The Japanese Five Roles Theory of Teaching – Must-have Qualities for Effective Leadership
In early July, we had the pleasure of running our third lean management training tour in Japan this year. As one of the tour leaders, I had the honor of listening to and interpreting for several managers and directors of the companies we visited, including Mr Mikio Suzaki, the former Chairman of Suzaki Industries, an SME supplier for the Gifu Auto Body Toyota HiAce final assembly plant.
During the discussion held with Mr Suzaki following the tour of his factory, he shared his story of navigating the tough times his family business faced after the bubble economy burst in Japan.
Mr Suzaki captivated us with a gripping story of his personal lean journey and how an encounter with his great mentor led to him thoroughly embracing and implementing the Toyota Production System (TPS). According to Mr Suzaki, his mentor was stern and scary but warm-hearted and caring at the same time. He was also a tactful communicator and a great actor who evoked emotions that influenced people’s attitudes and behaviors. It also went without saying that his mentor was well-versed in his expertise of TPS. Mr Suzaki continues to be deeply indebted to his mentor for his inspiration and guidance. His story highlighted the importance of the power of individuals who can galvanize and drive change in people’s thinking, attitudes and behaviors.
Mr Suzaki’s story led me to ponder the qualities and traits of such mentors, and I was suddenly reminded of the Japanese concept of the Five Roles Theory of Teaching (Kyoshi-Gosha-Ron 教師五者論). This concept is relatively well-known in Japan and has long acted as a guide for those taking on a teaching or leadership role. As I reflected on the concept, I felt it may also provide valuable guidance for those outside of Japan who are not yet familiar with it. Although there exists much great thinking around the qualities and characteristics of effective leaders, I wish to introduce this rather simple but long-standing Japanese concept with the hope of sparking further dialogue and reflection on leadership philosophy.
The Five Roles Theory of Teaching
Under the Kyoshi-Gosha-Ron (“Five Roles Theory of Teaching” hereinafter), a great teacher or mentor must embody the following five roles all at once: scholar (gakusha 学者), doctor (isha 医者), actor (yakusha 役者), diviner (ekisha 易者) and entertainer (geisha 芸者).
The scholar (gakusha)
To effectively lead others, the primary role you need to embody is that of a scholar, or gakusha. This role requires not only expertise in your chosen field but also a commitment to lifelong learning. The adage goes that to teach one thing well, you must first understand a hundred things. This implies the necessity of continuous learning to broaden your knowledge, skills, and expertise. The moment you believe you’ve achieved sufficient competence is the moment you cease to learn, and ceasing to learn inevitably leads to decline. Without a robust foundation in knowledge and capability, coupled with the desire and discipline for continuous learning and improvement, your ability to teach, guide, and lead effectively diminishes. Hence, the importance of embodying the role of a scholar, or gakusha, cannot be overstated.
The doctor (isha)
Secondly, to be an effective mentor, you need to emulate the diagnostic and remedial skills of a doctor. A proficient mentor can accurately identify the challenges their mentees face, assess the situation appropriately, and provide timely and suitable advice to guide them in the right direction.
The Actor (yakusha)
Thirdly, you should possess the ability to engage and inspire those around you, much like an actor. An adept actor uses expressive and exaggerated movements and demeanors to stir various emotions in their audience. If your goal is to truly influence and motivate people, there may be times when you need to “put on a show or two” to capture their attention and effectively communicate your message. Recalling the story of Mr. Suzaki that I mentioned earlier, he frequently observed this “actor-like” quality in his mentor, precisely when it was needed. He emphasized the significance of this trait in leaders and noted that all the exceptional mentors he encountered in his life exhibited this “actor-like” characteristic.
The Diviner (ekisha)
Fourthly, a great mentor must be a diviner. A diviner is one who can make good judgements for a better future by reading surrounding situations and people well. Similar to a fortune-teller, a diviner must also be able to identify people’s hidden aptitudes and open up possibilities for them. Through the diviner’s guidance, people realize what they are capable of and reach their full potential.
The Entertainer (geisha)
Lastly, you must be an entertainer or a geisha to be a good mentor. Being a geisha here, of course, doesn’t mean that you must dance around in a kimono or play a Japanese Shamisen 3-string guitar! Rather, it is to be a person who creates a comfortable environment for those around you such that they become interested in what you are trying to implement. When you can tactfully but naturally instigate interest in people, like a great entertainer, you can create a positive atmosphere for them to engage in what you want them to achieve.
Leveraging the Five Roles Theory of Teaching for Effective Leadership
The Five Roles Theory of Teaching encourages us to possess a variety of qualities and skills across several fields in order to be effective as a leader. One must be a scholar, doctor, actor, diviner, and entertainer all at once. Those familiar with Robert L. Katz’s three-skill approach to leadership may recognize similarities between the three fundamental skills (technical, human and conceptual) suggested by Katz and the roles cited in this Japanese concept.
It’s fascinating to observe how these sought-after leadership and mentorship traits are encapsulated in the straightforward concept of the “Five Roles Theory of Teaching”. Its simplicity makes it accessible and easy to grasp. However, truly mastering and effectively applying all five roles demands considerable skill and experience. If you’re stepping into a mentorship, teaching, or leadership role and aim to be effective, you may wish to stop for a moment to reflect on the wisdom of this concept and observe if you embody the five roles.
Eri Dennis is a Consultant of Shinka Management, a lean training and consulting firm with clients in over 60 countries. Eri is a regular leader of Shinka Management’s lean manufacturing study missions to Japan. Eri graduated with a Master of Arts in Japanese Interpreting and Translation from the University of Queensland and is NAATI accredited as a Professional Level Interpreter and Professional Level Translator.