Nintendo’s President Satoru Iwata (1959-2015) was a great innovative leader

July 16, 2015

220px-Satoru_Iwata_-_Game_Developers_Conference_2011_-_Day_2_(1)The Nintedo organisation gave the brief official notification of the death of their President Satoru Iwata. There followed a flood of tributes to a remarkable leader

The notification [July 13th 2015]

Nintendo Co., Ltd. deeply regrets to announce that President Satoru Iwata passed away on July 11, 2015 due to a bile duct growth

  1. Name:Satoru Iwata
  1. Date of Birth:December 6, 1959
  1. Career Record:June 2000, appointed as Director; May 2002, appointed as President, appointed as Representative Director;June 2013,appointed as CEO of Nintendo of America Inc.
  1. Other Information:As a result, the following two Representative Directors remain at the company.Genyo Takeda (Representative Director; Senior Managing Director).Shigeru Miyamoto (Representative Director; Senior Managing Director)

An outpouring of respect and affection

The official corporate notification above was followed by an outpouring of respect and affection for a remarkable leader.

Reggie Fils-Aime, President of Nintendo of America commented:

Mr. Iwata is gone, but it will be years before his impact on both Nintendo and the full video game industry will be fully appreciated. He was a strong leader for our company, and his attributes were clear to most everyone: Intelligence, creativity, curiosity and sense of humor. But for those of us fortunate enough to work closely with him, what will be remembered most were his mentorship and, especially, his friendship. He was a wonderful man. He always challenged us to push forward…to try the new…to upset paradigms—and most of all, to engage, excite and endear our fans. That work will continue uninterrupted.


Satoru Iwata was born into a comfortably well-off family (his father was mayor of his home town of Sapporo ). From a young age he showed an aptitude for information technology, and electronic engineering, is some way echoing the stories of pioneering figures such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates before him.

As a schoolboy he also did freelance work as a programmer for HAL Laboratory, Inc., a game developer that often collaborated closely with Nintendo. This gave him access to Nintendo, so that after University he was able to join then quickly make significant contributions in its transformation from a modest manufacturer of had made playing cards to a global giant in electronic gaming.

In keeping with traditional Japanese corporations, Nintendo (roughly translated ‘leave luck to heaven’) retained an extremely stable corporate structure. In 2002, Iwata was to become only the fourth President in a hundred years of operations.

Nintendo’s growth was fuelled by the innovativeness of internal technical workers, often creating through spare-time activities, becoming legends in the fast-developing electronic games market.

Gunpei Yokoi developed ideas for the Japanese toy industry in his free time. Yokoi was moved from maintenance to the new “Nintendo Games” department as a product developer. He later hit on several creative ideas of enormous importance. In 1979, Yokoi conceived the idea of a handheld video game, while observing a fellow bullet train commuter who passed the time by interacting idly with a portable LCD calculator, which gave birth to the Game & Watch suite of games.

Another innovator working with Yokoi was Shigeru Miyamoto. Recruited as a young student, he went on to create, direct and produce some of Nintendo’s most famous video games, including Gameboy.

Among other global successes were the Super Mario games in the fictional Mushroom Kingdom. Its successive developments made it one of the most downloaded of computer products.

At the start of the 21st century, with the leadership of President Satoru Iwata, the company was facing serious competitive challenges. Under difficult trading conditions the company recorded a substantial drop in profits in 2014, prompting Iwate to take a substantial salary cut.

However, in Fiscal 2015, the company returned to profit although this was partly through favourable exchange rates.

Leadership and culture

In the Anglo-American culture, Iwata would have been lauded as a creative genius (think Gates, Jobs, Branson). In a Japanese context, It is easier to see the more subtle notion of distributed leadership playing out.

It is also instructive to note that the engineering culture in German manufacturing has also been more aware of the power of distributed leadership. You can see the examples of the link between the power leader (machtpromotor) and operational leader (fachpromotor) outlined in the various editions of Dilemmas of leadership in the chapter on project management.

Iwata’s insights into celebrity leadership

Iwata had the grasp of social media which allowed him to revolutionize Nintendo’s relationship with its army of faithful gamers. His appearances as a game character and as his corporate self, produced strong bonding and interactions. Shortly after his death, a tribute went viral showing a sleeping Iwata character surrounded by weeping Nintendo characters.

Put not your trust in leadership books: but don’t ignore them either

November 2, 2014

Here’s how to deal with a dilemma of trust and authority

You are about to take a flight on a business assignment. You are enticed in to the book store in the Departure Lounge where you are confronted with a multitude of brightly-coloured books on leadership.

Some are shiny new reprints of classics still selling by the zillion, such as Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or the granddaddy of self-improvement books How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Others are the hot hits of the year, placed for maximum impact. Among them are those books positioned as impulse buys, alongside the other last-minute hi-calorie temptations as you approach the check-out.

How do you decide which book to buy?

It is a question I have put to several thousand business executives over the last few years. The Airport Departure Lounge provides a highly specific situation. It is one which encourages intuitive judgement over careful analysis. The decision is arguably a trivial one from a strictly economic perspective. What’s important is that the purchase puts the author in a powerful position of owning your undivided attention for several hours. It may take you half a chapter to decide you are better off with the in-flight magazine or video choice, but by then it’s too late.

A suggestion

One approach is to examine the books for the claims made. The more the author asserts without a lot of evidence, the more the book needs approaching in a spirit of testing the assertions. With practice it becomes easier to avoid buying a real dog.

New ideas as retreads

It is difficult to come across a really new and useful business idea. In general, the ‘new idea’ tends to be a re-tread of older ideas. That does not of itself make the book useless. But the more you can see the connections with other authors you have read, the easier it is to assess its contribution. I prefer books which indicate which earlier writers influenced the authors, and how.

Don’t start from here

Another suggestion comes from the old Irish saying that “if you want to get there, I wouldn’t be starting from here.”

You pre-planned a lot of other aspects of your business journey. It only takes a few moments to pre-plan your reading. You will find ‘business books of the month’ and ‘business books of the year’ published on a regular basis in various print and on-line journals. The criterion of ‘best-sellers of the month’ may appear a rather rough guide to quality, but the additional information easily obtainable at least provides you with a few to put on your short-list before you reach the departure lounge.

The Financial Times shortlist

So, for example the six books on The Financial Times shortlist for Business Book of the Year in 2014 were:

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration  by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace

Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch by Nick Davies

House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It From Happening Again by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance by Julia Angwin

The list shows the wealth of interesting and well-researched business books published every year. Unsurprisingly, the six are the sort of books most available to purchase in that airport departure lounge.