Ubud, 12 October 2015 — Meet Toshi Nakamura, who studied law and political science and grew passionate about resolving societal conflicts on an international scale, and then started an enterprise that connects simple and life-changing technology with people 'in the last mile' in 24 countries around the world. What can we learn from his leadership journey, and what are his 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
Born in Japan in 1974, Toshi grew up in Osaka and Kyoto as the second of three sons. His father served as a judge, a public prosecutor, and later as an independent lawyer.
“As a young student, I remember reading my father’s case documents about murder, rape, and crime affecting minorities in society, and I became curious about the many things happening in society that we would not normally see or talk about.”
As Toshi continued his education in school, he also developed an interest in what was happening in the international scene.
“At the time I was in high school, the cold war had ended and our expectations were growing that the United Nations would help to create a better world. We were inspired when Japanese leaders took up high positions in the UN, such as Sadako Ogata who headed UNHCR, the agency that handles refugee issues."
After school, Toshi entered Kyoto University to study law. When he discovered that it did not meet his expectations, he supplemented his required studies with more dynamic topics like political economy, politics and international relations, and he started following developments in the Balkans, the Iraq war, and EU integration, focused on conflict resolution and reconciliation.
Taking on challenges
Beside his study, Toshi became an active sportsman, stepping up to captain the lacrosse team.
“My strategy was to practice hard and play well, believing that you needed to be a competent player to lead a team, otherwise the players would not respect you.”
He discovered, however, that this was not the only way to lead. Observing the university’s American football team, he noticed how their captain didn’t play himself but encouraged and directed the team from the sideline.
“I saw how not-so-good players can also be good leaders if they are committed and enthusiastic.”
After graduating he challenged himself to move to a new environment and chose the UK, to take up a masters in comparative politics at the London School of Economics.
That change was not easy, because everything in London was different from what he was used to, including language, food, culture, and behaviors. Furthermore, hardly anyone knew about lacrosse, and European football didn’t appeal to him.
What he did like was to study international political issues and conflicts. His teacher at LSE played a critical role in constructing an agreement to end the conflict in Northern Ireland by accommodating the various political interest groups there, and Toshi studied how electoral systems worked and how elections could be organized in multi-ethnic societies.
“It suddenly struck me that my study had practical applications, that you could actually influence and change behaviors and how things worked on the ground."
Investing in experiences
At age 23, he decided to pursue his vision to work for the UN and applied to many agencies for internships, explaining his interest for work with conflict resolution and reconciliation.
His opportunity came when he was accepted for an internship at UNHCR in Geneva, where he learned first-hand how international negotiations worked. Eager to roll up his sleeves, he did not like how the work involved endless conferences, coffees and lunches, and soon wondered how he could get into ‘real work’ with his newly found commitment to practical solutions.
His first paid job came when he was offered a research assignment on conflict management, at the UN Research Institute for Social Development, housed in Geneva’s monumental Palais des Nations, where he worked for a staffer from Sierra Leone.
“Lots of people in Geneva told me then that this was not the real UN, and that I should go ‘to the field,’ explaining that there were huge differences between the headquarters culture and working in field offices. I took that to heart and realized that I needed a change."
Rather than moving on to a UN field office, however, he discovered his next learning opportunity in Tokyo, inspired by a senior manager at UNHCR who had started his career in business and then moved from a prestigious private sector job to contribute his experience in a very senior position at the UN.
Toshi went in the opposite direction and joined McKinsey & Company in Tokyo to seek out experiences from working private clients in several sectors, supporting them in mergers and other issues. He was amazed by the speed of work he saw there.
“It seemed that we could do a year’s work at the UN in as little as 3 days, turning analysis into action for results. Realizing that was a defining moment for me.”
Developing an international career
Meanwhile, his aspiration was still to make a difference in conflict management on an international scale. His next opportunity came when he entered UNDP service as a junior professional officer. Here is where he finally got his first field experience, joining the peace-keeping operation in Timor-Leste.
In Dili, he was confronted with poverty and with the aspirations of a people longing for a better future, and he worked on public administration reform and the re-integration of soldiers into society.
“I loved the work there, the high expectations to make a difference, the excitement among the local people of Timor-Leste. It was my first field experience, and it got me thinking how to do more of that."
Recognition came when he was selected to join UNDP’s prestigious LEAD program for young professionals. To his mild frustration, his first posting was back in Geneva. This move, however, turned out to be a stepping stone to his next challenge.
When the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami struck in 2004, he was immediately sent to Indonesia to work in the international damage assessment team. This led to an assignment in UNDP’s Jakarta office, where he continued to work for reconstruction in Aceh.
“I felt in my element in the post-disaster work in Aceh. We were able to do so much work on the ground, delivering help to people whose lives were devastated by the tsunami, and rebuilding their government and community services."
After completing his tasks in Aceh, he became the youngest assistant resident representative in UNDP’s Jakarta office, and learned valuable leadership lessons in building effective working relationships.
“As a young team leader responsible for setting up a new unit for planning and monitoring, I discovered the importance of 'giving first’ to my senior colleagues before I could expect them to support me."
In Jakarta, Toshi’s international exposure took a further turn when he met his life partner Ewa Wojkowska from Poland, who was also making her mark as an influential young leader in development work. From then on, they worked together to create new opportunities in their careers.
For his second LEAD program posting, Toshi requested an assignment in Africa, and he and Ewa soon moved to Sierra Leone, where he supported a UNDP elections team and worked with presidential advisers to facilitate the ensuing change of government, including an innovative open government initiative.
“What this did was to increase the accountability of government leadership in planning and other government processes. I used that experience to make transparency a cornerstone of the work in my next jobs."
Confronting people’s needs
Working in Sierra Leone also exposed him to grinding poverty. Even the government offices in the capital suffered from a lack of electricity.
His responsibilities included managing the portfolio of UNDP’s decentralization program which introduced him to grassroots issues in rural areas. And while his job involved mostly meetings fueled by coffee, he had his eyes open on the road.
On the way home he always passed a woman named Mama G who worked with a hammer to crush rocks into smaller stones for road construction. He noticed her fatigue, the scars on her body and how her eyes seemed to be hurting from the flying stone splinters.
“Seeing this woman got me thinking if my work had any impact on people with such lowest-paying jobs."
And when buying fish from the local market, he observed how the fish on offer were rotting after a few hours.
“Why didn’t they use cooler boxes, Ewa and I wondered. They didn’t use any technology at all. We then discussed how we could make a difference by improving their life in practical ways. These experiences set us up for our next endeavor together.”
Becoming a catalyst for change
After a decade of service, Toshi and Ewa made a big decision to leave their UN careers and embrace the next challenge on their journey.
In 2010, they broke new ground as they started an international enterprise they called Kopernik, named after the Polish astronomer Copernicus who in 1508 changed the way people saw the world by stating that the earth turned around the sun.
Similar to Copernicus’s impact, Toshi and Ewa wanted Kopernik to become a catalyst for change, this time by connecting poor people ‘in the last mile’ with simple, life-changing technologies.
Four years later in 2014, the enterprise they founded and led had improved the lives of more than 290,000 people by distributing more than 59,000 technologies through 151 projects in 24 countries on 4 continents.
The impact that Toshi and Ewa have inspired through Kopernik has already gained recognition in numerous local and international awards. Their experience provides a rich source of learning for development workers around the world.
Choices and stepping stones
Toshi’s leadership journey shows a continuous process of challenge and change. Several times he was in the driving seat, as when moving to study in London, interrupting his UN job to get experience in McKinsey & Company, and in ending his UN career to found the Kopernik enterprise with his partner Ewa.
At other times, moves determined by others turned out to be stepping stones towards a goal he cherished, like working for disaster rehabilitation at the local level.
From his high-school days, Toshi challenged himself to engage in new experiences to expand his learning, and to bring about meaningful changes through his work. Challenging for change became his motto.
Leading from the outside in
Developing leadership is often—and wrongly—seen as a process that is entirely internal and 'inside-out.’ True enough, turning inside helps to develop self-awareness, to use our insight, and to choose our goals.
Equally important, however, is the process of developing our situational awareness and new skills through an ‘outside-in’ process where we take on new challenges to learn and transform to our potential for leadership.
Business school professor Herminia Ibarra at INSEAD refers to this process as learning to lead from the outside in, in her recent book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. As is often the case when distinguishing two different approaches, we come to realize that we need to use both to become a whole leader.
In a similar vein, we need to develop our awareness and competencies to use different leadership styles. Toshi echoed this when he referred to the importance of both guiding and supporting the people he works with.
“I continuously challenge, encourage and support people working with me to come up with new ways, new solutions, new technologies that work better. In Kopernik we are now expanding into agricultural technologies, from our earlier focus on clean water, solar energy and clean cooking stoves. I want innovation to become the DNA of our organization, for all of us to become problem solvers."
Besides supporting his team, he also leads from the front.
“When I see opportunities, I drive the change too. Unless you do that, people cannot see you as an example, as a model. I find that directive and enabling leadership styles can go hand in hand, in my experience."
Three recommendations for aspiring leaders
So what are Toshi’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
First, focus on reaching a higher goal to change things for the better. Like sustainability, poverty reduction or adapting to climate change. Then work to make an explicit connection between your practical work and that higher goal you have chosen.
“Leadership is always about something, a higher goal, and connecting your work to it. After you have done that, you can motivate people to see the connection between their work and this higher goal—and you can keep motivating them again and again."
Second, develop a vision for what you want to do. If you know what you want to do, your confidence and passion will have a chance to grow. And people around you will join you in that journey. Vision creates the space for leadership.
“For me, leadership is not something to aspire to have. It depends and starts with what you want to do. It is the vision that matters, that creates the room to lead towards it. Confidence comes from knowing what you want to do."
Third, keep an open mind about different approaches to solve your challenges. The first idea might not work well.
"I see this all the time in social enterprises, nonprofits and companies. The process of experimentation and adjustment is a key for success. For us in Kopernik, I compare it to making many small bets, because most of the time we don’t know in advance how a technology will work and if it will solve things effectively."
What is next?
Even as their new enterprise is flourishing, Toshi is already leading Kopernik’s team to think about their next frontiers, and even about what their 'end game’ might look like. Will they aim to keep growing their operations? Or will they expand their influence by letting other enterprises copy or franchise their model, or by strategic partnering with governments? Or a combination of such approaches?
Toshi’s initial thought was only about growing their services.
“Now I am stimulating an open-ended discussion to explore the question how we can increase such services to poor communities around the world to impact more lives.”
As things keep happening and changing in society, he does not allow himself to live in a comfort zone. In stead, he keeps expanding it, with an open mind to see the next challenge for change.