Samurai Leadership

By: Mick Yates


For the Samurai, in some ways his decisions on how to succeed were relatively simple. He essentially had to harmonize a constituency of two - his Lord, and his "Bushido" code or value system. Obey both, or die. In fact, one could argue that the Samurai only had one master, his value system, as loyalty to the Lord was an intrinsic part of the code. Another constant of Samurai life was continual training for excellence. samuraiHarmonizing these things is a good lesson for today.

The Samurai had a very clear view of their own values and those of their society. This value system evolved as did the Samurai themselves - from being the original "warrior caste", to becoming leaders of society. For insights into the code, try reading the Hakagure. This was written at the start of the period in which Japan transitioned into the "modern" world whilst closing its doors to the west..
meditateIn a closed environment like seventeenth century Japan, most people had a common understanding of their culture, and of the underlying value system. The rules were set by the Shogunate, who acted with a greater or lesser sense of public virtue, depending on the Shogun. It was therefore relatively obvious how to succeed or fail, assuming one had the appropriate training and skills (a good swordsman, carpenter, farmer etc.).

In modern society, business enterprises have broad constituencies, and deal with very varied relationships. To succeed therefore requires the skills of management of complexity, and the ability to lead others through this complexity. Elliot Jaques has studied and written about this extensively, and we discuss it briefly in value systems 


Today business has several main constituencies: Customers, Employees, Shareholders and Society at large, and a fifth, if one includes the immediate Family of the employees. Each of these constituencies has its own values, beliefs and needs - they may be rooted in the same national value system, but each will have its own variations of values. It is probable that every individual’s value system is slightly different from everyone else’s. Nevertheless, understanding one’s own system, as well as the systems of others around us, seems to be a pre-requisite for getting an organization to pull together.

Understanding what is valued by the constituents in one’s home country is difficult but relatively easy compared with understanding global constituencies.

Today, a Japanese Samurai may seek success by focusing on the perpetuation of his or her enterprise. An American might seek to maximize shareholder value. A Scandinavian will want to explore the value of the enterprise to society. And the Chinese might focus on "no unemployment in State enterprises". Whilst this focus would be right in its own way, all may also be thinking narrowly. Each group should also evaluate and respond to the needs of their other constituencies, and then to each other.  

Strategy & tacticsfighting

Throughout the "Book of Five Rings", Musashi talks about "strategy". Translated from the Japanese, "strategy" is seen by some authors as "the Way". Additionally, modern-day business use of "strategy" usually differentiates it from "tactics" or "execution", as if in some way tactics were inferior.

For Musashi, "strategy" and "tactics" have equivalent worth - an important lesson. Interestingly, the complexities of modern warfare, and its dependence on technology and long-distance logistics, show once again a similar blurring and equality between "strategy" and "tactics".

How many times has the grandest business strategy fallen flat because the execution was below-par? How many times has such a strategy been agreed in the board room, but not been communicated and deployed properly to the organization responsible to execute? How many times has a success (or failure) left a bitter taste in one’s mouth, if it was achieved with unexpected tactical implications?

On the other hand, how many times do even the best business tacticians miss the long range strategic implications of what they do? A simple example would be building market share with lower pricing. This is fine, but unless one’s costs are lower, and can sustain further cuts profitably, a price war will drive one into oblivion as the competition fight back. Fortunately, few companies report this kind of error!martial arts

Put another way, it is essential in today’s business world to evaluate both strategic options and executional deployment with equal vigor. Deployment, meaning both the tactics used and the communication of the plan to the employees, is equally critical.

As Henry Mintzberg has pointed out, the days of stand alone strategic planners are numbered. Strategy, strategic deployment and execution are central to a global enterprise, and are too important to be left to a separate department. They are "line" jobs. 


In keeping with Zen’s teaching, Musashi’s aim in "The Book of Five Rings" is not to intellectualize his learning or experiences - his aim is to offer principles, examples and signposts towards a unique understanding of oneself and one’s capabilities, which then become apparent through intuitive action.

Business education today seems to go from one trend to another. From the scientific operation research methods of the sixties, to the Harvard case study method, to the eighties focus on quality and competitive advantage, to nineties globalization and process management and so on. All of these are helpful, but Musashi would say none can work alone. And, if they work once, they might not work twice!

The best manager will integrate all possible inputs, and internalize their implications. It is in the manager’s head (or spirit) that the right course of action will then appear. In fact, it will appear only in the manager’s head, as the complexities of input and the varieties of situations can never be predicted anywhere else. How much of today’s western business education focuses on this process of integration? In this writer’s experience, it is very

One of the strengths of western intellectual education is the development of expertise and confidence in a chosen field, with deep, focused study. This enables creativity, and builds yet more confidence, experience and creativity. On the other hand, one of the strengths of the Japanese business system is that employees spend time in many different departments and functional areas, getting a broad overview of the business as an organism.

Musashi would probably say that neither was better - both are essential.


Samurai driving

It is like driving a car. We all had driver education. We all have an "intellectual" understanding of the gear shift, the brake, the steering. We all know the rules of the road, and we are aware of the weather and its implications. We all want to get "from A to B" - we know the goal. Those few occasions that we drive without thinking, yet change gear flawlessly, anticipate traffic effortlessly, show courtesy to others - and still make record time - are the moments when we are closest to the way Musashi fought. It is our experience that lets this happen.