Dr. Mieko Nishimizu is an economist by training, a banker by profession, and a “leadership mentor” by passion.
Mieko’s professional career began as an academic, at the prestigious Princeton University. A quiet life of research and teaching came to an unexpected end, however, when she accepted an offer to spend a sabbatical year at the World Bank. “I had neither studied development economics, nor knew anything about the World Bank,” says Mieko, “but a good salary for a year of research was just too good to refuse.” Dr. Hollis Chenery, a renowned economist who was then the World Bank Chief Economist and Vice President for policy and research, attached one condition to his offer. Mieko was required to visit at least one developing country, to see for herself what poverty was all about.
“So, I went to Cairo, Egypt, tagging along on a World Bank mission. That was the big mistake,” she laughs. One day on a weekend, she visited a slum aptly named the City of the Dead ? a Muslim cemetery full of grand house-like tombs, taken over by poor people who had nowhere else to live.
There, her life crossed paths with a little girl named Nadia. She died silently in Mieko’s arms, of simple diarrhoea and dehydration. Diarrhoea that could have been prevented with good water and sanitation… Dehydration that could have been treated with a homemade solution of sugar, salts and water…
Tears well in Mieko’s eyes as she recalls what happened. “I wanted to punch the God, any God, in the face. I looked to the heaven, and looked about me. I saw a glittering city, home to the most advanced of human technology, brilliant minds, and great wealth. But, here was Nadia, lifeless in my arms. My instinct understood instantly what killed her. Bad governance. Leadership who doesn’t give a damn about the common people.”
Nadia’s death lit a fire in Mieko’s belly. She bid farewell to an academic’s life and joined the World Bank’s fight against poverty. Nadia became her professional yardstick. “No matter what I do, I would always ask: Nadia, would this make you happy?” Mieko still does, to this day.
Fighting bad governance and nurturing good leaders became the hallmark of Mieko’s World Bank career. “I benefited from the wisdom of outstanding leaders, from all walks of life ? village elders, farmers, women of city slums, prostitutes turned social workers, NGO activists, business leaders of social conscience, journalists, students, professors, and even a few Generals, parliamentarians, ministers, and presidents… They were my teachers.”
She discovered one thing these leaders shared in common: passion to do what’s right and to do it right. Images would differ and stories would change, but all held their own Nadia in their heart. Their passion, in turn, fed their conviction, and connected their heart with head and actions. It was this consistent alignment of “mind, speech and body” that made those leaders credible to their people, and inspired others to join their cause.
Mieko put to her management practice what she learned from the grassroots. She wanted to transform the World Bank’s “bureaucratic culture to one that serves the poor” and focused her work on nurturing “true leaders” among her staff wherever she was assigned. Her dream was to create an open workplace where everyone was happy and can’t wait to come to work, taking initiatives and working in “high-flying teams.” And she meant everyone, from drivers to secretaries to economists to engineers. “No matter what your job is, it becomes your passion when you change the way you think about what you do.” As Mieko speaks, there is not a hint of that tough banker, whom some called the “iron lady” of the World Bank.
To put that “fire in everybody’s belly,” Mieko asked her staff to follow her, and live the life of the poor people for a week or two at a time. “Good business begins with an intimate knowledge of its customers. Its dynamic growth is fed by employees who see the world and themselves differently ? through the customers’ eyes,” says Mieko. “Who are the World Bank’s customers? The poor people. Certainly not those who walk the corridors of power.” It became known as the Village Immersion Program ? a witty pun on VIP. World Bank staff and managers, adopted by families in remote villages or city slums of developing countries, “met their Nadia who feeds their leadership passion.”
Her change leadership work was a participatory learning process of and by her staff, with a strong sense of common purpose ? a vision of what they wanted to be, and values they shared deeply among them. This work, which she continued as the Vice President responsible for South Asia, won acclaim among notable Business School professors and other management experts. Dr. Peter Senge of MIT’s Sloan School of Business, and the founder of Society for Organizational Learning, refers to her case in his best-selling classic, The Fifth Discipline – The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, which the Financial Times called “one of the five greatest business books of all times.”
Mr. Ron Ashkanas, a leading management consultant to CEOs on organizational transformation in Europe and America, details her case in The Boundaryless Organization – Breaking the Chains of Organizational Structure, which won the Executive Leadership Award.
In 2003, Mieko surprised everyone by announcing her resignation. “I surprised myself first,” laughs Mieko. “Organizational change of the kind I led can become too closely identified with its leadership’s DNA. I wanted to leave before that happened, so it can keep growing after I leave. I had my antenna out to sense the moment for departure, and it came one day out of the blue. I announced my decision right away, packed up, and left in two weeks.” But, she believes she failed because of her inability to put a good leadership succession plan, although there are many at the World Bank who disagrees. Her work planted seeds, which continue growing ? the Village Immersion Program, among them.
Mieko has since declined all offers to take up leadership positions in any organizations. She chose to be “my own boss” and continues her passion of nurturing good leaders, in her various capacities, and through her popular columns and lecture series in Japan. She continues to reside in Washington with her husband, Mr. Wickham, but spends a good deal of time doing her writing work at her second home in British Virgin Islands. She commutes to Japan and to the Kingdom of Bhutan that “refuses to let me go,” and telecommutes to the world thanks to the Internet age.