08/29/2013 12:07 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2013

How One Man's Relentless Enthusiasm Inflated the Airbag at Honda

As part of the Japanese leg of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership module in Asia this past May, I was privileged to meet Kobayashi San -- the inventor of the car airbag at Honda Corp.

Here was a man in his 70s with so much vibrance and energy. It's little wonder that in his younger days he was able to find the energy to save thousands of lives by stubbornly holding to his belief that his invention would work. All around him people said he was mad. Despite that, he persisted. In fact, the only person who believed in him and funded his dream was Mr. Honda himself. After 12 long years testing Mr. Honda's patience and his wallet, Kobayashi San finally realized his dream. It's probably now sitting in your own car. That is one of the traits of a true leader: Having a goal and going for it with such vigor and conviction that others will follow -- even an entire corporation like Honda.

Wearing a classic beige sports coat, sitting in an air-cooled room at International House situated in the Ropponghi district of Tokyo, he gave a talk on innovation and innovation management. I've rarely, if ever, seen a group so enthralled. My good friends and fellow Berlin School Executive MBA students -- Andre Kassu of Almap BBDO & Lea Stankovic of DDB Belgrade -- reminded me of a few Kobayashi San sound bites which I thought I would share. Please credit Kobayashi San when you tweet them!

"Passion and chaos are the mothers of innovation."

"If 9 out of 10 people agree with your idea, it's too late. If 9 of 10 people disagree it might be a diamond."

"Without love you cannot manage a team. Or a brand."

"If you cannot explain your innovation simply to a non-professional, you do not understand it essentially."

Now there will be those who agree or disagree with Kobayashi San (I personally agree 100 percent) and I only share sound bites because, for me, it was not what he was saying that so captivated me. It was the way in which he delivered it. He presented the Honda way of thinking in such a way that I almost felt ready to work for Honda. So what did he do that was so inspiring? He found the right tone with which to speak to the room, understanding the context and connecting with the group. He felt authentic, his passion inflating his message as much as it had inflated the airbag all those years ago. Once you believe in the person, you allow yourself to believe in the message. This is a major aspect of leadership: Getting your plan across so that others can work with it and believe in it.

It is, however, worth noting that what worked for him may not work for everyone. In his own words "Want to make your point? Hit the table." Some may find that a bit aggressive. But this style somehow seemed to work for him in his context. The message was loud and clear, amplified by passion and desire. I guess the safety of the "job for life" employment policy in Japan has allowed him to ruffle a few feathers without fear of being fired, a scenario that might happen to the rest of us in the West if we started pounding tables too heavily. Maybe we ought to embrace the difficult style a bit more rather than pushing it away? If we want genuine leaders, not robots, I think so.

Much of his presentation will stay with me forever. For example, I was impressed by the sheer selflessness of the Honda Corp in making the airbag available to all car manufacturers with no license fee, even after spending 12 years developing it!

According to Kobayashi, in their determination to save lives, they had simply forgotten to patent it. That showed me that the company had the right ethos at its core. They were so focused on creating something not with the goal of making money, but with the goal of bettering the consumer experience and, in this case, the world. That is a goal worth following and, without knowing the exact figures, I'm sure this increased the number of Honda's on the roads.

Many companies, including some advertising agencies, far too often look for profit before actually creating value. This example of the air bag inspires me to never veer away from my belief that value creation is the way in which one drives a business. Value collection is a byproduct of a good business. We must never forget that.


Even though Honda is in manufacturing I was struck at how the principles can be applied today, and especially to my everyday work at DDB. At the Honda innovation lab they have a rule that if an inventor presents an idea three times then they allow them to follow their dream. This sends out the message that passion and persistence is rewarded and encouraged. That is so motivating so why shouldn't a creative agency employ that rule too?

Honda also believed that value creation via the R&D department was the game of the young -- they have nobody over 40 working there. But that's not to say experienced people are cast out of the company. Their experience becomes even more valuable in the Honda system. Kobayashi puts forward the argument that the ideas of the young will more often than not be 90 percent "stupid." I can understand that. Therefore, he argues, that it's important to have the right employee pyramid where fewer senior people ask questions of the many young innovators and their ideas, to truly stress test them. He means they should be asking questions, not just being critical. These questions should take the idea back to its "kata" or, in English, its "essence."

Kobayashi has certainly helped me see the "kata" of leadership: Have a clear goal and communicate it well, with a lot of love and with a hell of a lot of passion. Then make it happen because as Mr. Honda himself says: "Action without philosophy is a lethal weapon; philosophy without action is worthless."

I was so proud to be given the signed business card of Kobayashi San that it now sits framed on my desk! Not to mention the erasable pen that he awarded to our team for our presentation on a new innovation model. Sure, I was excited by an erasable pen, but also by the indelible mark our time with Kobayashi San left on me.