At 5:46 A.M. on January 17, 1995, a massive earthquake shook the city of Kobe, Japan, killing over 5,000 people, and leaving 300,000 injured or homeless. Measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, it was the worst earthquake Japan had experienced in over 70 years. One of the hardest-hit parts of the city was Rokko Island, a manmade island about two miles square that sits 500 yards off the southern coastline, in the Port of Kobe.
It’s connected to the mainland by only two bridges. Both were heavily damaged by the quake, and impassible. For several days, people were unable to leave the island, and food and supplies were slow to get in. The Northeast Asia headquarters of a large U.S.-based company is located on Rokko Island, as are the homes of many of the employees who work there.
During the days after the quake, some of the only accessible food was in vending machines. When a machine was found still working, a line would quickly form in front of it until its contents were gone. At one such machine on the U.S. company’s grounds, one of the men lined up was an expat manager from the United States on a temporary assignment in Kobe.
When he finally reached the front of the line, he purchased four beverages—one for each member of his family—and then left. If he had been more observant, he would have noticed that everyone else in line purchased only one beverage and then went to the back of the line to wait for an opportunity to buy a second or third.
Fairness is an important part of the Japanese culture. Everyone in line surely would have preferred to purchase several items at once. But out of respect and fairness to the others, they waited in line for each purchase. And while the expat from the United States didn’t notice what the local Japanese employees did at the vending machine, they certainly noticed what he did.
Even in this most extreme situation—when a man could surely be forgiven for thinking of his family first—his behavior was viewed as dishonorable. Long before the office was repaired and ready to resume operations, word had spread of his misdeed. His reputation was damaged to the point that he could no longer function as a leader. You can’t lead a group of people that doesn’t respect you.
He was quickly reassigned back to the United States.
The CEO shares this story with fellow executives to teach them the importance of understanding the local culture. He couldn’t possibly explain all the things they should and shouldn’t do in each country. But sharing that story teaches them the serious ramifications of not knowing the local culture. Sharing it in your organization can have the same benefit. It will probably make your audience more observant of how the locals behave as a guide. If that unfortunate expat had done so, he would have been able to finish out his assignment successfully.
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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