43: "The Thoughtful Leader" - Rei Inamoto

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"The Thoughtful Leader"

Rei Inamoto is unique. And he’s an identical twin. His professional life has encompassed some of the most prominent and powerful leadership positions in the creative industries, including as the worldwide chief creative officer at AKQA. In 2016, he and his partner Rem Reynolds, launched Inamoto and Co -  a "business invention studio".  Rei and I met in their offices in Brooklyn and talked about the impact of having a twin, of life as an outsider, and about the importance of humility. 


Three Takeaways

  • The power of humility to unlock creativity in others
  • Awareness of the difference you want to make and how you want to help others
  • The willingness to take a little time before answering or making a decision

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 43: "The Thoughtful Leader" Rei Inamoto

Welcome to Fearless, where we explore the “art and science” of leading creativity - the world’s most valuable business resource.

Each week… we talk to leaders who are turning the impossible … into the profitable!!! And in the process, are discovering what they’re capable of themselves.

Today’s show features my conversation with Red Inamoto and is called,

The Thoughtful Leader

“You have to be very judicious about what to say no to. In a creative environment, and when you are fostering creativity, "No, it's a bad idea. No, it's a bad idea. No, it's a bad idea," is an easy thing to do. No, it's a bad idea, but how can we make it into a good idea and that's one of the ways that you foster creativity so, "Find a way to yes, say yes," is another maxim that we have.”

I’ve been reading Dan Pink’s book, When - the scientific secrets of perfect timing. I recommend it to everyone leading creativity. 

We are biological clocks, every cell in our body dramatically affected by the time of day. What comes easily in the morning, is impossible in the afternoon. What we are open to in the evening, can seem like a bad idea the next day. 

And all of that I before we add external forces. Overwhelming external forces in most cases.

I see the calendars of some leaders that are quite literally triple booked, the choice of which meeting they’re going to attend is based on their calculation about which group they can least afford to upset even more than they already are. That feels like slow motion drowning to me. It’s definitely not leading. 

Leaders are responsible for getting their people to better yesses. 

Rei’s right. It’s one of the ways - one of the most important ways - you foster creativity.

And to do that, we have to better understand ourselves and what we need.

Running on empty denies not only us our own dreams, it denies the people who work for us their dreams too.

Rei Inamoto is unique. And he’s an identical twin. His professional life has encompassed some of the most prominent and powerful leadership positions in the creative industries, including five years at R/GA and then as the worldwide chief creative officer at AKQA.

In 2016, he and his partner Rem Reynolds, launched Inamoto and Co -  a "business invention studio" focused on design, data, technology and digital transformation. 

Rei and I met in their offices in Brooklyn and talked about the impact of having a twin, of life as an outsider, and about the importance of humility. 

A couple of days after we recorded our interview, Rei emailed me and said that he’d been thinking about one of my questions since we met, and wanted to give a more thoughtful answer. He included a recording and asked if I minded including it. 

I didn’t mind. And I have included it at the very end of the show. It’s worth listening to. In fact, it’s potentially much more than that.

I hope you enjoy our conversation. 

Charles:

Rei, welcome to Fearless. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this. It's great to have you on the show.

Rei Inamoto:

Thanks for having me. I'm very honored to be on this talk.

Charles:

I know you already know this, so I run the risk that you may have gained the answer, but I'm going to ask you anyway; when did creativity first show up in your life?

Rei Inamoto:

I was telling you, Charles, that before this recording, I listen to a few of your episodes and I noticed that you ask the same question. This question at the beginning of the talk or the interview, and I'm not going to gain the answer, but what I'm going to say is that I think what you're trying to uncover from this question, 'when did creativity come in to your psyche?' Is how that creativity become a person's being, person's identity, person's habit, character and eventually, profession.

I think that's what you're trying to uncover from this question that you've asked consistently across different interviewees. I'm going to answer in a slightly different way because I don't think it's one ... I do have a particular memory of creativity of my childhood, but I think it's a sequence of events and sequence of memories that I've had over the years, especially between my childhood and teenage years, that let me to pursue creativity as a profession, as a career. I have a few memories.

One is when I was I think about five or six, I think I was in kindergarten, and as you would do in a kindergarten, we were asked to paint. I don't remember specifically what the topic was, but I remember specifically we had to draw something on a paper plate. We were given a paper plate, and a bunch of paints and paint brush, to draw whatever we wanted to paint on that paper plate. Again, I don't remember if there was a specific theme that we had to draw. What I did paint was just a scene of two dogs; a mother dog, and a kid dog. Two dogs that I painted, and I don't know if I still ... I think I still have it in my room, that I grew up in when I was a kid.

What I remember from that memory is the reaction that my teacher had to that little painting that I did. She seemed to be so impressed and there was such joy in her reaction that stuck in my mind. That's the first memory of creativity. The second memory or second fundamentally critical memory that I have of creativity is when I was probably about 12 or 13, so a little bit older. I had started playing in a brass band at my school, and I was playing the trumpet, but I wanted to switch to saxophone. For whatever reason, I thought saxophone was a cooler instrument, I wanted to switch.

I was begging my mom to buy me a saxophone, but all these instruments are not cheap instruments to buy. A few hundred dollars if not $1,000 or more. I do remember, I think it was more than $1,000, and for a 12, 13 year old kid, that's a lot of money, so I couldn't buy obviously. So I was asking my mom to buy me one, and she refused to buy me one, not because she didn't want to spend the money, but because I wasn't patient enough to stick with the first instrument that I was supposed to do, and I was change my mind too quickly.

Instead, she bought me a book, and the book, quite literally, was titled, "How to create your own musical instruments." So, using boxes, using pipes that you can find, using random things that you can find in a household; cheap things that you can buy from hardware stores. It was a book, illustrated book, of how to make musical instruments. Again, I was 13, 13 years old, and that memory stuck in me for quite a long time, to this day, and I think that taught me the importance of doing your own way. The importance of ingenuity, because a lit of times, you don't have what you want, and you have to create something out of nothing.

Or, you have to create new things out of old things. That was a lesson that my mom subconsciously taught me, about the importance of creativity. That was the second. The third one, actually, I go back in time a little bit. I was in I think 5th grade, so I was 10 or 11 years old. My Homeroom teacher was a very enthusiastic art teacher. When you're in elementary school, each teacher teaches all the subjects. It's not a specialized teaching duty that each teacher has. He was teaching all the subjects; math and social studies and all those kind of things, but art was his personal passion.

He definitely emphasized art in the classes that I was in. One semester, we had an assignment that we had to draw a scenery that you see in the neighborhood. I was painting actually, a Temple that was in the neighborhood. He was looking at my shoulder, and I was a decent art student. I could draw relatively well, and I was a decent painter. He told me, "Hey, Rei, your paintings are always so perfect. Like why do you have to be so perfect? Feel free to see what you don't see with your eyes, and just paint how you feel and what you feel." He took the paintbrush from my hand, and he chose like a color pink or something, that wasn't in the actual scene that I was looking at, and he just took the paintbrush and took the color pink or something, and then just painted that color pink on a tree.

He was like, "See how that unusual color makes you feel." That was another lesson that I still keep to this day, about the importance of ... This is very cliché to say, but thinking outside the box and being comfortable enough to go beyond the boundaries of what you see, and seeing what you don't see, through your mind.

Charles:

Those are three such powerful vivid examples.

Rei Inamoto:

Yeah, very vivid.

Charles:

Very vivid memories, clearly for you. I'm struck by a couple of things actually. Fascinated by your own analysis of why I ask the question. I'm not going to discuss actually that, because I think one of the interesting things about the question is that it creates different opportunities for people to engage in different ways. Yes, your approach, your assessment is valid. I got an email a few weeks ago, from somebody who listens regularly to the show, who was, I think it's fair to say, indignant, about the fact that I even ask the question, because their at attitude was, "Any creative person has always being creative, and so they should never have the ability to be able to define the first moment."

Which I find an interesting response. No, I don't think I agree with that, but I found it was an interesting response, and it leads me ... your memories, your interpretation of why I ask the question, that provocation as well, lead me to this question, which is, do you think people are born creative, or do you think that it is fostered in them, just as you've described, by certain people -

Rei Inamoto:

I think fostered. I mean, there may be some natural born talent, creativity, maybe perhaps being athletic, you may have a natural born athletic ability to run faster or to play things better, so I think there is some of that, that you're born with, but more so than ... because creativity is not a physical attribute, it's a mental attribute, and mind can be limitless in terms of how it can be nourished and fostered and expanded, and extended, more so than the physical ability.

I think physical ability, I think there is a certain physical limitation to, whereas mental ability, which creative is, a mental ability, I think okay, you may be born with some of it, but largely, I think it needs to be nurtured consistently throughout. It's not a one time thing. When you do something once, it's just a task, but when you repeat a task, it becomes a habit. A habit forms behavior and behavior forms character, and I think I see creativity that way too. Then that applies to individuals, but that also applies to organizations, because organizations are made up of individuals.

A task that a group or organization does, when that becomes repeated, it becomes a habit, and habit becomes behavior and behavior becomes character of an organization.

Charles:

That's well said.

Rei Inamoto:

I see creativity in the same vein.

Charles:

You grew up in Japan?

Rei Inamoto:

Yes, I did.

Charles:

When did you come over here?

Rei Inamoto:

I was in Japan until I was 15, and then when I was 16, I left Japan to go to Switzerland, to go to a boarding school in Switzerland for a few years. Then for college, I came to The States. I've been back in Japan ... I went back to Japan when I graduated from college, a little bit, but quickly I came back to The States, and I came to New York in late 90s. I lived in New York from the late 90s to 2005, moved to San Francisco, and then moved back to New York in 2010.

Charles:

You've had a very intimate opportunity to look at creativity through different cultural lenses.

Rei Inamoto:

Yeah, definitely.

Charles:What do you see as the distinction between how creativity is nurtured in Japan versus how you see it being nurtured over here?

Rei Inamoto:

Japan is a famously, very regimented country and culture. In some cases, to its advantage, and in some cases to its detriment. I am grateful for the Japanese culture upbringing that I've had, because that's who I am. I still associate myself as ... although I've been living in the US more than half of my life, and when I go to Japan, people tell me that I sound like a foreigner who speaks Japanese.

Charles:

Yes. I'm familiar with that.

Rei Inamoto:

You're familiar with that, yeah. People like you and I, I think we occupy a peculiar group of people who have come from one culture or one country and decide to live in another country. I call New York my home, but I also consider Japan to be my spiritual home. Getting back to your question about how creativity is fostered and taught in different cultures, I think that the biggest perhaps difference is, in a country like Japan, I think creativity is taught as a system, as opposed to I think, in a country like US, creativity is taught as freedom.

There is a fundamental difference in the way I think creativity is perceived and creativity is nourished. I think part of what makes me who I am, there's no denying that a good portion of it comes from my upbringing, which is from a different culture, and that infused in a completely different culture now, and then the mix of the two, I think, creates an interesting fusion.

Charles:

The mix of both freedom and system as you just described, is obviously, we both I think would agree, both fundamental to bringing creativity to life in a business environment. You have to have both in fact, it's part of the challenge. You're also a twin right?

Rei Inamoto:

Yes, I am. You've done your homework.

Charles:

I hadn't realized that until I did a little bit of background reading on you. How did that inform your view of the world?

Rei Inamoto:

Interesting. I think it is also a pretty big part of my own identity. My brother who is my identical twin, you know there are fraternal and identical.

Charles:

So I might be talking to your brother right now in fact?

Rei Inamoto:

You might be talking to my brother right now, you'd never know.

Charles:

I would never know.

Rei Inamoto:

You would never know, unless I tell you. He is an architect, and he works for a firm called BIG, Bjarke Ingels Group, which is a pretty established, a very famous architecture firm. It's interesting that -

Charles:

Where does he live?

Rei Inamoto:

He lives in New York.

Charles:

Oh, he does? Interesting.

Rei Inamoto:

Yeah, he lives in New York, so you might be talking to him, or you might be running in to him soon if not.

Charles:

I just started watching Counterparts on Stars. Have you seen that show?

Rei Inamoto:

No, I haven't.

Charles:

You would actually, I think, enjoy it. The premise is that there are actually two realities, which were created during the Cold War in Eastern Germany in 1930. An accident goes wrong, scientific experiment. It creates an exact duplicate reality, and you can go back and forth, via a tunnel, to this different reality, and 30 years ago, when this accident happened, an exact duplicate was created of everything and all of us. Therefore, there is another version of us, who is exactly like us, except that their life experiences over the last 30 years have diverged.

It raises all kinds of interesting questions about the influence of environment -

Rei Inamoto:

Yeah, I would say, until we were 18, we were seen as the twins. Often ... most of the time, I think we were the only set of twins in our school. In Japan, we grew up in the countryside, and the school was very small, so we were the only ... I think there was one other set of twins who were a couple of years older than us, but in our class, we were the only set of twins.

Then, we both went to the same high school in Switzerland, and I think we were the only ... the high school was relatively small; about 250 kids, and I think we were the only set of identical twins. There was one set of fraternal twins, boy and a girl, and they looked very different, so people knew that they were siblings but most people didn't even know that they were twins, whereas we were very obviously twins, very obviously twins. People always identified us, "Oh, Rei," or, "Oh, Yu". My brother's name is Yu, "You guys are the Inamoto twins." That was how they identified us.

When we went to college, we very deliberately decided to go to different schools. Up until 18, we were very much defined as, "Oh, which one are you?" Then from 18, we both had to consciously, establish our own identity as an individual, and that's an unusual thing because for the most part, people who are not twins, they establish their own identity as an individual, I think, earlier on.

Charles:

Did you sit down and actually talk about this?

Rei Inamoto:

With my brother?

Charles:

Yeah.

Rei Inamoto:

Did we talk? We talked about I think, when we were 17, when we were choosing what schools to go to, what colleges to apply to. We applied to some of the same schools but we also applied to some different schools. He went to Cunningham University, which are pretty good science, engineering, arts school. I had applied to that school as well, but because he had gotten in, I deliberately chose not to go to that school. I think it was a good thing. I think had we chosen to go to the same school, I think we would have been haunted by the fact that we were twins, and we still are twins.

It definitely informed and formed, I would say, the earlier part of my identity, and I think it still is a pretty big part of my identity. My twin brother and I, we have a younger brother, the three of us are actually pretty close, and we talk to each other all the time. We hang out with each other pretty often. I think with my younger brother, I think, we have more of a sibling relationship, but with my twin brother, I have a sibling relationship, I have a competitive relationship that's different from the competition that I would have with my younger brother.

I think when your younger brother, there's that age gap that you can never close, so there's that kind of competitiveness, I think, as a younger sibling perhaps, but then when you have somebody who is exactly the same age, you don't have that either disadvantage or advantage over the other person, so you become even more competitive. I think that definitely informed my upbringing, and then I think informed my identity to some extent. Then, I think as I was becoming an adult, I was extra conscious of forming my own identity that's not tethered to the fact that I'm twins.

Charles:You always struck me as an instinctive and very natural leader, and you've always risen very quickly to positions of real leadership and authority in the companies you work for, and obviously, now your own company.

Rei Inamoto:

Oh, thank you.

Charles:To what extent do you think your appetite for proclivity for leadership was informed by your relationship as a twin?

Rei Inamoto:

I don't think that ... Now that you ask me that question, and now that I think about it, I don't think that being a twin influenced my career as it relates to leadership, I don't think; now that I'm thinking about it. I would say when you ask me that question, what comes to my mind was that in some cases, I was fortunate to have some great, amazing bosses. In some cases, I was either fortunate or unfortunate that I didn't have a boss, I think in some of the most important phase of my professional career.

The first boss, which is by the way, before I graduated from school. I was an intern at my school, as a designer, as an illustrator, and I was working for an astrophysicist, as a boss. She was doing a research and she needed a designer to sort of illustrate a lot of the research that she was doing; to visualize. That was one of my first paid gigs as a designer, when I was in school, and she was a fantastic boss. On a tangent, one of the things that I been fortunate to have in the teams that I've been part of, and I [inaudible] the teams that I've managed and that I have created, there is a fair amount of female population.

Even if you look across here, we have probably, if not 50-50, more female company than male, here. I think subconsciously, it might go back to the fact that the first boss that I had was female, and there's so much respect that I had for her. That was that; I was fortunate. Then, a few years on the line, actually, when I went to RGA, I had interviewed ... So this was in the late 90s, almost 20 years ago, that's aging myself very quickly.

I had interviewed at RGA and I interviewed with a guy named Frank Lands, who was a creative director and he is now a game designer and he started the digital division, interactive division of RGA back in the late 90s. I interviewed with him and I was so mesmerized by him when I interviewed, "Man, I could learn from this person," so I joined. Two months later, he was gone. He had been there for quite a while, eight, nine years or so and he was just done and he was gone. I think he already know that he was going to be gone but he had hired me and then he was gone.

Charles:

How did you feel?

Rei Inamoto:

I understood just because he had been there for quite a while, so I didn’t feel anything about him leaving but what I felt after that because he created an environment where there were a bunch of...I was in my mid 20s, and there were a bunch of people who were around my age; between 25 and 30, 33, pretty young, and for a couple of years, they were people who were more senior than me and I guess they were bosses but they just weren’t ready to be managers and leaders. I think I had a period or phase where I was a little lost in terms of receiving mentorship that I should have gotten.

Then I think like I was 27, 28, we had to do ... so this was one of the first digital agency of record pitches that I think was probably one of the first ones that we had been involved in, and by default, I guess I wasn’t the most experienced person but I naturally ... maybe not naturally, I was put into the leadership position by default. I was the one who went to the pitch meeting among with other people obviously, among other people and I was put into a leadership position of that account.

Charles:

What do you think you showed that gave them the confidence to take that role on? I mean I think it's ... we often look back and say, "Oh, I was the only person around so they had no choice," but typically there is more than that, right? We both run businesses and so we know we are pretty [crosstalk].

Rei Inamoto:

A slightly different answer to your question and this is also something that I think formed who I am today and what I do today because of my cultural back ground. The fact that I have always been an outsider. I have always been a foreigner, professionally, and even when I was in school. Around that time...so a very different situation; same company, I was one of the most "senior". I wasn't the most expensive, the oldest, but I was the most senior designer on the team, went to a meeting, different client.

Went to a meeting, and he was an account person who was older. Myself and a couple other people and we presented and the presentation ... The meeting went okay; it wasn’t the best presentation. I didn’t think it was the worst presentation or worst meeting. After the meeting, a very senior client who must have been in his 40s, even in his 50s, so at that point, almost twice as my age, after the meeting, asked the account director; and I assumed he said it in a way that we could all hear, but he said “Oh, can I see this guys’ resume?”

Charles:

Wow.

Rei Inamoto:

Yeah and that was a very painful sort of realization that, "Okay, I am not meeting up to obviously, this person's expectation," and then related to that episode, one of the things that I started to do consciously, like around that time, when I was in my mid 20s, and my English was okay. English is still my foreign language, so I still have to try harder to try to talk. My rational at that point was that, "Okay, he didn’t quite understand what I was presenting, perhaps because of my language ability or the lack there of."

So my reverse phycology was, "Okay, my English is not and will probably not be as good as native English speakers obviously, so if explain things in a way that I can understand, which is a pretty limited state of vocabulary and a pretty limited ability, and probably at the level of tenth, 11th, 12th grader," but if I speak in such plain English, in a way that a 10, 11, 12 year old could understand, then that should be simple enough for everybody else to understand. That was my naïve reverse phycology, reverse rationale, and I think subconsciously, that forced me to simplify things to the bare essence that you needed to keep in order to explain an idea and explain a concept.

Charles:

And did something else right? Which is, it put you in the head of the person that you were talking to?

Rei Inamoto:

Yeah, I think so.

Charles:

It made you think about what they need to hear from me, which is not a trait that most people instinctively bring to the table.

Rei Inamoto:

Yeah.

Charles:

Very powerful discipline actually, to develop very early on.

Rei Inamoto:

So, was a painful experience and an episode, I think paid off in some way.

Charles:

Really interesting and again, obviously such a distinctive memory for you.

Rei Inamoto:

Yeah, very distinctive and I think it’s the mixture of my cultural heritage and the upbringing that I have had and having lived in different countries. Having met and lived quite literally, when I was in high school and when I was in college, I was living with people from many different countries. Like my high school for instance, was only about 250 kids, but the student body represented about 70 to 80 different countries, so it was quite literally a melting pot of different people, and although you are speaking in English but you speak in different versions of English.

Charles:

Yeah.

Rei Inamoto:

So you are speaking in different languages all the time, so communication becomes both linguistic communication, as well as behavioral communication, become part of the culture that I was living at the time when I was in The United States.

Charles:

Again, you're very sensitive to the fact that there are people out there with different points of view -

Rei Inamoto:

I think so.

Charles:

Especially different experience. As you look back at your career so far, are you conscious of having developed either overtly or subconsciously, a leadership philosophy? How do you lead?

Rei Inamoto:

Good question. How do I lead? I think business is becoming more science than art. I think leadership is becoming more art than science, and how do I lead? It’s one of those things that I don’t think you can ever master, even when you are 80. Even when you are 90, it’s something that you could get better at. I mean, I think it’s probably a question that I might have a point of view, but all the people that I work with would have different points of view; whether I am a good leader or not.

I think over the past 20 years that I have been in this industry and leaders that I look up to and the people that I look up to, I think one of the common things is that I look up to people who are practitioners. Whatever discipline that they might be in, I respect and admire people who are practitioners. For instance, one of the industries that I am fascinated by is the culinary industry; being a chef. It’s a very tough industry and I don’t think I will ever make it.

I don’t know if I have the stamina to be in that industry because it's long hours and very competitive and very cut throat, and you live and die by the quality of the product that you make, which is the food that you serve. On that note, just on a tangent note, the motto of our company is actually based on a restaurant, so I have said this publicly in a few different places but, I was fascinated by this restaurant called el Bulli, which is a very famous Spanish restaurant outside of Barcelona.

What they were very clever about, they had this business where they will be open for six month, and they would close for six month, and when they were open obviously, they would invite customers in and they would serve the customers, and when they were closed for six months they would do research and experimentation and invent new dishes and invent new recipes and what not. I'd been fascinated by that motto, and what’s important about their business is that when they were closed, they also monetized the research that they do in the form of content and books.

So it’s not just the restaurant business that they were making money from but the IP business; Intellectual Property business that they were running when they were closed. We have modeled how company in a similar way. Instead of opening and closing every six months, we are open all the time, but we actually have two different groups; one is, the work that you see on the outside. The client work that we do and the other one is the work that you don’t see on the outside, which is product incubation, a practice that we have. It's two different teams that we manage. It's two different groups of people and both sides keep us sharp as a unique entity. I think, and I am not quite answering your question of how do I lead, because I don’t think there is a simple answer to that question.

Charles:

When you decided to open this business, why do you think the people here came to work for you?

Rei Inamoto:

Good question. You should probably ask them. I will be curious to hear what they say. What is interesting about that point is so two years ago that we opened our doors to the world and a couple of months before that, when Rem, my business partner and I started this company, and we started to talk to a few people, interestingly enough and I hope I am making an appropriate comment, which is, the truth is that out of the first five people, that we hired, four people ended up being female; and not necessarily deliberately. We were conscious of not hiring people just like us and other guys for instance.

We were definitely conscious of that but it was interesting when we were gathering the first group of founding members of our company and to be transparent, we had and I had more trouble convincing guys to join us, than female. Guys were much more risk averse. They were more status oriented and money oriented to be honest, and they come up with reasons why not to do it or why not to join, as opposed to female people who joined us. I think whether they thought about this consciously or subconsciously, I think they were like, "Why not?" So even the same statement, 'why not to do it' versus 'why not do it', if you see my drift.

Charles:

Totally.

Rei Inamoto:

It’s exactly the same sentence but very different sentiment.

Charles:

Very different.

Rei Inamoto:

I found why not with female obviously, and indeed they have joined us, and like I said, 80% of the first founding members were female. Not necessarily by design but it ended up being that way, and to me, that speaks volumes.

Charles:

You said a couple of minutes ago that you think leadership is becoming more about art than science. Talk to us a little bit about where do you get that perspective from, what draws you to that insight.

Rei Inamoto:

There has been a lot of talk about machines and AI and computers taking over our lives and I think it already has happened in many places that we don’t see lately. I still have quite a few years to go in my career; a couple of decades to go, and I have been in ... sometimes by choice and sometimes not by choice, like in earlier on in my career, I was put into that leadership position, not necessarily by choice like you mentioned with other people that you spoke to. Then I started to ... I think and I'm changing the subject a little bit, but I think leaders or people who pursue leadership for glory and for status, should not be leaders, because I think there is a lot of work that a leader has to do that’s not glamorous, that’s not sexy at all.It’s only the tip of the iceberg.

I think really good leaders understand that it comes with a whole set of responsibilities that you might not be ready to take on and that’s something that I am conscious when I meet people, and when I especially interview people that they are looking for tittles and money and the status, so to speak. It’s just not a good match for us and for me personally, to work with that person. I think to come back to your other question, how do you lead? When I am extracting my own answers from this phycology session so to speak, I think humility is a big part of it.

I think you have to have humility because even if you are at the top of the food chain, so to speak, even if you are at the top of that organization, we live in such a radical transparent world now that as we have seen in the past, [inaudible]  unfortunately, things can crumble overnight. So I think you have to have humility and I was talking to somebody just a couple of hours ago, and I think what you do on the outside and what you do on the inside, what you do on the inside I think, is almost more important than what you do on the outside. Things that other people can see versus things that you can’t see.

I now make a very conscious effort behind the scenes to do good for the people that work for us, and we are a small company. We started two years ago; we are still a growing company, so we don’t have the financial means that the Googles and Facebooks and Apples in those companies have, and we may never be at that level of perks that they can offer, and there are some tangible things that we can offer, and some intangible things we can offer but at the end of the day, like I said, us having individuals humilities, is a big part of at least who I am and what I try to do, and doing the right thing, doing good.

Even though we might not be paying hundreds and thousands of dollars to a charity; I wish we had that kind of money, give us a few years to get there. I think doing good in places that other people don’t see, I think is equally if not more important, than what we do and say publicly.

Charles:

You've held some very significant roles in what we would describe as the creative industries. This company is an evolution away from that or through that lens I guess. What do you think are the keys to unlocking creativity that you've discerned over the last 20, 25 years?

Rei Inamoto:

Unlocking creativity. When we first started, within the first few month, and I think it was March of 2016, so almost two years ago. At that time, we were five people I think, five or six people. We decided to do an offsite. We rented a house and we spent a few days together just to get away from what was happening at that time and trying to lift our company off the ground a little bit. The purpose of that retreat, so to speak, that we had was to think about what should be our mission and what should be our values.

Out of that, we end up writing what we now call Inamoto Maxims, which are ... you know that neon sign that you see outside. Those are the maxims that we wrote. Initially, I thought...a lot of the companies that I've seen out there, they have sort of corporate mission and corporate values like integrity and professionalism and those kind of words, and I thought it'd be just a few words, but it then ended up being statements. Some of those maxims became the filters by which we make decisions.

Charles:

As I look over your shoulder and read them as they light up, they are actually very practical. They are action-oriented -

Rei Inamoto:

We try to make it -

Charles:

In many cases.

Rei Inamoto:

Yeah. I'm a firm and strong believer in simplicity but simplicity is very hard to do. It's not easy to do.

Charles:

When in doubt subtract.

Rei Inamoto:

That's right.

Charles:

Just popped up over your head.

Rei Inamoto:

That's right. That's one of the statements that we use and we find ourselves using to each other on a daily basis. If you are doubting about something, "Should I add this, should I do that?" subtracting is an important thing. Coming back to your question about leadership; being tough and being rough are not the same thing. I think a lot of leaders or people, who are assumed leaders, might mistake those two points. "Be tough not rough" is another thing that we say. "Saying no versus saying yes." "Find a way to say yes instead of no." It's easy to say no. No is a very powerful word depending on how it is used, but it's also a very dangerous word depending on how it's used.

Charles:

Particularly in the creative environment.

Rei Inamoto:

Exactly. You have to be very judicious about what to say no to. In a creative environment, and when you are fostering creativity, "No, it's a bad idea. No, it's a bad idea. No, it's a bad idea," is an easy thing to do. No, it's a bad idea, but how can we make it into a good idea and that's one of the ways that you foster creativity so, "Find a way to yes, say yes," is another maxim that we have.

Charles:

The best story about 'No' in a creative environment that I ever came across was actually Steve Jobs' story when he came back to Apple, the second time as the CEO. He pulled all the developers into the room, and Apple were a very poor company back then, which was obviously pre even the iPod and he said, "You are going to hear a word that we don't use very much around here, which is no. I'm going to say no to almost everything you are doing because I think we are doing ... most of the stuff that we are doing is entirely irrelevant and nobody cares about." I think that, to your point, most people overuse it on a day to day basis in creative companies but if you are very specific and clear about what it is that you are trying to build, it becomes a very powerful word as well because it focuses people in the right places.

Rei Inamoto:

It's not one of the words that we have on the wall on the neon sign, but restraint when running an organization, running a project, restraint is an extremely important aspect of how you run things and I think how you behave. Establishing a brand and building a brand, I think restraint is something that many companies forget. They try to do too many things and they try to have too many voices and they try to have quite literally, too many colors and what not ... and being able to restrain yourself, I think is a very important aspect of building a company.

Charles:

Do you think, you obviously worked in some business that were larger, became very large under your guidance, do you think you can get too big as a creative business? Do you think creativity has a limitation or do you think that if it's well-run, creativity can scale to any size organization?

Rei Inamoto:I think creativity can definitely scale, because when you look at organizations that are "creative", they are often consistently creative, so I think creativity can definitely scale and I think this goes back to, "Leadership is more about art than science," and why it's so difficult and why machines haven't been able to replicate ... I think creation and creativity are two different things. I think creation, machines can create things because I think machines are good at repeating tasks. You can create things by accomplishing tasks but just because you are creating doesn't necessarily mean that you are creative or you have creativity.

I think the reason why leadership is so difficult and I think creativity is so difficult, is that because humans can be sometimes unpredictable ... perhaps we can be a more predictable based on data but I think the biggest technological mistake that we have seen in our generation; and without getting too political, is the political climate that we are in right now. I mean it's just ... if machines were so good, if technology was so good, we shouldn't be in this position, in this particular country, unfortunately. I'll stop at that. That's why I think there's more art to humanity than we might currently think.

Charles:

I was watching a piece of video in which Jack Ma was speaking and -

Rei Inamoto:

He's fascinating by the way.

Charles:

He's fascinating, isn't he? Just extraordinary. Carl Johnson who I interviewed earlier in the podcast brought him up as the piece of research that they had done under anomaly, uncovered as being regarded as the most creative person in China. He was making this distinction that you've just alluded to as well, which he said, "If we focus on teaching people knowledge-based information, machines will take over because machines are better at knowledge than we are. They have a better capacity to retain it, to use it, to apply it, to scale it. If we focus on teaching people how to think originally, and innovatively, and creatively, so that the knowledge itself becomes merely a fuel for changing possibilities going forward, that's how I think, in not so many words, mankind will not just survive but thrive.

Obviously, you've got everybody from Elon Musk, down thinking that artificial intelligence is potentially the greatest threat to mankind since we were created. As you build this business and the kind of work you do for clients, how do you differentiate between knowledge-based skills, that clearly are so necessary in some ways and also developing people who have the ability to create innovation, original thinking and also how do you help develop those people so they can lead those kinds of skills?

Rei Inamoto:

The first thought that came to my mind was, do more with less. That's a way to foster creativity. Creative people ... one of the issues that I have with the word "creative" or "creative people" or the term "creative people" is that I think it puts a label to a certain types of people, particularly in this industry and other people who are not labeled creative may be actually more creative and they are not given that label oftentimes. I find a lot of people who are not given that label but they are as creative as anybody else or more so than other people, I should say.

Charles:

You see that in the best companies, don't you, where creativity as a discipline is far less discussed and you are looking for solutions that come from the entire company. Everybody can create.

Rei Inamoto:

Some of the clients that we work with, like Uniqlo was our founding client and Mr. Yanai who is our client and he is a global CEO of Uniqlo. He's not the one to tinkering day to day but he's a creative thinker. He is also leading an organization that tries to be creative. The person at the top may not need to be a creative designer or creative doer but I think the mentality to foster creativity is an important aspect of an organization and especially the people at the top.

There are very few people at the top of the organization. I think the color of an organization is somewhat dictated by the top 1, 2, 3 people and I'm very conscious of that by the way, now that I'm in that position. Whether it's a 10-person company or a 10,000-person company, I think the top few people, inevitably dictate the color of the company, quite literally  too.

Charles:

How does that realization awareness change your behavior or affect your behavior?

Rei Inamoto:

Goes back to humility again. I think to answer your question, "How do you lead?" Having humility I think is extremely important.

Charles:

What would people be surprised to know about you that they don't already know?

Rei Inamoto:

What would people find surprising? I think you asked me about me being a twin. When they meet my brother, people get really surprised. When they see both of us or when they see the other and completely mistake the other person for me or him. I think that would be ... if you run into him or run into me and if I don't say hi, it's a very high likelihood that it might not be me, and the fact that my brother's name is Yu, is adding to the confusion.

Charles:

Yeah. It's like who's on first current scenario.

Rei Inamoto:

You are right.

Charles:

The last question. What are you afraid of?

Rei Inamoto:

That's another question that you've asked that fairly consistently throughout the different interviews. To be honest, I didn't do my homework. I didn't think about it. I didn't game the system. What am I afraid of? What am I afraid of? Personally or externally or both?

Charles:

Both.

Rei Inamoto:

Personally, I've said this publicly and it's something that I didn't think about when I was in my 20s that consciously. I would say in the past 5, 6, 7 years that I've started to think about this more consciously. I think what I'm most afraid of is 30, 40 even 50 years from now, if I live that long, looking back at my career and my life and not feeling proud and good about what I've done. That I think is what I'm most afraid of. It's very little to do with making money, to be completely honest. I would like to be able to contribute to the world in some way and the influence that I'd like to have either on people, the company and the world at large; in that sequence. In those concentric circles, I'd like to be able to say that I've made positive impact on the people, the organization and the world.

Then 10 years from now ... because I don't expect ... people move around. People come and go. That I like to work with everybody that we have here as long as we can but people come and people go. When they look back, I want them to say, "That was an amazing experience and there was positivity coming out of that experience." I want people to feel that 10, 20 years from now. To answer your question, what I'm most afraid of, is not feeling good about what I have done and not contributing to the world in one way or another. That I think is the ultimate thing that I think I have become more conscious of in the past five years than I was in the previous 10, 15 years.

Charles:

As you know, I wrap every episode with three things that -

Rei Inamoto:

I’m very curious.

Charles:

The first one is, you've mentioned a number of times and I think it resonates and is powerful, which is your humility. That feels to me very authentic. It doesn't feel to me like an affectation and I think it's obviously a very powerful and potent component to unlocking creativity from a leadership position. Second, as you just summarized, and I was struck by this even before you gave that answer, but I think your intention to make a difference, to leave a legacy that has helped other people at a local level and at a broader level, is really present in you and I think it is present increasingly in the very best leaders that I come across. You said earlier that if people are doing this because they have ego or they are looking for status. I think they are not likely to be successful. I think increasingly that's true. We are seeing lots of shifts in society that are reflective of that.

The third thing that I would say just observationally, is your thoughtfulness and your willingness to think about an answer and to take your time and to both have the capacity to do that and also I think  the courage to do that. I think the world that we live today, where everybody is looking for the instant sound bite, the 140 or 200 maybe character response, we are looking for that micro-burst of dopamine to get the hit. You are willing to push back against that even in small subtle ways and say, "I don't have a ready answer. I'm going to take a little while to think about that." I find that very refreshing and I appreciate your willingness to do that. Thank you so much ... Before I get into that, let me ask you, did those three resonate with you?

Rei Inamoto:

Yeah. They did. They certainly did. Many of the questions that you've asked are not the things I think about on a daily basis but things that I think that we all need to be thinking about a bit more consciously. What I would like to be able to do is to codify some of the topics that we talked about and put that into practice, because we do this for a living. We all need to make a living and we need to make our companies successful. We need to make the clients that we work with successful and we need to make the product and creation practice that we have, successful and ...

The thing is, there are quite literally hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos and how-to tutorials and thousands and hundred thousands of business books and whatnot, [01:06:00] but at the end of the day, you don't know what it's going to be like until you do it. Until you do it. I've read books and I've watched videos and those kind of things and mentally, they helped me at that moment to feel, "Oh, you know, I'm now more equipped to do this," but until you do it, you are not and there's no substitute for doing it.

Charles:

That's a perfect summary. Thank you so much for being here. Thanks for being on the show. I've really enjoyed this conversation.

Rei Inamoto:

Thank you. I look forward to another one.

Charles:

Thank you all for listening. You've been listening to "Fearless, The Art of Creative Leadership," and if you like what you heard, please take a moment, go to iTunes and leave us a rating and a review. It makes a big difference to the conversations we can have, and please join us next week. Thanks again.