TOKYO -- Akio Toyoda's moment of self-discovery came on what could have been the worst day of his life.
On Feb. 24, 2010, the president of Toyota Motor Corp. was hauled before a U.S. congressional panel and given a humiliating grilling about his company's response to a burgeoning unintended-acceleration crisis.
In the days before the congressional hearing, Toyoda wondered whether, after less than a year in office, he was being set up to be ousted.
In a rare moment of public reflection during a meet-the-CEO fireside chat with a Japanese TV newscaster, he told a gathering of individual investors on March 29 that he had boarded the plane to Washington with deep trepidation.
"Feeling alone, I went to the United States," Toyoda recalled. "I didn't get much support from the company itself. What I felt, in the middle of that, was this must be the game to fire me or to push me for capitulation.
"I was resigned to the possibility my presidency could end soon," he said. "I felt I wouldn't last another year as president."
At the shareholders meeting, the company screened video clips of U.S. lawmakers scolding the beleaguered CEO.
But the hearings had an unexpected effect. They motivated Toyoda to dig deeper, take full responsibility and tap a root of family pride in tackling the problem. And at the urging of U.S. advisers, he told lawmakers: "My name is on every car."
The comment raised eyebrows in Japan. After all, his grandfather Kiichiro Toyoda had opted to spell the company's name Toyota partly to divorce it from an overt family connection.
But Akio Toyoda, representing the third generation of the family to lead the automaker, realized this nuance was lost on a lot of customers around the world.
"The gravity of this name, Toyoda, is something that I felt very keenly when I attended the congressional hearing," he said.
"Then, for the first time since joining the company, I felt a strangely positive sense of purpose and usefulness," he said.
"After that congressional hearing, I embraced the reality. And that was a major point of transformation for me," he said. "My capacity was to be fully leveraged. That's how I changed."
Another epiphany followed, when Toyoda appeared on "Larry King Live." When the CNN interviewer asked what car the CEO drove, Toyoda answered, all kinds: "I love cars."
The disclosure, Toyoda said, triggered a wave of well-wishers writing in to the company to profess their excitement that Toyota Motor was finally headed by a true-blue car guy.
"I had conveyed my real feelings," he said. "I personally feel that this might have been the moment when public opinion in the United States began to turn around. I realized so many people were behind me."
As for that fateful trip to Washington, he concluded, "I think it turned out to be a positive thing."