LEADer/ Becoming A Spearhead

Manila, 29 February 2016 — Meet Kimio Takeya, a national football player with a passion for winning who innovated engineering excellence and then became an international champion for disaster risk reduction. What can we learn from his leadership journey, and what are his 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia? 

Starting out

Born in 1950 in Yamaga City near Aso volcano as the second of two brothers, Kimio started his life on Kyushu island in Southern Japan, in Kumamoto Prefecture.

His parents moved there after the end of World War Two so that his father—a military officer—could help soldiers under his command to find employment, especially those who were not the eldest and could therefore not return to work on their own ancestral farms. To help these soldiers, he bought a piece of land for cattle farming so that his men had an income until they could transfer elsewhere to rebuild their lives. 

Once that was accomplished the family moved to Kyoto where Kimio’s father studied English and law, and sought to become an international lawyer, inspired by the establishment of the United Nations. His wish was to contribute to world peace. Alas, so soon after the war, there were no positions in the UN for Japanese nationals, and he later became a history teacher in high school. 

Kimio’s mother came from Shiga prefecture, where her family owned a traditional Japanese hotel in Ohtsu City, and was born in front of the renowned Ishiyama-dera temple, where Lady Murasaki Shikibu wrote her most famous work, The Tale of Genji, in the year 1004. 

Discovering his passion

As a young boy, Kimio remembers how his educational path was shaped by two events happening at the same time. He watched reports of a famine in India, and how large numbers of workers were doing manual work for projects to lift people out of drought and poverty. At the same, he also watched how Japanese companies and workers were using technology to build the necessary infrastructure for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. The contrast between India and Japan sparked a dream in the young Kimio to study water resources engineering and work to make a difference in the developing world of Asia.

When his father asked Kimio what he wanted to become, his answer was to study water resources engineering for development. 

“I remember how my father’s favorite law professor would visit our home for tea and, upon learning of my interest, advised that I should see the well-known professor Sawada who taught water resources engineering." 

Kimio enjoyed his education in the oldest high school in Japan, in Kyoto. The country’s first and second Nobel prize winners were both from his school.

Leading in football

Meanwhile, Kimio was enjoying to play football, and was winning with his high-school team. He became captain and played center forward, passionate to attack and score. His team won the championship of an inter-high school tournament the first time they participated. His performance was noted and he was chosen to play for Japan in the under-20 national team, and entered the Asian cup tournament.

As the world of football unrolled at Kimio’s feet, he was offered a place in Tsukuba University, and to be sent to Germany for football training. He, however, had settled on a different priority, to pursue his university studies elsewhere, and he kindly turned down the offers he received and the fervent requests that he should not quit his football career.

His choice to leave top football revealed what would become a pattern throughout his career, and which he became more and more conscious of and would then pursue relentlessly.

“I discovered at that time that I liked to push myself hard to achieve excellence at the top in three years, and then move on rather than stay. This determination to challenge myself has stayed with me throughout my career, and I am still practicing it now."

Studying during riots

His university of choice, meanwhile, was mired in the student uprisings that marked the late 1960s in capital cities around the world. Tokyo University (Todai) closed its gates. Chaos reigned. The entrance examinations of 1969 were cancelled and no new students were accepted that year, leading many many students preparing for Tokyo University to shift to Kyoto University.

Taking on the challenge, Kimio thrust himself into six months of preparations after the Asian cup tournament for the entrance exam in Kyoto. He passed, and entered the university in 1969.

“Kyoto is a special city in Japan, and very different from Tokyo. In a way, people in Kyoto like to distinguish themselves from those in our nation’s capital, sometimes with forceful language. My mother had a hearty distrust of government officials whom she associated with Tokyo. ‘There is not one good person in government—they are all influenced by politics,’ she used to tell me."

Kimio’s mother was relieved to find out that her son had already decided to build a career in the private sector rather than government.

“I have taken a lot from the character of my mother. She was always active, looking for physical activities, and she excelled as an athlete runner in her younger years. She was a teacher before marrying, and resumed teaching once we entered high school.  We supported her wholeheartedly to pursue her goals."

There was more to his mother that inspired the young Kimio.

“I was also impressed by how she did social work in the evening hours, after completing her teaching at school, to help the poorest and most vulnerable community in Kyoto, those who lived by the river side and were mostly illiterate. We have no caste system in Japan, however these people handled dead bodies and were considered to live at the bottom of society because of that. My mother volunteered to go and help them learn to read and write."

During his years in university, Kimio focused mainly on his studies, and keenly engaged in debates to oppose what students saw as a conservative hierarchy that stifled development of a modern society.

“I was always engaged in debates with professors and fellow students, not only on the topics of our studies, but also how students should be selected for admission based on a wider range of competencies rather than by grades alone. We were championing new principles for a modern Japanese society."

Pushing for excellence

After graduation in 1973, he joined Pacific Consultants Inc., the largest civil engineering consulting firm in Japan at that time, established in 1950, the same year Kimio was born. He stayed with the firm for 30 years, pushing fiercely for excellence and benchmarking performance against international companies abroad.

“I learned a lot about water resources development, flood management and integrated water resources management. I became passionate for innovative work, which was a continuous struggle, and I developed good working relationships with senior officials at the River Bureau of the Ministry of Construction."

At age 49, he became a board member of the sister company Pacific Consultants International which was considered 10-15 years earlier than normal practice. His career progress had accelerated because of his determination to rise to the top of any sector he engaged in within 3 years, and then to consolidate and change field in the subsequent 2 years, and become a reference for others.

“I learned this from an uncle in another industry. He told me his key for success was to always go for best and show your top performance within 3 years. I started doing it in my football career, and then in my studies and working career."

Focusing on clients

Where others might continue in one sector for 20 years, he chose to focus his attention on it for 3-5 years only.

“I have always done my work with a strong focus. That’s the best part of my business style, to focus well. Also, I always put the appreciation of our clients as my no. 1 concern. In our company, I changed our approach from profit orientation to client orientation. I taught my colleagues how to develop partnerships with clients, to work together. To see how this worked, I took leave for a while to model it first."

The Kobe earthquake in 2004 sparked an upsurge in international work as Japan took the lead in international disaster reduction strategies. Working closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Takeya-san was instrumental in expanding Japan’s role in the sector in the international community.

When the Indian Ocean Tsunami struck in late 2004, he helped the Japan International Cooperation Agency JICA to mobilize $350 million of assistance on the ground in an unprecedentedly short time frame. The decision to go ahead was taken locally rather than in Tokyo. 

“When I see a need for action, my approach is to change the circumstances to support that action to take place as soon as possible. That is what reform is about. And while I give that change my full effort, I make sure to train a colleague who can take over as soon as possible. That is not just a matter of sharing knowledge, it is a sharing of the spirit of the work."

During the later years of his career, he served as senior advisor for disaster risk management to JICA and the Asian Development Bank, and put his experience to use in helping to negotiate the latest international strategies at the Sendai world conference in 2015 led by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction UNISDR.

"Japan is a hazardous country, full of risks. We are a leader in disaster risk reduction, which needs solid concepts as well as high quality in implementation. This is still a challenge, to make sure staff quality is up to the mark, especially in overseas projects.”

Style of leadership

What is his leadership style?

"My preferred leadership style is simple. I model excellence, the change that we aspire to, to be in the best 2-5% as a person who makes breakthroughs happen in the company or organization. I choose to lead by example, so people can follow me on the path. I don’t educate them because I believe that everyone has to learn by themselves. Only the people who learn from their bosses without any help from them, growing by themselves, can overtop their boss and lead in the organization. So I create the work and give the best example I can. This is consistent with what I learned as a winning football player and captain. You need to produce a good outcome in a short time."

Takeya-san stresses that his style is outcome-oriented rather than process oriented. He respects the process, yet the focus on outcomes is paramount and sets the direction and priorities.

Three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia

So what are Takeya-san’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?

First, think global, act local.

“That is a common and powerful saying nowadays. For me, it means Think Team, Act as leading Lone Wolf. Work with your team, yet be like a spearhead. Take total responsibility for what you do as leader." 

Second, always respect your client.

“In order to be the spearhead, our human character must be loved by the client. Always respect your client. I always think that everyone has something that I don't have, including local government staff in developing countries. Always find out what to respect. Every time."

Third, be honest in everything.

“This is about integrity and being fearless. It is grounded in being honest. To family, to company, to yourself. To keep integrity, to keep everything clear. Anything in our life should be open always, ready for scrutiny. No fear."

Takeya-san and I reflected how his life and work ethic are inspired by Japan’s classic Bushido philosophy. His three recommendations are consistent with that philosophy. The spirit of a spearhead person. 

“Always act with your group, yet don’t fear to be alone and act by yourself. I remember the power shown by the students during the 1969 battle of Yasuda Hall Tower in Tokyo University. They did not give up on what they believed in.

In the context of that philosophy, Takeya-san explained about always acting with your team while not fearing to be alone, being proud for doing your best, even if you fall down. And to feel shame for falling down before doing your best.

What’s next?

What is coming up next?

Takeya-san is now working on the implementation framework of the Sendai UN document for global disaster risk reduction in which he is deeply involved as a member of Japan’s government negotiation team, and is now developing the provisions for the monitoring phase, to be supported with Japanese development assistance. A goal for the next several years is to see to its implementation. 

Does he cultivate any thoughts about retiring? Not yet, he says.

“I am still learning a lot, every day, every week. I continuously work on strengthening my logic."

In his personal life, he looks forward to spend more time for taking care of his wife and family. There is talk of doing the customary Shikoku Pilgrimage of visiting 88 temples during a walk of 1,200 kilometers. It’s not decided yet. Maybe never, maybe in the next years ahead.

As we discussed what lies ahead, he told me how he likes to listen to podcasts and video clips during his frequent international travel. He showed me three TED talks that inspired him recently.

The first, by Benedetta Berti, is about gaining a deeper understanding how to combat non-state actors of violence who also provide essential governance services to the populations they control. 

The second, by Gary Haugen, questions how the international community will eradicate poverty as long as it cannot help developing countries to overcome widespread domestic and community violence that causes much of that poverty.

The third, by Eric X. Li, challenges countries to give up their ‘meta-narratives’ about democracy being more successful than one-party state management in the light of the overwhelming evidence of social and political reform shown by China in the past half century. 

For me, these questions are a further illustration of the leadership mind that has revealed itself during our conversation, with his story of pursuing excellence, innovation and commitment without reserve, and with fierce independence and self-challenge.

The fire of passion for excellence still burns brightly, and I could see how Takeya-san is always looking for additional perspectives on what is really happening in the world around us, as he prepares to become a spearhead for change in the next challenge he embraces. 

Kimio Takeya’s profile


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