in his era. On the other hand, Saigo Takamori, also known as the “Last Samurai” featured in the movie starring Tom Cruise, demonstrated human diplomacy. After the rival Shonai soldiers surrendered, he disarmed his own Satsuma soldiers and sent them into the Shonai castle to take it over. The Shonai soldiers understood the risk Saigo and his Satsuma soldiers took. Saigo not only won the war, but he also won the admiration of the Shonai soldiers.

Both demonstrated amazing leadership. However, their styles were very different. Since well-known historical leaders are so distinctive, it has been difficult for me to answer the question of how to develop leadership skills.

How then to proceed? Around three or four years ago I finally came up with an answer, which is that “Ownership is the beginning of leadership.” It’s really not complicated. Basic leadership begins with taking full responsibility for the tasks that are assigned to you. Fundamentally, it’s possible that there is nothing more to leadership than that, at least for junior staff.

That being said, the actual work that can be entrusted to someone will change over time, as well as the level of expectations. It would be unreasonable to assign a big project to a brand-new hire; on the other hand, a company will not prosper if its managers feel that their only job is to see projects to completion. There are differences in the breadth and depth of the ownership that is expected, depending on a person’s experience and rank or level in the organization. Here, I’d like to consider ownership as it applies to the various levels of responsibility, which can be described roughly as follows: “staff” refers to an entry level employee; “senior” means someone in the range from coordinator to chief; “manager” applies to someone in a department leader role.

Staff: The starting point for ownership in a staff position is to fully complete assigned tasks. For someone who has just joined the organization, it will probably require intense effort just to do what is required in the expected manner. That’s reality. The important thing is to get the assignment completed on time, at the highest possible level of quality. If that can be done, we can say that ownership is being taken at the staff level.

Senior: At the senior level, the focus changes from completing individual tasks to completing entire projects. A project may involve multiple staff members, where multiple tasks must be combined in order to finish. Even when overseeing a single task, it is no longer sufficient to simply issue instructions for its completion. That is because there is now an obligation to understand and explain appropriately to staff members ”why” the task is necessary and how it contributes to the project as a whole. Those who understand the objectives and significance of their tasks will be more motivated and grow more quickly than staff members who are simply performing tasks because they were instructed to do so. We can say that ownership at the senior level includes motivating staff members and supporting their individual development; not just completing projects.

Manager: At this level, instead of completing projects one by one, managers have to pay attention to the progress of multiple projects through the entire group or organization. While one senior may be nearing completion of their project, another senior may be behind on theirs. Managers have to maintain a sense of overall balance, allocating resources so that all projects are finished according to plan, and maintain alignment among the seniors to move everything forward. However, that is not the only job of a manager. In considering what problems a client may have, managers have to look beyond words or superficial aspects to deepen their understanding of the real issues. Based on that understanding, managers consult with clients so as to align expectations, then report the results to the seniors and set the direction of the project(s). Clients will not spend money on projects that they don’t think have value. The more impressed your clients are with your work, the more value they will perceive, causing sales to rise. Managers clarify project objectives and the value delivered to clients, organize the personnel needed to enable that, and thereby secure the profitability of the entire group. That is ownership at the manager level.

These are the expectations of ownership at each level of our company. Fulfillment of these expectations means that people are probably performing well at their level of responsibility. The breadth and depth of ownership expands going upward, which makes managers’ work all the more interesting. It’s a difficult role, but our managers are genuinely engaged, and I believe they have a positive impact on everyone in the company.

A prerequisite for all of this is for people to have a sense of excitement. Among new hires there are always those who try to understand the purpose of the tasks that they are assigned. Even if they don’t grasp it right away, they’ll ask questions to try to arrive at their own understanding. I always look forward to the future when I see this kind of person. That’s because I can see their attitude of making an effort to expand their personal ownership. There are those who, when they have extra time, look around for some task that they can start on even without having been requested to do so. They’ve learned somewhere in life that the value or worth of a job is not simply achieving what they’ve been assigned, but in making the greatest possible contribution to the overall project or goal. This is the kind of person whose future I look forward to seeing.

Ownership is not something that is given or received; it’s something that people determine for themselves. Depending on how much will or desire someone has, a staff level employee can have more ownership than a person at the senior level. When the surrounding people see that a particular staff member is demonstrating ownership at a senior level, nobody will argue against promoting that person. The way to expand your possibilities is to have the determination to expand the breadth and depth of your ownership. The person who maintains that attitude will definitely experience personal growth. In fact, I think we can say that there is no better way to ensure one’s own development.

That’s enough for now, but next time I’d like to write about ownership at the level of top management.


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