1. Sometimes, Plan B is WAAAAY Better than Plan A

In 1954, Toho Studios had sunk a lot of money into an epic war movie called Beyond the Glory. It was supposed to be a juggernaut –  think Avatar meets The Hangover meets a Clint Eastwood movie.  They’d gotten big investors from across Asia to throw all of their money into filming on location in Indonesia. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka had even flown there to oversee the final touches before filming started… And then the Indonesian government wouldn’t give any of his actors visas to work in the country. No actors, no movie. It was a financial nightmare. Tanaka had to shut down production and fly back to Tokyo — and come up with a new movie that could shoot FAST, be released in a few months, and – most importantly – make back enough money to keep the studio and investors happy. He knew that the highest grossing film of the last  few years was a re-release of the old 1930s King Kong – it had been a runaway financial success, like Iron Man or The Avengers. Since then, audiences had been clamoring for more American monster movies — and he knew a few people who wanted to try making Japanese monster flicks. So in desperation, Tanaka decided to see if he could bring those men together to put a Japanese twist on an American import craze.

It was a backup plan, a Hail Mary play, and easily could have blown up in his face. But Tanaka knew the signs of a good Plan B — a growing trend, proven demand, and team members who had the passion and the technical skill to make it their own.

2.Successful Leaders Look for Pain and Passion
Hiroshima, after the atomic bomb
Photo credit: boston.com
Monster movies always sold tickets, but Tanaka needed it to be more than just another monster flick if they were going to make a profit.  He knew he had to capture everything that made monster movies popular, but bring something new to the genre – something audiences would want to watch again and again.  It had to hit at something universal, something current, something relevant to every Japanese viewer.

In America, Hollywood was cranking out films about radioactive monsters and making money hand-over-fist. But radioactivity was a real, overwhelming issue for the Japanese – Even though they’d never developed or tested atomic bombs themselves, they were the only people in the world who had actually experienced the horrors of nuclear war. And they were still grappling with the consequences ten years later.

That’s when Tanaka had his epiphany. What if the monster were less a reaction to the atomic bomb that a symbol of the bomb itself? What if the monster was awakened by the bomb? What if it attacked Tokyo? What would the country do then?

It worked. Godzilla spoke to the Japanese about the atomic bomb and destruction the same way the Batman reboot spoke to America about terrorism, corruption, and justice. The Japanese fell in love with Godzilla because he embodied the fears, worries, and pain of an entire nation still trying to rebuild after Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The characters and story became a symbol of the Japanese determination to work together to recover their national pride and rebuild their country.

Godzilla was such a success because Tanaka identified his customers’ pain – problems they faced on daily basis, that the entire nation struggled to talk about — and addressed it with hope and passion. 

3. Successful Leaders Invest to Make a Profit
Tanaka needed to make a profit, but he knew there were no shortcuts – he didn’t cut corners or skimp on the budget where the results would be apparent to the customer. While the staff was full of Japan’s greatest film artists, Tanaka was clear that every artistic decision had to be about the audience — not ego. There was a time and place for small, artsy films that would win awards and acclaim – but this wasn’t that time. The studio and it’s investors needed money, and Tanaka needed to make them money if he was going to keep his job. He gave his trusted team members what they needed to get the job done, but didn’t waste the budget on anything that wouldn’t put more butts in seats and keep them coming back for more.

Real leaders evaluate each expense by asking a single question, “How is spending this dollar going to make me a profit?” They know that investment isn’t about how much comes in at the box office — it’s about how much return you get for each dollar you spend.

4. Successful Leaders Hire People Who Have Real Accomplishments
 and Understand the Vision
Tanaka hired the best film makers in the Japan – artists, actors, and technicians with unique experience and track records of making blockbuster films. Ishio Honda, the director, had been an assistant to the great Akira Kurosawa before the war. Honda had survived fire bombings and Chinese POW camps, and came home to the aftermath of Hiroshima. He said that when he filmed a scene, he tried to remember the fear he felt as bombs went off around him. He had the vision and skill to manage a project as complex as Godzilla.
The special effects supervisor, Tsuburaya, was the king of miniatures and stop-motion animation special effects. He’d been a special effects artist for Japan’s war propaganda studios in the 1940s, and he was good at his job despite budget cuts. When American naval personnel saw his film about the bombing of Pearl Harbor — filmed using miniatures and models in Tokyo– they thought they were watching footage of the real attack filmed by the Japanese pilots. Tsubuyara was THAT good. Tanaka knew that if anyone could recreate – and burn down! – Tokyo on a tight budget, Tsubuyara could.

Together, they brought decades of filmmaking skill and consistent box office receipts. Tanaka knew that when real leaders need results, they find people with a track record of delivering them.

5. Successful Leaders Collaborate and Welcome Criticism

The screenwriter, Kayama, was a master. The script was done before Honda was hired – but he insisted on going over it to make changes. Honda thought the script needed more emotional depth and wanted Kayama to do rewrites. Did Kayama refuse? Defend his work? Threaten to walk out? Nope. Because Kayama knew he was an authority on screenwriting – but Honda was an authority on filming, and he was an authority on what it felt like to be in a city surrounded by fire and explosions. He sat down with Honda and they went over every page together. Together, they took Godzilla from being just another monster flick to being a masterpiece – an emotional experience for an entire nation.

Short time tables, tight resources, and new problems are a perfect storm for conflict — and Tanaka didn’t want to waste time working with people who couldn’t handle criticism. Because real leaders know that goals are more important than egos, he hired people who knew how to be leaders AND work as part of a team.

Come back tomorrow for the last installment of Leadership Lessons from Godzilla: Leadership Lessons from the Guys who Made Godzilla’s Suit!

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A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.