On Hawai‘i’s Unique Strength to Breed Great Leaders
Alan Suemori
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Glenn Furuya
Glenn Furuya. (Photo courtesy of Leadership Works)

Born and raised in Hilo, Hawai‘i, Glenn Furuya dreamed of becoming a teacher and transforming lives in the classroom. “I saw how the right person could change the world and I wanted to make a difference.”

As a boy, Furuya grew up in a Hawai’i that hardly exists anymore. “Hilo was an intimate environment where the whole village raised the child. I believe I grew up straighter because the whole town was watching me,” says Furuya. “If you misbehaved someone would tell your parents before you even got home, and there were always consequences to your actions.”

Born into a family with few resources, Furuya took on a variety of odd jobs to supplement the household income ranging from picking guava and macadamia nuts to working at the Big Island’s

iconic KTA Super Store.

“The expectation was always to go to college,” says Furuya. “There was no money but not going was never an option.” At the University of Hawai’i, Furuya majored in education and upon graduation, he began teaching special education in Hilo while working part time at KTA. “I learned so much from both worlds,” muses Furuya. “At school I was trying to motivate students who had been slighted and stereotyped their whole lives. They didn’t want to be in the classroom because that’s where they had failed time after time.”

On the KTA side, Furuya learned how to turn a venerable family run store into a modern entity by introducing creative approaches to solving old problems. “I began to wonder what could be possible in education if we could think about learning in novel ways while emphasizing a culture that made taking care of people a priority.” Soon after, he put away the DOE-approved, paint-by-number worksheets and the antiquated lesson plans he had inherited from his predecessors. Instead he began to organize entrepreneurial, hands-on, learn-by-doing start-ups that challenged his students to think imaginatively in order to get things done.

“We created small pop-up businesses where the students were responsible for everything, including the money, and we used our profits to finance our next projects.” Furuya’s SPED classes soon became the talk of the school and his methods which were initially greeted as madness soon became a model for motivating kids that were once seen as unreachable. But after eight years, Furuya’s curiosity about the bigger world beyond the classroom had only increased and he went to work full time at KTA.

“My mentor [at KTA] was Tony Taniguchi and I became fascinated with the whole question of why good leaders succeed and bad leaders fail,” said Furuya who was put in charge of facilitating company-wide meetings and training employees throughout the KTA family.

Soon Furuya would leave the market and start his own consulting company working out of an office in Honolulu. “It was scary because I had no money and even fewer clients, but I needed to see whether my own ideas about leadership had any merit, and the only way to test them was to go out on my own.” Furuya christened his company with the prosaic title of LeadershipWorks and began running popular seminars that focused on teaching critical management skills to the CEO, as well as the middle manager. “I believe that one has to be able to lead oneself before one can lead anyone else,” says Furuya. “But most people don’t understand this basic principle and they end up making the same mistakes over and over again. And they have no idea why.”

While Furuya believes good leaders can be developed, many struggle. “A lot has to do with our ability to overcome our personal wounds which are caused by our life experiences. And if you cannot overcome these wounds, you cannot lead,” underscores Furuya. “The development comes when you are able to conquer yourself first. This is what I mean when I say you have to lead yourself first. And the deeper the wound, the harder it is to lead.”

According to Furuya, when leaders fail to resolve their wounds they act out in predictable ways which include running away from problems, bullying their employees or micromanaging every detail of a project. “Some people flee, some people yell, some people shut down. The behavior that we express reflects our wounds. So we behave in ways that make us feel complete and safe depending on our unfinished needs. And as leaders that’s where we get into trouble.”

Much of Furuya’s work is based on Eastern philosophy; he also fills his message with playful allegories and poetic metaphors that bring his principles to life in real time. “The image that I use is a pot of hot, scalding water which represents pain, suffering and adversity. People will pick one of three ways to use this hot water. Some will use it to overcook potatoes which turns them soft and mushy. These are the managers that grumble and feel sorry for themselves. Others will use the water to overcook eggs. These are the bosses who are angry and always yelling at someone. A rare few will take the hot water, put some tea in it and all of a sudden you have a flavorful drink. That’s leadership. You have to be able to take the negative and flip it to the positive, and helping people choose that third path is the essence of what I do,” explains Furuya.

While Furuya feels good leadership begins with the personal, he stresses that it is also rooted in the universal. “When I started, I was told that if I was going to teach leadership I had to include something about Hawai‘i because that would be my niche.” Focusing on this, Furuya discovered that “Hawai’i is a blend of three cultures: East, West, and Polynesia come together and merge in this one spot. The Eastern side emphasizes humility, respectfulness and obligation. At the same time, we are all Western educated and we are driven by the American Dream. So we have this Eastern side and this Western side but the host culture is Polynesian which is about inclusion, generosity and aloha.” Furuya believes that the confluence of these three great rivers gives birth to two fundamental patterns. “Asian and Polynesian people are very circular in that they are collaborative with the focus being on the group. In the circular world harmony is prized over the truth. On the Western side everything is more linear, assertive and direct. Here’s the goal, here’s the plan, get it done. Western culture spotlights the individual and prioritizes truth over harmony.”

In Furuya’s perfect world, leaders integrate the circular with the linear. They collaborate, they listen, they include, but when the time comes to make decisions they act. “Good leaders have this magical blend of the circular and linear,” says Furuya. “And they are able to jump from one world to the next and back again effortlessly.” What separates the great leaders from the good, however, is a passion that cannot be faked or fabricated. “The best leaders are all inspired to serve, to help, to heal. That drive to give back must be there before anything else because that is the source of all their authenticity,” says Furuya.

“Consequently, great leaders are willing to sacrifice and even suffer because they are so committed to something bigger than themselves.” Furuya insists that Hawai’i people have the potential to be the finest leaders in the world because they are hardwired to reciprocate and are immersed in both the circular and the linear worlds from birth. “The problem is we don’t think we have anything to offer that would make a difference. And nothing could be further from the truth.”

After almost forty years of building his business, Furuya now travels throughout Asia and the Pacific counseling leaders in Japan, Singapore, Saipan and Samoa. “Wherever I go the need for good leadership is everywhere because we live in such difficult times,” concludes Furuya. “But the challenges are all the same because leadership is fundamentally about being human, and that will never change.”

Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer.


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