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Soichiro Honda
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Julius Caesar

The Company and Industry Leader

By Colin Richardson

 

Honda: the name synonymous with quality and ingenuity to enthusiasts of cars, motorcycles and countless other motorised hobbyists. But what makes the products behind Honda the success they are today? Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Co., can be accredited for the successful culture that the company enjoys to this day. A uniquely gifted individual, Honda put Japanese automotive companies on the global map where from humble beginnings Honda became one of the great leaders in motor development.

 

The son of a Japanese blacksmith, Honda was born on the seventh of November, 1906. It was Honda’s father, Gihei Honda that passed on his initial interest in machines that started by fixing bicycles. (Joy of manufacturing, 2007).  Gihei Honda opened a small bicycle shop to service a demand for fixing the popular Japanese transport, however little did he know just how much this would influence his son.

 

Soichiro Honda’s fascination with machines did not stop at bicycles, as he soon turned his had to automobiles and motorcycles when he was accepted as an apprentice at Art Shokai in 1922 when he was just fifteen years of age (Joy of manufacturing, 2007). His efforts at Art Shokai did not go unnoticed as the owner, Yuzo Sakakibara, took Honda under his wing and taught him many tricks of the trade in repairs, customer relations and pride in ones work. Sakakibara saw many qualities in Honda where he admired his thirst for technical knowledge as well as practical hands on approach. Honda regarded his time under Sakakibara’s guidance at Art Shokai as a highly influential period of his life where he developed a sound knowledge of the machines he worked with as well as an enthusiasm and sense of independence in his work. (Joy of manufacturing, 2007).

 

In 1928 Honda had completed his apprenticeship at Art Shokai where Sakakibara then entrusted him in running a Hamamatsu branch of the company at the age of just twenty one. (Joy of manufacturing, 2007). Honda flourished in his new role where he developed a keen inventive streak and took his Art Shokai repair shop far beyond the realm of simply repairing cars and motorcycles. By the mid 1930’s, Honda had grown his branch to include over thirty employees and had started to take an interest in manufacturing. When Honda met resistance from shareholders in changing the already profitable Hamamatsu branch towards manufacturing, he started his own company, Tokai Seiki Heavy Industry, with a partner Shichiro Kato. (Joy of manufacturing, 2007). It was at Tokai Seiki Heavy Industry where Honda started his work on pistons with an aim of aiding a higher performance engine. (Brewster, 2004).

 

In 1938, Honda was forced to switch his attention to military machinery as Japan found itself in times of war. (Brewster, 2004). It wasn’t until 1948 that Honda returned to his passion of developing motorcycles and cars with the creation of Honda Motor Co. with a partner, Takeo Fujisawa. Fujisawa complemented Honda Motor Co. as he saw to the business side of the company which largely bored Honda himself. (Brewster, 2004). It is with Honda Motor Co. that Honda cemented a name for himself as a leader and an innovator.

 

The first Japanese manufacturer to produce cars in the U.S., Honda Motor Co. continually broke new ground in the Motor vehicle industry. (Brooke, 1998). Patenting nearly 150 for his inventions, Honda continually enhanced and created new and innovative designs for engines and vehicles of all descriptions. (Brewster, 2004).  By the late 1950’s Honda was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world with the vast majority of production coming out of Japan alone. (Kippenberger, & Gould, 1998). Penetrating the export markets of the U.K. and U.S., Honda fought the local attitudes of motorcycles being dirty and the cultural affiliation with the Harley Davidson brand to share 90% of sales with other Japanese companies. (Kippenberger, et al. 1998). This was largely attributed to superior research and development which remained Honda’s passion. (Kippenberger, et al. 1998). In 1982 Honda produced its first motor vehicle in the U.S. where the Accord became a car of choice for many American families. (Brewster, 2004).  Once again innovations in research and development continually gave Honda the edge over his competitors and contributed to the level of success Honda Motor Co. enjoys today. (Brewster, 2004), (Kippenberger, et al. 1998).

 

Even in his early years, it was clear that Honda possessed many personality traits of an effective leader. A largely self confident individual, Honda had enormous belief in his own ability. When he left school at the age of fifteen, Honda was quoted as saying that any diploma from school was worth less than a movie ticket. (Brewster, 2004). Honda took this self-confidence into his apprenticeship at Art Shokai where his strong work ethic and dedication earned him a great deal of trust from his employer, Sakakibara. It was evident that Honda was prepared to “walk the talk” by consistently proving his work ethic and enthusiasm for his job which was rewarded by his managerial appointment at the Hamamatsu branch. (Dubrin, Daglish, & Miller. 2006). With a clear direction and purpose in mind, Honda’s assertiveness ensured that he followed his goals. Evidence of this was seen when investors stopped his push to pursue manufacturing aspirations, Honda simply started his own company. (Brewster, 2004). The dedication that followed the commencement of his first company saw Honda spend two years developing pistons to his own strict standards. If this wasn’t enough, starting from scratch in 1948 after his first business was leveled by bombing indicates that Honda demonstrated an extremely high tolerance for frustration. (Brewster, 2004), (Dubrin, et al. 2006).

 

Through constant attempts to pull him down and limit his potential by school teachers, investors and government regulation alike, Honda demonstrated an exceptionally high internal locus of control. It seems that Honda took on the responsibility of his own aspirations and made them happen even when those around him where trying to sedate his ideas. (Dubrin, et al. 2006), (Brewster, 2004). The ideas and work that Honda threw himself into provided inspiration for all of those around him including his employer at Art Shokai, Sakakibara. Honda’s passion for his work was undeniable and his courage in following his passion was demonstrated when he put his name to his second company, Honda Motor Co. (Brewster, 2004), (Dubrin, et al. 2006). One could argue however, that emotional intelligence was not one of Honda’s strongest points. Whilst he maintained extremely high motivation, Honda was often outwardly critical of his competition and their management. Honda questioned the Japanese cultural mentality of what he deemed to be ‘misplaced loyalty’ to ‘washed up managers’. (Brewster, 2004). Such public views indicate perhaps a slight weakness in his self-regulation and empathy to those outside of Honda Motor Co. A positive trait of his emotional intelligence can be seen in his approach to employees within the Honda Motor Co. which will be discussed later in further detail.

 

When looking at what drives Honda, his motives seem to lean towards his work ethic and drive to achieve his goals. It is evident that from a young age Honda pursued excellence in his inventions with a goal to make superior products for the motor vehicle industry. This can be seen as his major strength where a drive to succeed in his field is an overwhelming theme from his early childhood. (Joy of manufacturing, 2007). An area where Honda really excelled in comparison to other leaders however, is in the cognitive factors of his problem solving and mechanical excellence. (Dubrin, et al. 2006). Honda’s creativity and forward thinking was central in his ability to constantly invent and produce new technologies. Such inventions include the pistons of his early days through to a revolutionary CVCC engine for motor vehicles in the 1970’s. (Brewster, 2004). Whilst Honda seems to have all of the traits of a great leader, was he destined to follow this path or were other factors involved? It seems that Honda’s traits are a major strength but further experiences and influences must be acknowledged to gain further insight into his leadership credentials.

 

At the commencement of Honda Motor Co. Honda showed a willingness to initiate structure by choosing Takeo Fujisawa as a partner. Knowing his own limitations in paperwork and the everyday running of a business, Honda and Fujisawa seemed to compliment each others attributes. Whilst Honda was a talented engineer and inventor being highly task motivated, Fujisawa was far more business minded in his approach. (Brewster, 2004), (Kippenburger, et al. 1998), (Dubrin, et al. 2006). On top of initiating structure, an example of the consideration shown by Honda’s vision is evident in recent times in the case of Honda UK. (36: Honda UK, 2005)

Honda UK provides benefits such as free gym member ships, up to 30 days annual leave, and gives all staff active involvement in the company’s marketing. (36: Honda UK, 2005). Management refer to Soichiro’s philosophy that to produce successful and happy workers, “respect for the individual is key”. (36: Honda UK, 2005). As a result, Honda UK claims that 81% of their staff aligns with the company’s values and principals whilst 86% say they are proud to work for the company. (36: Honda UK, 2005). These examples suggest that Honda maintains a relatively high structure and consideration in his leadership style. (Dubrin, et al. 2006).

 

Given the size that Honda Motor Co. became, it was clear that Honda could not run each and every operation with the direction and involvement that he enjoyed in his early stages with the company. The Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Model suggests that Honda evolved into a ‘style one’ leader. (Dunbrin, et al. 2006). Whilst Honda maintained a huge influence over the research and development within the company, he largely handed over business operations in the beginning to his partner Fujisawa. (Brewster, 2004). Whilst Honda may have had a higher relationship style in his earlier days, closer to that of a ‘style two’ in the Hersey-Blanchard Model, he realised his limitations in this area and spent his efforts pursuing his strengths of inventing and engine development. (Brewster, 2004). The reputation for innovation attracted highly skilled engineers allowing these employees a certain amount of freedom to go about their work due to their competence. (36: Honda UK, 2005), (Brooke, 1998).

 

Perhaps Honda’s most fitting leadership characteristic is that of a transformational style. In his own personal pursuit for innovation and creating a superior product, Honda has unwittingly entrenched these values in that of the Honda Motor Co. The Honda UK case supports the notion of a transformational leadership style as it states that 87% of employees hold true the company’s values and principals. (36: Honda UK, 2005). This fuels the argument that Honda had a strong transformational leadership style as he pulled his employees inline with his own personal vision. (Dubrin, et al. 2006). In the interests of helping his employees look beyond self-interest, Honda’s values are evident in the operations of the Honda Motor Co. today through the ZLEV (Zero-Level Emissions Vehicle) engine.  This epitomised the transformational leadership origins of Honda through an attempt to create an environmentally friendly engine. (Brooke, 1998). Not only does this provide employees with a sense of self-fulfillment in what they are trying to achieve but also contributes to raising awareness and a commitment to greatness that stems from creating a superior piston in the early days of Honda’s work. (Joy of manufacturing, 2007). (Dubrin, et al. 2006).

 

It is clear that Honda was an extremely gifted engineer that continually produced engines, motorcycles and motor vehicles that pushed the boundaries of innovation. Honda maintained that leadership involved “accommodating to a continuously unfolding set of events”. Kippenburger, et al. 1998). This may be a result of the experiences in his life such as war and tackling unchartered global markets that were largely out of his control or unprecedented ground. Honda’s determination throughout his professional career did not end in retirement. Appointing himself ‘supreme adviser’ he toured his 700 dealerships and production plants throughout Japan to advise head office on their progress. (Brooke, 1998). This went against the traditional Japanese retirement where business founders were expected to respectfully assumed an honorary chairman role. (Brooke, 1998).

 

Time and time again, Soichiro Honda broke new ground in engine development. What makes him an exceptional leader however was the manner in which he could recognise his limitations and found the right people to fill these roles. This allowed him to stick with his strengths and ultimately be extremely effective at what he did best, creating and revolutionising any machine that he turned his mind to.

 

 

 References

 

Author Unknown. “Joy of manufacturing” (1936). Honda Website: History. Extracted 2007, January 22, from http://world.honda.com/history/limitlessdreams/joyofmanufacturing/text/01.html

 

Author Unknown. (2005, March 6). 36: Honda UK. The Times. Extracted January 26, from http//:business.timesonline.co.uk/printfriendly/0,,2020-11869-1500281-11869,00.html

 

Brewster, M. J. (2004, August 17). Sochiaro Honda: Uniquely driven. Business Week: The Great Innovators. Extracted 2007, January 22, from http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/aug2004/nf20040817_3267_db078.htm

 

Brooke, L., (1998, September). Honda Turns 50 – Automotive Manufacturer’s Anniversary. Automotive Industries. Extracted 2007, January 22, from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m3012/is_n9_v178/ai_21155121

 

Durbrin, A., Daglish, c. & Miller, P. (2006). Leadership: 2nd Asia-Pacific Edition. (2nd Ed.) Milton, Qld, Australia: John Wiley & Sons.

 

Kippenburger, T. &Gould, B. (1998). ‘Much a do about nothing?’ or ‘Can you hear the grinding of axes?’. The Antidote. Vol. 3, No. 6.