In complex social arrangements, such as exist in governments, business firms, and religious organizations, a person must climb through many levels before reaching persons of sufficient height and occupational breadth that what had been said to be binding requirements suddenly become as though unfettered butterflies. Astoundingly, the mid-level subordinates may even object as the rules are relegated back to their true status as guidelines. Beyond the element of greater authority, a greater perspective in terms of what truly matters is profoundly important in this regard. Having many decades of lived experience, plus a certain maturity in place of pettiness, is also in the mix. A Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, may be more likely to pick up on a sincere heart of the sort Jesus would praise than run through a laundry list of doctrinal requirements.
In the film Emperor (2012), religion and government are intertwined in the Japanese emperor, who was until shortly after World War II also officially a living god. Although his aides attempt to put General MacArthur into a straightjacket of protocol for the meeting with the emperor at the end of the film, both the general and the emperor are off sufficient maturity and perspective to disabuse themselves of the protocols and focus on the truly important stuff. To discern the petty from the profoundly important is a key feature of upper-echelon leadership.
In the film, Teizaburo Sekiya forewarns General MacArthur before the meeting with the emperor. “there are certain proprieties I’d better make you aware of. You may not shake His Majesty’s hand or touch him. You must never look His Majesty directly in the eyes. You may not step on his shadow. When you sit down with His Majesty, you have to sit on his left. You must never call His Majesty by his name.”
Upon greeting the emperor, General Bonner Fellers obeys the protocol, assiduously avoiding eye contact with the shorter man. General MacArthur begins likewise, looking above the emperor, and says, “It is indeed a pleasure to welcome you here, Your Majesty.” The emperor thanks the general, to which MacArthur thanks the emperor, making eye-contact with a warm-hearted expression and outstretching his hand. The emperor wears a confused look at first, but then gently shakes the general’s hand.
As if the general had not broken enough with protocol, he announces that he has arranged for a picture. The emperor motions to his aide not to object, and moves into position for the picture—the general standing on the emperor’s right.
After the picture is taken, the general announces that the translator is to stay but everyone else in the room is to go to the library while the general and emperor talk. Being excluded, and thus unable to enforce the protocol, Sekiya blurts out, “But that was not part of the plan.” The emperor says “Sekiya” in a way that lets his compatriot know that he is to comply with the general’s wishes. Only the general and the emperor appear aware of the political reality: the general rather than the emperor is running Japan. To the victor goes the task of rebuilding the foe.
The emperor takes his seat, with the general already seated to the left. The emperor then rises, and offers himself as solely responsible and as willing, therefore, to take all the punishment. “This has nothing to do with punishment,” the general replies. Even among two leaders in high places, one can lose sight of the truly important. The general had cut through the morass of thou shalt nots, which the lower and mid-level functionaries hold onto so tightly, to establish a sort of collegial intimacy that renders the two men much more alike than either to his respective subordinates. Only at that high level can the sun shine above the clouds of minutia, such that eve the gods on Mount Olympus might be jealous of what man can accomplish. “I need your help,” the general beseeches with heart-felt concern for the emperor’s subjects as he looks directly into the man’s eyes. “So let’s see what we can do to get Japan back on its feet.” Both men doubtlessly know that this task lying before them is vitally important, as many Japanese are starving at the time.
The movie thus provides a good snapshot of organizational life being appreciably freer on the top floor and unnecessarily petty on the floors below. How to convince the narrow-minded gate-keepers that their levers are not so vitally important after all is a question in need of an answer. It is telling that Sekiya is so greatly disturbed by the general’s change of plan. MacArthur has used his experience wisely in not having argued with Sekiya as he promulgated the forbidden conduct; the general undoubtedly knew the true pecking order in Japan then, and that he could appeal directly to the emperor as both were unique having responsibility for the whole of Japan and thus would undoubtedly relate.