Lee Gattis, a 34-year-old insurance executive, is standing on a dock in a lake in 90-degree heat, belting out a "sad salesman's song" at the top of his baritone voice.
If he sings it correctly, Gattis will lose one of 14 "ribbons of challenge" pinned to his cream-colored smock and move one step closer to completing a rigorous, 13-day course run by Kanrisha Yosei Gakko, Japan's best-known management training school.Gattis, a genial Southerner suffering from bad sunburn, fails the test. "I was unable to carry the tune and didn't show appropriate emotion," he laments.
But the biggest test is the one facing Kanrisha Yosei. The course on a scenic ranch in the hills above Malibu marks its first attempt to export its distinctive training philosophy outside Japan and its early grades have been mixed.
"Our image doesn't reflect the quality of our program," said Teresa Abbas, a "leadership development specialist" for the school's U.S. operation that started up in January. "We're labeled as 'hell camp'."
On the face of it, that is hardly surprising. Days begin at 6 a.m. and the next 15 hours are filled with constant oral testing, classroom discussions, memorizing the school's "Ten Commandments" and physical exercise.
One-time special events include a 25-mile night hike and singing the "sales crow" song - singers are supposed to sound like cawing crows - in a shopping mall.
Students also must behave with unfailing politeness, bowing to each other and asking permission to enter or leave a room. All this for a hefty fee of $2,480 a head.
According to Abbas, the object of the frantic activity is to "take the business person and make them realize new performance levels. They are challenged mentally, physically and emotionally. They have to do things they didn't think were possible."
Instructor Fred DeLisle, a retired U.S. Army colonel, explains a basic difference from other management schools: "We take an objective but make it a living thing, get some emotional feeling into it. If you get emotions involved, you have a better chance of realizing your objective."
Great stress is also put on teamwork - students commonly act like high school cheerleaders as one of their own attempts to pass another test.
The end result is supposed to be a "samurai" manager ("highly skilled, disciplined, alert, honorable, loyal, powerful").
In Japan, the program has been a recipe for business success for Kanrisha Yosei. Over 100,000 managers have passed through its facility at the foot of Mount Fuji.
In opening up in California, the school is hoping to ride into the huge U.S. market on the wave of Americans' fascination with Japanese management. But the going here has been slow.
Classes can number up to 15, but the average so far has been nine, which Abbas calls "disappointing." A class of eight in mid-May is a remarkable mixture - in addition to Gattis, it includes a beauty salon manager from Boston, an aspiring rock group manager and a student from the University of Southern California business school - but no big companies are represented.
"How many Fortune 500 managers are going to say to their employees, 'You're going to hell camp'?" said Abbas.
She added that the organization of the U.S. operation was not ideal. "We're controlled by Japanese executives," she said. "If Americans had been in control of marketing, it would have been different."
The original promotional material from Japan, for example, was marred by ungrammatical English. The current literature is at times somewhat inscrutable, proclaiming, "To explore our full potential, we must go deep within ourselves. Then we may go beyond our previous boundaries."
But Abbas is optimistic about the future. "This company believes in the value of discipline and that you gain strong foundations through mistakes," she said.
Students give the course glowing reviews. "I'm learning new skills, I'm using more of my brain," said Gattis, despite his singing failure. "If I can utilize 5 percent of what I've learned, it will be well worth my while."
"I expected it to be more like a boot camp," said Sally Hirshfield, a real estate executive. "But I'm really enjoying it. The whole thing is pushing you to find answers.
"I'll get this if it kills me," she adds as she steps onto the dock for her "Ten Commandments" test.