The Samurai Executive:
Ancient Warrior Tips for Business Success Today

By Don Schmincke

Many senior executives, CEOs, and managers have grown jaded over the past 20 years. In their search for a measurable way to accelerate performance, they’ve worked with their umpteenth consultant, and they’ve studied and tried to adopt the umpteenth Next Big Thing organizational theory, knowing even as they do that it lacks the meaning and depth they seek and will fade out of style in a year or two, just like the others before it.

Those who have learned of samurai principles, however, use ancient leadership techniques rather than following the latest fashionable trends in management theory. The ancient samurai ideas have been proven to be more substantial and more effective than reading any of the 35,000 new management books published annually. These ancient techniques may surprise you with their relevance in today’s business world; they simply deal more authentically with real organizational issues than pop theories do.

The samurai warrior functions as an excellent metaphor for leaders throughout the millennia. Unlike some other great leaders and leadership methodologies, the samurai system was well-documented and they were able to survive as an organization for a very long time. Until they were overwhelmed by technology and Western influence, they were able to repel every invader with their timeless, culture-crossing techniques.

As a leader in your organization, consider the following ancient leadership truths. Implementing them could help you lead organizational change, develop strategy, and create and manage great teams.

Death: Weak management teams are those that are not taught how to “die” properly. You needn’t literally commit suicide or start taking out your colleagues in the name of organizational improvement, but consider this: Few people who’ve lived through a heart attack or other serious illness continue to invest their energies in office politics when they recover. Just the prospect of physical death is transformative, pulling back a curtain to bring attention to what truly matters. Everything unimportant falls away.

In modern management, when people have been taught to “die” properly, they execute their work more bravely and are less consumed by the distractions of political infighting and other typical cultural implosions. To train your managers for death, you must all first look at the ugly realities of your culture. What is not being said? What is it in your organization that needs to die in order for it to move forward? Together, the group must bring into the open whatever is old and dysfunctional: misbehavior, pet projects, turf wars, hidden agendas, backstabbing, and so forth. With the ugly stuff exposed, you and your team can begin the journey to find out how committed the group is to “commit suicide” to those ego-driven agendas and create a new destination.

Bravery: Bravery is essential, not only on the battlefield, but also in communication. A lot of training and coaching fails to challenge executives on this idea; as such, many fail, even losing the company, because their people withhold difficult truths or spin reality for the boss’ sake. By the time the CEO gets crucial information, it may have been so politically sanitized that there’s no content left, and no one’s brave enough to stand up and say, “No, here’s what’s really going on.” Weak CEOs might even fire or threaten those who bravely stand up and speak the truth if it doesn’t line up with what they want to hear, thereby creating an environment that perpetuates weakness. Good CEOs, however, want to know, because even if they don’t like hearing the truth, they know it’s more dangerous not to know, so they seek out those people who will give them straight answers.

If you lead by example, you should be able to instill bravery in your people by admitting what you don’t know and encouraging your people to support you. Let them know that you expect the truth and reward those who exhibit bravery by taking risks. After awhile, when people see that there are no ill consequences for saying something that would have remained unspoken before, they become braver and more accountable.

Honor: Few CEOs evaluate a candidate’s capacity for honor when they hire, but they should. If integrity is not fostered, dishonor can flourish in an organization’s culture, ending with subpoenas, handcuffs, bankruptcies, and furious stockholders. Dishonor prevails when leadership shuts people down instead of making them accountable for policies, or micromanages instead of leading an empowered, open, and honest culture.

When leaders who lack integrity get data back that shows they’re not leading well, the honorable reaction of “What do I have to do to change and get better?” is rare. Instead, a leader without honor will question the data or the data takers, too out of touch to realize that he or she is the problem. When leaders set a dishonorable example, it isn’t long before their people start seeing that and a single bad idea begins to affect the entire executive team. From Watergate to WorldCom, there are too many modern examples of what happens when leaders create an environment that lacks honor.

Leaders who embrace the ancient samurai truth of honor live their values, not confining them to a coffee cup slogan or the company brochure. And if those values are violated, their sense of dishonor leads them to either leave the organization or take action to fix the problem. They simply do what they say and say what they do.

Life Balance: The samurai were taught to explore the world beyond battle and business, studying arts as diverse as poetry, painting, and horticulture to achieve balance in their lives. Only those with this balance were considered effective leaders, strategists, and warriors. In our world, you rarely find executives who have the time and discipline necessary to pursue other interests that have nothing to do with their work. If you can make the time, though, you’ll learn, as the samurai did, that you are inspired to new levels of innovation and creativity. The balance extends to the approach you take to the issues and challenges you face in business. You will align the power of the arts with the art of power.

Follow the way of the warrior to business success: These ancient samurai truths are much more than merely good ideas that worked for warriors 12 centuries ago. They are proven to have worked, not just over the past two years in a bestseller, but for the past 1200 years. Although today we know that the truths have a substantial scientific basis in anthropology and evolutionary genetics, these arts were lost because our culture’s beliefs and physics changed with time. But an ever-deeper exploration of the history of humanity teaches us that some truths are unchanging. And, bottom line, organizations that adopt the samurai techniques see their leadership development and their culture changes go from a 70-100% failure rate to an over 90% success rate. Shouldn’t your organization be one of these samurai success stories?

Read other articles and learn more about Don Schmincke.

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