Last week, during an intense planning meeting, two of my employees walked in late. I smiled at both of them as they waltzed into the meeting room. One of them took my smile positively. She interpreted my smile meaning “the boss is so relieved to see me here” and “I am such a critical part of the team.” She believed my smile implied that I truly needed her to get the job done. The other person interpreted the same smile completely differently.
He saw the smile as a sarcastic smile indicating my annoyance and anger at his lack of punctuality.
A week later, as I was reviewing both their work from the meeting, you could see a marked difference. One treated the work as joy whilst the other as a chore, still upset at me for my smile.
Same smile, yet two contrasting reactions. Sir Winston Churchill once defined these two types: “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity whilst an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” One person that best epitomised this in business was Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motors.
The Early Years of Optimism
Honda was born on Nov 17, 1906 to Mika, a weaver, and Gihei, a blacksmith, who also ran a bicycle repair business.
Honda was hopeless in his studies. Not wanting to disappoint his parents, he cut his family hieroglyphs on an old tire and “signed” his report card himself. Initially, he got away with it. In fact, he started to make fake stamps for other classmates.
But then he got caught. It didn’t stop him from smiling as his teacher yelled at him. His father forced him to sit in a corner for a day with no food as punishment; not because he “cheated”, but because he was stupid enough to get caught by his teacher.
When he dropped out of school at the age of 15, he justified it by saying that “any diploma from school was worth less than a movie ticket.” This was the start of his belief system which justified every event, good or bad, as positive. At 15, without any formal education, Honda left home smiling, and headed to Tokyo to look for work.
He obtained an apprenticeship at the Art Shokai garage. But as he was the youngest there, his work involved only cleaning and preparing meals for others. That didn’t deter him. He viewed that experience positively and worked harder.
During the earthquake of 1923, while everyone was running for their lives, Honda drove out three cars from a burning garage, becoming a hero in the process. Honda had never sat behind the wheel of a car prior to that earthquake. He stayed at Art Shokai for six years, working as a car mechanic. He received a patent and helped Shokai increase their revenue significantly. He tried to develop piston rings but the directors of Shokai thought he was out of his depth and mind.
So in 1928, he quit, returned home and started his own auto repair business at age 22.
The perpetual optimist
Japan was badly hit by the Depression of the 1930s. Honda had started a little workshop called Tkai Seiki, trying to develop the concept of the piston ring. He hoped to sell these rings to Toyota. He laboured night and day even sleeping at the workshop. Soon he had no cash. He still remained positive that his idea would work, so he pawned off his wife’s jewellery for working capital.
Finally, he completed his piston ring and sent a sample to Toyota. The engineers there laughed at him and told him that the rings did not meet their standards. Rather than focus on his failure, he continued working. Two more years of struggle and living barely ensued. Then, he won a contract with Toyota. Positive vibes generally result in positive results.
Bad luck never deters leaders
Just as Honda was getting up and running in his business, he was called up for military service. He did not want to be side-tracked from his business goals, but in typical Soichiro style, he left everything and joined the military, determined to do his best there too.
Fortunately, as he saw it, he was medically examined and found to be colour blind. Thanks to this diagnosis, he managed to avoid military service and was back at Tkai Seiki, trying to manufacture piston rings for Toyota.
The war soon began but with the Toyota contract, Honda’s thoughts were all on building a factory to manufacture piston rings. But building materials were in short supply. What did he do? He invented a new concrete-making process that enabled him to build the factory. The factory was soon built but bad luck hit again. The factory was bombed twice. He tirelessly rebuilt it. Then steel became unavailable. Not again! Did Honda whine and give up?
No. He started collecting surplus gasoline cans discarded by US fighters calling them “gifts from President Truman,” which he used as his new “raw materials” for his manufacturing.
Finally, the Mikawa earthquake destroyed his factory and the dream was over. Honda was left with nothing but his positive spirit. After the war, gasoline shortage forced people to walk or use bicycles. Honda noticed this trend and built a tiny engine, attaching it to his bicycle. Everyone wanted his bicycles and Honda Motors was born. Disaster struck yet again and materials could not be found to supply the demand.
He remained positive. Honda wrote an inspiring letter to 18,000 bicycle shop owners asking them to help him rejuvenate Japan. Five thousand of them responded by advancing him money to build his bicycle engines. Unfortunately, the first models were too bulky. He continued and adapted until finally “The Super Cub” became a reality and success. With success in Japan, Honda began exporting his bicycle engines to Europe and America.
Countless times, Honda Motors was close to bankruptcy, but Honda fought on and on. When the Juno scooter flopped and bankruptcy beckoned, his reaction was to embark on the Tourist Trophy race programme, which eventually brought him to the limelight. Honda remained positive throughout his life. In the 1970s there was another gas shortage causing Americans to want smaller cars. Honda was quick to pick up on that trend, with Honda Corp making tiny cars. This ushered in another wave of success.
Smile, and the world smiles with you! Click to watch the corresponding “Be a Leader” video based on this article.