New book explores Japanese philosophy in modern business world Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
Prof Frank Brueck, published a book based on the wisdom of the old Japanese philosophy of IKIGAI (the reason/

Prof Frank Brueck, honorary professor at Stellenbosch Business School, published a book based on the wisdom of the old Japanese philosophy of IKIGAI (the reason/purpose of life). He developed a unique model to review your own (working) life in these trying times. In this new book Ikigai is transferred to the modern business world. It highlights how we can achieve purpose and meaning as individually as leaders and collectively as organisations. Here he shares more about the book:

How would you define meaningful leadership?

Meaningful leadership is fuelled by purpose and an integrative power connecting the leader with him/herself as well as with stakeholders and the environment. What that means can be well described along the lines of the Japanese life philosophy called Ikigai. “Iki” in this context means Life and “Gai” can be translated as Reason. So, we are talking about the reason for life. In the case of a leader this would be the reason to work or more precisely the reason to lead. In order to arrive at this ikigai a leader has to integrate the following dimensions at a very high level:

  • What I am good at (capabilities, skills, knowledge)
  • What I love to do (passion and motivation)
  • What the world needs (sustainability, social impact)
  • What I need for the market (business acumen, market orientation)

Once this integration is established, it ultimately means achieving a fulfilling and satisfying state in work and leadership creating meaning for oneself and others. The energy for this is generated from the personal experience of satisfaction and even flow, from authenticity in behaviour which takes away the exhausting need to play the role of leader instead of being a leader, as well as from the fact that the needs of the world around is also taken into account.

How can leaders contribute to meaningful work?

An Ikigai leader will lead by example and create an atmosphere that supports the development of collective purpose in the context of the organisation. This is done be making sure that the needs of the world are taken into account in decision-making and by creating an atmosphere of benevolence in the organisation. Employees will experience and be motivated by the fact that their needs to develop further in the four ikigai dimensions are taken seriously.  Once they move closer to a state of ikigai themselves with all the positive side effects of feeling empowered and supported in a positive working attitude, they will subscribe to the collective purpose as well. This way even smaller tasks can become meaningful.

What are the eight IKIGAI leader types?

Any combination of the four main dimensions of ikigai in leadership can provide valuable insights into where a leader is positioned in the model and which Ikigai Leader Type most accurately describes the person and the leadership style. The segments can be best identified by regarding those areas of the graphic model in figure 1 more closely where two or more circle dimensions overlap. These eight segments with two or three overlapping dimensions are situated around the centrally positioned ikigai area, where all four dimensions overlap. Each of these eight segments represents a distinctive leadership type that is influenced by the dimensions it consists of.


Figure 1: Ikigai Leader Types

An INNOVATOR Type leader for instance experiences is very confident to have all the necessary skills and capabilities required for the job and works with great passion and joy. However, all these positive aspects cannot cover this person’s lack of the necessary market know-how and a certain type of ignorance towards the needs of the world. This situation is bound to lead to frustration, since all the expertise and passion does not lead to the expected positive response of the market or of society.

The EXECUTIVE Type leader on the other hand is very successful in business, includes a good amount of capabilities, and makes sure sustainability and impact are taken into consideration. However, this person does not actually love what he or she does. This creates a feeling of emptiness and exhaustion. Work becomes the supplier of a good income, but does not provide a source of satisfaction or fulfilment. On the long-run these are the ingredients for overpowering stress and burnout.

By identifying these types, the route towards improvement becomes obvious. The Innovator Type needs to work on the development of business acumen and to expand the awareness to the environment and the needs of others. The Executive Type needs to identify and strengthen those parts of the job that he or she actually really loves and draw passion from there. Hence, the model with the connected assessment can be very useful for identifying the personal position in relation to a state of ikigai as the basis for informed development actions.

How does the concept of IKIGAI contribute to workplace culture?

Organisational cultures can be assessed the same way leadership types can be determined – by their position in the model relative to the state of ikigai. When we measure the collective ikigai of an organisation on the four ikigai dimensions, we get their Ikigai Business types or cultures as figure 2 shows.


Figure 2: Ikigai Business Types

Again we can identify the collective strengths and weaknesses of the organisational culture to evaluate what has to be done to reach a state of ikigai – a sphere of non-exploitive dynamism and balanced collective flow producing high business performance as well as social and environmental impact at the same time. Again they Ikigai Business Type would indicate how to develop: a START-UP type organisational culture lack market know-how and can e.g. close this gap by adding strategic resources in that direction. A COMPLIANCE type organisation does the right things, but is hollowed out by a lack of passion and capabilities. That way the right organisational development strategy can be designed for each organisation in order to get to an ikigai culture.

A few tips on how leaders and managers can drive organisational purpose

The ikigai model can help to remove the individual and collective blind spots we may have developed over time. For that, however, it needs absolute honesty in the assessment and the will change. Far too often we are fooling ourselves sub-consciously trying to keep in our zone of relative comfort and to avoid an uncomfortable truth. Only the will to transform can open the way to embracing a new purpose and meaning.

Once you know your leader or business type the direction of the desired development becomes obvious and we may experience improvements. However, ikigai is no passive state. It is a highly dynamic sphere and we have to constantly make sure that we are on the right track in all four dimensions. So, we need a high degree of alertness not to become complacent and to keep our ikigai intact.

Additionally, when we assess purpose and meaning arriving at new perspectives and at a new level of awareness, we have to act in the face of reality. When we realise that we are still undervaluing sustainability and social impact in our business model for instance, there is no point in only superficially patching the problem instead of facing the consequences and engaging in deep rooted change action. The same is true on the individual level and I may have to confess to myself, that I am in the wrong position preventing me to thrive. Well, then it’s time to come up with alternatives for my own and the collective benefit.

There are some Japanese ideas on how to keep up your personal ikigai which can be translated to the business spheres as well. There is for instance the rule to never fill your stomach completely but to keep it at 80 % max in order not to get tired and complacent. This call for strategic reinvestments of profits instead of focussing on short-term material gains. Combined with the advice to play an active role in your community, it would call for societal contributions.

Lastly, ikigai leadership calls for humility and high ethical standards since these are the only ways to stay real and true to your purpose. A leader with a bloated ego may impress in the short run, but will be exposed in the long run. The same way exploitation of people and the environment may work short-term but is not sustainable as we all know.

For more information about the book, click here


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