〜We are all leaders〜 What more diversity in leadership could look like

05 March 2024

〜We are all leaders〜 What more diversity in leadership could look like

TBWA\HAKUHODO is home to a cross-organizational/cross-functional group called the Peace Pirates, comprising of members interested in driving an internal conversation about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Since starting activities in 2020 the group have held many events and projects such “Gender Week” and “Pride Month”, inviting creators, activists and specialists in the field to speak and hold discussions with our agency. Through a bottom-up approach focused on tapping into the thoughts and perspectives of our staff, the group has also been instrumental in initiating concrete changes to HR policies and the working culture of the agency.

For International Women’s Day 2024, the Peace Pirates wanted to shed light on the issue of “Leadership” and the dearth of diversity in leadership in Japan.
We hope you enjoy the frank discussion on this topic!

〜We are all leaders〜 What more diversity in leadership could look like

The reason for focusing our discussion on “leadership” for this year’s International Women’s Day was due to the fall of Japan to 125th place globally in the World Economic Forum’s 2023 report on the Global Gender Index ※Source:The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2023
While Japan has achieved gender equality in education and medical care/health, the nation still lags behind in women’s participation in the upper ranks of politics and the economy. This is why we decided to focus on “leadership” as the theme, to initiate a discussion that all genders can participate in.

―Did you have female role models around you when you began your career?

Kyoko:My higher education was tech-focused and now I work in advertising. Both being male dominated spheres I had no female role models and certainly no women in executive positions around me. I didn’t even have female seniors around me, come to think of it.

Shinpei:Soon after starting my career, one of my trainers who was a woman, gave me clear instructions of “the kind of man not to become in the office” (laughs). She openly shared stories of sexism she endured and it gave me direction in terms of how NOT to act.

Motoko:The world of media in Japan is very male dominated, meaning I had no female role models in my own company or even on the clients side. When I got promoted to manager, I was the “first female manager” in the company and therefore I was always aware of the ripple effects my work may have on future generations of women. What if I couldn’t cut it? Would that make the status quo think that all women aren’t suited for the job?
I simply couldn’t let that happen, as I owed so much to the women who would come after me. So, I always motivated myself in the belief that I was pioneering a new path for women.

Asahi:When I first started working there were hardly any women around me, and I had no references to seek out in terms of how I wanted to develop my career moving forward. There was a lot of soul searching I went through alone initially.

Kyoko:There is data that shows in order to attain a solid sense of psychological safety within a group, a minority needs to represent at least 35% of that population. The study also showed if there are only 2 or 3 women in a meeting of 10 people, any opinions expressed by the women will be perceived as the “female opinion”, but if there are 4 or 5 women, any opinions expressed by the women will be regarded as opinions of the individual. Very interesting, I thought.

―What conventions and stereotypes do we attach to “leadership”?

Shinpei: I have been strongly affected by images of “leaders” that I saw in the movies and manga/anime that I grew up with. A leader must always be “strong” and decisive. A very “machismo” type of leadership. Now that I am a leader myself, and not “machismo” inclined, I understand that “non-traditional” leadership can work, although I sometimes find myself trying to change myself to fit into what others may traditionally expect from a leader.

Asahi:My image of what leadership should look like was cemented in school I think. I recall the Class Committee elections where people perceived to have the most charisma and ability to lead others are nominated and elected. I think the convention of “what a leader should be like” is very much shaped in these early experiences.

Motoko:The prevailing expectation is that leaders should embody absolute perfection and infallibility. The image of a leader is often one who works tirelessly throughout the year, equipped with exceptional physical and mental fortitude — suggesting that only those with almost superhuman abilities can take on leadership roles. This unrealistic standard, I believe, deters many from aspiring to leadership positions. People tend to think, ‘I could never do that’ or ‘I couldn’t live up to those expectations,’ which sets the bar far too high. In my view, every team member, regardless of their natural inclination, should have the opportunity to undertake a leadership role. Doing so can lead to the development of a more robust, dynamic, and stronger organization. The notion of a ‘perfect leader’ is a myth and always has been. Recognizing that leadership can manifest in varied forms is crucial, as each style of leadership can contribute uniquely to strengthening a team.

Kyoko:We are seeing data and numbers from the West showing that companies with diverse leadership are performing better. I think we really need an overhaul of the image of traditional leadership in this country. If we don’t promote more diverse forms of leadership in Japan, I fear for what may happen to my country. This is an urgent matter.

〜We are all leaders〜 What more diversity in leadership could look like

―Does unconscious Bias cemented through childhood experience and input affect the role of women in society?

Asahi:Environment plays such a big part in gender roles I think. I was fortunate to grow up in a family that was comparatively “gender equal”.
My parents were open-minded enough to allow us to pursue our own interests, regardless of what is traditionally expected of girls and boys. “Girls aren’t interested in playing baseball and boys don’t like musicals” … thankfully this kind of thinking didn’t dominate in my family.

Motoko:My education played a big part. I attended a strict catholic girl’s school for junior high and high school. Those schools were very female empowerment focused and they really pushed us girls to be ambitious. However, that constant messaging in that environment weighed quite heavily on my young self. So I was adamant to find a university with a more diverse, open culture, which I ended up in. It was a place where you could openly discuss all sorts of ideas with your fellow students regardless of gender and nationality. My world view (including that on gender equality) was really influenced by my time there.

Shinpei:I notice so much, now that I’m raising a child. When I was a child, attendance roll-call numbers were assigned in alphabetical order, all the boys first and girls second. Thankfully that is no longer the case and it’s in alphabetical order regardless of sex.
My wife can be a stickler for traditional gender roles, and I remember when she told our kids that “boys don’t cry”, our son responded with a firm “mom you shouldn’t say that!” (laughs). Education is really changing, and us parents need to keep up and ensure that modern values are taught at home too.

Kyoko:My 4-year-old niece, who is learning cheerleading, recently said to her brother that “cheerleading is for girls only”. I was shocked, wondering where and how a young child would formulate such an opinion.
When I think back on my own childhood, in elementary school I was running around and climbing trees with the boys. When I got to middle school though, I was forced to wear skirts and my behavior changed dramatically, physically restricted by my clothing, as I wouldn’t dare climb a tree in a skirt.
Later on, as a woman specializing in physics, I was often told that “science-geek girls aren’t date-able” reminding me how my presence in science went against the traditional Japanese stereotype of women being bad at math compared to men, and therefore not suited for the sciences. I’m also reminded of girlfriends who were told that they don’t have to aim for the best university “because they are a girl”. These kinds of experiences and input throughout our lives can really have an effect.

〜We are all leaders〜 What more diversity in leadership could look like

Eric Ellefsen, leader of Peace Pirates and the Trans-creation team, MCing the discussion

―Leadership of the future – what do you think it will look like?

The way we work has changed drastically since the pandemic, and with life expectancy getting longer and longer, what kind of leadership is needed for the future?

Asahi:I think we will shift from the current style of “absolutist” “one man” leadership, in which one person only is constantly spearheading forward momentum, to one in which everyone works together to make the whole organization progress. We will see more varieties in ideas and output and the accumulation of richer knowledge.

Shinpei:I want people to realize that leadership is something that can be learned and something that can be created by oneself. If we continue to think in terms of, “that person is a born leader”, leadership opportunities will forever be tied to a person’s charisma or personality, and we will continue to perpetuate stereotypical “leadership”, preventing bold change and disruption of the convention.

Kyoko:Companies are comprised of a diverse array of people, each with their own distinct interests. It is therefore ideal to cultivate an organizational and leadership structure that leverages these unique characteristics as strengths. Whereas past leaders may have equated extensive overtime and dedicating every available hour to the company as the ‘right’ approach, future leaders will recognize the critical importance of safeguarding employees’ work-life balance. Leaders of tomorrow will understand that if employees lack the time for personal and cultural pursuits, such as reading books, watching movies, or socializing with friends, the result will be a workforce lacking in diversity and individuality, leading to a less vibrant organization. They will realize that by allowing employees the space to explore their own interests, they will in turn infuse the organization with a variety of positive influences and knowledge, enriching the workplace for all.

―A message to future leaders

Motoko:Convention says attaining a leadership position is the “goal” you are building your career towards. Rather, I think “leadership” responsibilities should be an experience that all of us should undertake here and there during and throughout our careers. We could even consider a kind of rotation system for leadership positions… why not?
Let’s disrupt the convention that leadership is something special for a select few only. If we all can experience leadership to some capacity we can create a better working environment and organization for everyone.

Shinpei:I think it’s best to start by strengthening your ability to objectively observe yourself and deduce your potential weaknesses and your strengths. I want people to understand that we all have blind spots, but also for them to know and understand their own power.

Asahi:Based on my past leadership experience, I’m not the type of person who particularly likes to lead people, in the conventional sense. However, I want to contribute more to the agency, by developing my own unique leadership style. I think it would be good for others like me (in the frontline of agency work) to have this mindset as well.

Kyoko:I think all employees should consider themselves leaders. We are all already leaders in our respective fields. I’m astounded by the ideas coming from our new, young hires and they teach me a lot… they lead me, in fact! The future of leadership is an organization where even the youngest, most junior of staff can be given a leadership role. Let’s not wait for “the future” and all find our own unique leader within us now, and let them flourish!