How to Lead in Our Rashomon Moment: Three Essentials

A Japanese filmmaker and a Swedish retailer take the pulse of our national outrage

In 1950, a Japanese filmmaker by the name of Akira Kurosawa created a psychological thriller where a Samurai warrior is murdered and that murder is observed by four eyewitnesses. Instead of providing corroborating evidence, however, the movie’s eyewitnesses—a bandit, a woodcutter, the Samurai, and the Samurai’s wife—tell four very different accounts of the crime.

This little-known filmmaker and his low budget black and white mystery, Rashomon, received instant international acclaim and became synonymous with the phenomenon known as The Rashomon Effect. The Rashomon Effect occurs when the same exact event is viewed by different people in a completely contradictory manner.

A national Rashomon moment has arrived for us in America.

COVID-19, the death of George Floyd, and the aftermath of both tragedies have spawned vastly different interpretations and wildly different narratives that threaten to tear our country apart. It’s in times like these where leaders are needed, courageous and compassionate leaders who enter into the fray and find solutions for the friction.

How do you do that? Here are three essentials:

1. Set aside your own frame of reference

The most haunting lesson from Akira Kurosawa’s film is how motives and mindset affect the way we view events. As human beings, we pride ourselves on being unbiased witnesses to objective truth, when, in fact, that’s lightyears from actual reality.

When we understand that all of us bring our own biases into any situation and set them aside to enter into the perspective of another, at that moment we begin to lead. Lead instead of following the predetermined conclusions of ourself and others.

The first thing good leaders do in critical situations is stop and listen. But you can’t listen when the voices in your head are talking, talking, talking. Listening turns those voices off. It suspends its stories, sets aside its cultural narrative, and hears what’s being said. Without correction. Without recrimination.

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I know this feels like jumping off a cliff or diving into a raging sea without a life jacket. But it really isn’t as bad as all that. In fact, I’ve found not having to defend a personal point of view liberating and listening to others extraordinarily effective in building connection and establishing credibility.

2. Respect the experiences of others

Listening gets the leadership ball rolling. Respect keeps it going.

Five years ago, I was asked to facilitate the succession planning process for an organization that served at-risk youth in the inner city of Milwaukie, Wisconsin. The executive director, a deeply respected African American leader, was retiring, and the board wanted the organization he built to continue effectively serving the community.

I seem to have a unique ability in completing projects like this, and my relationship with the executive director, the board chairperson, and board members was flourishing. One morning after a fruitful working session, we went out to lunch at the iconic Jake’s Diner. Jake’s has the best sandwiches in the city, served with a side of sass.

Walking back to the car, the executive director pointed down the block and said to me, “See that street? That’s where I grew up.” He paused and then spoke somberly, “I remember tanks rolling down that street when I was a little boy to stop demonstrators from assembling.”

I was speechless and knew in that instant that I would never understand the black experience in America. But I could believe it and I could honor it.

Here’s where we, as leaders, can actively work against The Rashomon Effect. Instead of entrenching ourselves in opposition to the differing perspective of others, we can enter into their experience (What would it feel like as a nine year old boy to watch armed tanks drive through your neighborhood?) and give them the respect they deserve.

This will be an unheralded affair, however, for bad news makes headlines and personal insults produce sound bites and clickbait. But it’s necessary work. Utterly critical work in the face of the conflicts before us.

3. Work together for positive outcomes

Listening and respect are not enough (just like thoughts and prayers). Ultimately, action must be taken.

In addressing this essential, allow me to leave Japanese filmmaking for another more contemporary dynamic, The IKEA Effect.

IKEA, of course, is the beloved home accessories retailer that sells ready-to-assemble furniture from big, beautiful (albeit minimalist) showrooms. It’s the middle part of that sentence, ready-to-assemble furniture, that creates The IKEA Effect.

IKEA has found it could quite easily—and, perhaps, with less hassle—assemble the items that shoppers purchase in stores. But it doesn’t build customer loyalty. By asking people to take an active role in assembling their own furniture, IKEA’s research shows that customers value the products they buy more highly and are twice as likely to come back to buy more.

Twice as likely! That’s The IKEA Effect.

This third leadership essential, working together for positive outcomes, means just that: working together. Not handing out ready-made solutions, like paternal colonialists. When people assemble their own answers to pressing problems, they value them, own them, and produce better outcomes.

For example, one of the reasons why I think I’ve been so successful at executive succession projects is that’s exactly what I do. I don’t hand the organization a prepackaged plan; I build it with them together. Everyone has a say and everyone has a voice, for inevitably there’s an organizational twist that needs a customized response. That’s what makes succession, or any leadership challenge, actually work.

At first, this approach doesn’t quite feel like leadership, showing up without a defined solution or a set agenda. But I’ve come to see that it’s leadership at it best because the best leaders don’t do things for people they can do for themselves but mobilize them to be the best versions of themselves.

It’s been seventy years since the filming of Rashomon. Others have made more modern adaptations, most recently The Usual Suspects by Brian Singer. Its lessons, however, are timeless, but they’re not predestined to destroy us.

Leaders like you can counteract the effect by setting aside your own frame of reference, respecting the experiences of others, and working together for positive outcomes.

Will you join me in that quest?


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Photos: George Floyd mural by munshots on Upsplash and IKEA warehouse by mastrminda on Pixabay