Five Traits Characterize Effective Island Style Leadership

Guest post from Glenn Furuya, courtesy of Pacific Business News, 1/18/2013, page 31. The article caught my eye soon after returning from the funeral of my wife’s great aunt, Kay Kramer (98), who embodied the three cultures Furuya discusses below, both in the flesh and through her work and life. 

Having read hundreds of publications and worked side-by-side with many successful leaders in Hawaii for over 30 years, I believe that Hawaii’s cultural context contributes significantly to effective leadership.

Although few outside these Islands may recognize it, many of our leaders possess a “hard-wiring” that produces outstanding results. Many who have heard my presentation on island-style leadership agree. The following five examples will give you a feel of the inherent potential of island-style leadership.

The Three-Way Cultural Blend

Unlike anywhere else in the world, Hawaii’s leaders have been influenced by three distinct cultures: Eastern, Western, and Polynesian. Each of these contribute significantly to leadership development.

Eastern cultures ingrain humility, respectfulness and diligence. Western cultures inspire us toward achievement, independence and creativity. Polynesian cultures instill in us warmth, generosity and inclusiveness.

The very best organizations I work with incorporate these elements in their daily behaviors. When Eastern selflessness, Western drive and Polynesian aloha form the basis of their approach, the probability for success increases.

The Aloha Spirit and Giving Hearts

Real leaders lead with aloha. They treat everyone with empathy and compassion, and openly and regularly acknowledge people for their contributions. When people misbehave or underperform, they respectfully coach them. Team members trust these leaders and reciprocate with hard work and loyalty.

Real leaders have giving hearts. To build clarity and competence, they disseminate information and provide educational opportunities. To build commitment and will, they spend time with their customers and team members, listening attentively, providing appropriate support, and getting everyone involved. Team members respond by delivering quality, productivity and service.


When you praise island leaders they often downplay their contribution and recognize others. This expression of humility is another “hard-wired” trait of island people.

In almost every study I’ve read on the characteristics of effective leadership, humility stands out. Take, for example, Jim Collins’s research on leadership documented in his landmark book, “Good to Great.” One of the top-two qualities is personal humility.

On the day of his death, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, in a letter to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, wrote the following: “People have asked how I want to be remembered, and I say very simply, that I represented the people honestly and to the best of my abilities. I think I did okay.” That’s selflessness and humility wrapped up in two sentences! Sen. Inouye was one of the greatest leaders to emerge from these Islands.

Ohana and Teamwork

Hula dancing and Hawaiian canoe paddling, icons of Hawaii, symbolize two critical qualities of teamwork: individual effort and interdependence.

In hula, each dancer must dance — individual effort — while simultaneously “dancing as one” with other members of the halau — interdependence.

In canoe paddling, each seat, from stroker to steersperson, has a role to perform. At the same time, they must paddle in-sync.

Will and Strength

My father and his comrades in the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Military Intelligence Service were recently honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award a citizen can earn in our country. Despite deep hatred and discrimination against them for being Japanese, these courageous individuals fought for America in World War II and came home the most highly decorated military unit in U.S. history.

This inner strength and drive lives within many leaders here. Because of their warm and humble ways, this quality may go unnoticed. Like former Gov. George Ariyoshi’s campaign slogan put it, “Quiet, but effective.”

Glenn Furuya

Island-style leadership works! Daniel Inouye, John Burns, Musashimaru, Ellison Onizuka, Eric Shinseki, Bryan Clay, Manti Teo, and Barack Obama — all examples of island-style leaders.

Glenn Furuya is president and chief educational officer of Leadership Works, a Hawaii-based business-development and consulting company. Reach him at


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