5 ways late CEO of gaming giant was a great leader

Iwata rose to become Nintendo’s president in May 2002 – the first outside of the Yamauchi family to lead the century-old game and toys company.

Late Nintendo CEO, Satoru Iwata with the Mario brothers in a commercial.

Nintendo said today that CEO and president Satoru Iwata, 55, died on Sunday after battling a bile duct tumor for over a year.

Iwata rose to become Nintendo’s president in May 2002 – the first outside of the Yamauchi family to lead the century-old game and toys company.

Here are five ways he was a great leader.

1. He was hands-on.

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.” That was Iwata’s opening lines to a keynote speech back in 2005.

Even at the helm of Nintendo, he continued to think like a coder so as to stay in tune with the gaming world and what consumers want. That’s exactly the kind of thinking that technical founders need to balance with their new-found business acumen.

2. He saw trends coming.

Years before smartphones became the norm, Iwata felt that people wanted richer and more involving games on “mobile.” In late 2004, just over two years after the programmer took the helm, Nintendo released the DS.

As would be expected, Nintendo was already on the ball in terms of handheld gaming with the Game Boy back in 1989, long before most people got a hold of their first, brick-like mobile phone. That evolved into the 21st-century with the Game Boy Advance.

Ultimately, the DS eventually replaced the Game Boy series, even though that was not the firm’s plan.

3. He communicated clearly with customers.

Large corporations are not particularly accessible – and especially not Japanese ones. But Iwata changed that. Realizing that it’s good to communicate clearly and directly with customers, he ran the Iwata Asks blog. It’s not quite as slick as the carefully thought-out tweets of Apple’s Tim Cook or the casual, social marketing-driven scattergun Weibo posts of many Chinese tech CEOs, such as Xiaomi’s Lei Jun – but he led the way in talking to customers through the web, rather than via press releases.

When he also took on the role of CEO of Nintendo America, Iwata decided to stop doing monolithic press conferences like the one at E3, and instead did smaller, more focused online announcements, which are Nintendo Direct.

4. He took a pay cut to set an example.

Its not news that Nintendo has struggled in recent years. Last year, the CEO opted to take a 50 percent pay cut for a six-month period as a way of showing he was responsible for the terrible fiscal results that came from slumping sales. Other Nintendo executives only took pay cuts between 20 and 30 percent.

The pay cut in itself wouldn’t make Nintendo’s woes go away, but it was a strong sign that the little Japanese man would not accept failure.

5. He admitted when he was wrong.

In April, Nintendo announced it was partnering up with Japanese mobile gaming giant DeNA. Though the fruit of that marriage of convenience are yet to be seen, many observers take it to mean Nintendo is ready to embrace smartphone-based gaming – albeit in a very careful way that maintains Nintendo’s hardware business and avoid the perils of freemium gaming.

By doing this, Iwata basically admitted that he was wrong about the smartphone era – and he was now ready to take Nintendo’s great characters onto people’s phones.

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