He was not a great speaker. His voice was evidently frail. He never displayed quick-silver intellect. And, even if he did, it was all too rare — never in public view. He never warmed his audience with hilarious anecdotes. But, he did what all great leaders do. He motivated large groups of individuals — to improve humanity and its fundamental condition.
His name: Konosuke Matsushita. A legend, whose mantras are timeless. Living through them on a daily basis will make all of us — healthy, wealthy, and wise… for today, and tomorrow.
When Matsushita died, in the spring of 1989, at age 94, he had become, in the words of the then US President, George Bush, Sr, “an inspiration to people around the world.”
Matsushita’s legacy was, indeed, daunting. Peerless. For a man who had helped lead the Japanese economic revival, after World War II, through Panasonic [and, a host of other brands], the firm he founded, and supplied billions of people with household appliances and consumer electronics, Matsushita was nothing short of an inspirational role model — quite largely unknown beyond his native land. But, again, by the time of his death, few organisations on the living planet had more customers.
SIMPLE MAN. PROFOUND VISION
Matsushita’s revenues hit a whopping US$42 billion in the late 1980s — more than the combined sales of Bethlehem Steel, Colgate-Palmolive, Goodrich, Kellogg’s, Olivetti, Scott Paper, and Whirlpool. His economic achievements exceeded, in more than ‘sum’ measure, the likes of Henry Ford, the more famous of entrepreneurs.
Ironically, unlike his ilk, Matsushita’s name was not on his products. Besides, he was not an American, or Western, entrepreneur to dabble in personality-building exercises — and, he never ever sought media attention outside of his own country.
Matsushita generated billions of dollars in wealth, yes. Yet, his incredible successes were not used for building, or buying, luxury villas in a foreign country. His monies were used for the creation of a Nobel Prize-like organisation — a school of government to reform Japan’s political system, aside from a number of civic projects.
His life was a clarion call — a heart-felt call that urged his government to do more for its citizenry.
Thrown into poverty at an early age, even before he could speak monosyllables, Matsushita’s life was steeped in adversity, no less — the early death of family members, a sixteen-hour apprenticeship at age nine, major problems associated with starting a business without money or connexions, the death of his only son, the Great Depression, the horrors of World War II, and so on. All adversities that could have wobbled ordinary mortals, no end… Yet, and notwithstanding such — almost — insurmountable hardships, Matsushita grew up to be a fabulously successful entrepreneur and business leader, the founder of Japan’s US$65-billion-a-year Matsushita Electric Corporation, Japan’s own GE.
Matsushita’s saga expands our notion of the possible — even for a sickly youngster without a privileged background. It tells us, as John P Kotter puts it in his perceptive biography, Matsushita Leadership, much about leadership, entrepreneurship, a drive for life-long learning, and their roots. Not only that. It demonstrates the power of a long-term outlook, idealistic goals, and humility in the face of great success. Matsushita’s life, in sum, is an inspiring story, and a business primer, for organisations and individuals, anywhere in the world — and, also for living a meaningful life, in the 21st century, and beyond.
When Matsushita began working for himself, in 1917, he had almost nothing: no money, no real formal education, or no connections. Yet, his small, almost inconsequential, and the poorly financed firm flourished under the guiding hand of an intensely focused merchant entrepreneur. His objective from that point of time was pragmatically market-oriented and spiritually realistic.
- Treat the people you do business with as if they were a part of your family
- Prosperity depends on how much understanding one receives from the people with whom one conducts business
- After-sales service is more important than assistance before sales
- It is through such service that one gets permanent customers
- Don’t sell customers goods that they are attracted to; sell them goods that will benefit them
- Any waste, even a sheet of paper, will increase the price of the product by ‘that’ much
- To be out-of-stock is due to carelessness. If this happens, apologise to your customers, ask for their address, and tell them that you will deliver the goods as soon as you can.
To Matsushita, his mission of manufacture was a bold statement: one designed to overcome poverty, to relieve society as a whole from misery, and bring it wealth. Business and production, to Matsushita, were also not meant to enrich only the shops, or the factories of the enterprise concerned, but all the rest of the society as well. Matsushita never talked narrowly about maximising shareholder value as the proper goal of an enterprise. Although he did speak passionately about generating wealth, his overall business theme song emphasised the psychological and spiritual aspects of ‘being’ — for the good of all people.
Matsushita’s first product was an attachment plug. The year: 1918. This was followed by the bullet-shaped bicycle lamp, a few years later. He launched his inexpensive Super Iron, in 1927; and, his first radio was developed in just three months, in 1931. Interestingly, Matsushita began his first business with his own savings — savings [his wife’s jewelry] of just 150 yen — inside his two-room tenement house. The total space available for working, and living, equaled a mere 130 square feet. The rest is history.
What made Matsushita so special? Answer: his own set of business principles for the corporation: service to the public; fairness and honesty; teamwork for a common cause; untiring effort for improvement; courtesy and humility; accord with natural laws; and, gratitude for blessings. They were, overall, Matsushita’s own Seven Commandments — all of them committed to certain ideals. His powerful ideas were about the ‘roots’ of life-long learning.
Matsushita often told people: learn from any experience and at any age. With ideals that are big and humanistic, He emphasised that one could conquer success and failure, learn from both, and continue to grow. His extraordinary life was a reflection of that outlook — a powerful testimony too.
MATSUSHITA’S LESSONS FOR 21ST CENTURY
- In a changing environment, life-long learning may be more related to great success or unusual achievements than IQ, parental socioeconomic status, charisma, and formal education
- Life-long learning is closely associated with humility, an open mind, a willingness to take risks, a capacity to listen, and honest self-reflection
- Big idealistic/humanistic goals and beliefs are not incompatible with success in business. They may also foster achievement, at least in a rapidly changing context, by supporting such habits that encourage growth
- Hardships are not necessarily career- or life-killers. Under the right conditions, tough times can nurture big idealistic goals, continuous growth, and great accomplishments.
Simple, yet profound, motifs all — one that will keep us thinking like all truly enthusiastic, highly motivated men and women ought to do every day. Such ideas prompt us to be always open to change, and eager to learn.
They are truly indispensable, and ‘must-do,’ requisites to succeed in any epoch — in business and life.