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Leading like a Samurai

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Oct 14, 2016
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Ancient Lessons for 21st Century Warrior Sages

Samurai warriors in feudal Japan knew how to fight. But the best of these leaders, such as Yamamoto Kansuke, also knew the value of bringing people together and winning without resorting to combat.

According to legend, Kansuke offered his military services to feudal lord Takeda Shingen, who required a duel with a notable samurai as part of the job interview. Kansuke was an excellent swordsman, but he had a bad leg and was missing an eye and several fingers.

Rather than decline the challenge, Kansuke negotiated a change of venue to a small boat anchored in a nearby lake. He suggested that the confined space would limit the movements of both warriors, creating more of a fair fight.

Kansuke and Shingen's samurai took a ferry to the designated boat. As they stepped aboard, Kansuke used his sword to puncture the hull. He then jumped back into the transport craft and shoved it away.

The stranded samurai, who didn't know how to swim, suddenly found himself sinking toward death. Kansuke then threw his rival a rope and pulled him to safety — turning a fierce opponent into a lifelong ally.

Shingen, who watched the episode from shore, realized the wisdom of Kansuke's strategy and retained him immediately.

Modern business leaders can also learn from the wisdom of Kansuke and other “warrior sages,” says Kamran Loghman, a senior executive education fellow at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

“Many organizations, in their attempt to be forward thinking, have forgotten to heed the guiding wisdom of history’s great leaders — the men and women who were able to accomplish extraordinary feats, often under the most difficult conditions,” says Loghman, who is also a leadership instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and Chief Global Instructor of the Create, Achieve, Lead program at Apple.

As a warrior art historian, Loghman studies classical texts for lessons on how to lead teams to victory through wisdom and strength. “The best place to start is to look back into the ancient warrior wisdom tradition,” Loghman says. “That’s because the military was the first structured organization and the predecessor of modern organizations.”

Looking at the samurai and other military traditions provides a second advantage. “Their strategies, leadership processes and personal development methodologies were battle-tested for centuries,” Loghman says. “They were not some fly-by-night program.”

Not surprisingly, many of these traditions are now being validated by the latest research in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and management theory. Loghman shares five warrior sage lessons for 21st century leaders, covered in his Smith School executive education program.

1. Achieve stillness in motion

Warrior sages in feudal Japan believed that one must first die to become a true samurai. This was not the death of the body, but the death of previous behavior and beliefs that limited one’s potential — similar to a snake shedding its old skin.

“To be an authentic leader, the ancient tradition asks that you become the best version of yourself,” Loghman says. “We are better together when we are better as individuals.”

The first step is learning to navigate through life with precision, maintaining a surgical focus on self-mastery. This type of performance requires lifelong education. Loghman cites a Chinese proverb: “We are not afraid of those who practice a thousand different things, but beware of the one who practices one thing 10 thousand times.”

Loghman says people who discipline themselves in this manner can achieve stillness in motion.

“When we are in motion we are so engaged with what’s happening that we simply go with the flow without any sense of control,” he says. “We get lost in the situation. But we have a choice to detach and become still, like the center of a spinning wheel or the eye of a storm.”

2. Refine your rituals

To achieve stillness in motion, great leaders throughout history have relied on daily rituals to center and calibrate themselves for higher performance. Loghman says these activities were designed to stimulate the mind and body.

“The latest research in physiology and neuroscience shows that instead of a cup of coffee, a glass of cold water combined with tensing of certain muscle groups does wonders to awaken the brain,” he says. “The ancient warrior texts are filled with daily ritual processes like these, which can help leaders incorporate health into the way they operate, think and act.”

The samurai also focused themselves through the study of calligraphy, music, painting, dance, theater and other artistic pursuits. All of these activities can function like rituals.

Once leaders awaken their own minds and bodies, they can use their influence to promote health within their organizations. “Workers’ well-being is crucial to a company’s culture,” Loghman says. “A healthy workplace is more likely to be productive, reducing associated costs along the way.”

3. Create idea factories

Besides participating in daily rituals, ancient warrior sages kept themselves alert by observing and listening to the people they led.

“The ancient warrior wisdom tradition tells us that to get new ideas, we need to ask great questions and define the challenge correctly,” Loghman says. “We also need to see the extraordinary when others see only the ordinary.”

This rarely happens while staying isolated in a boardroom or executive suite. Samurai generals, called daimyo, stayed involved in all aspects of the samurai’s life — including their training and study of the arts. The exposure to people at all levels in the organization promoted flexible thinking and problem solving, essential elements of leadership.

“What is current today will become replaced by something else tomorrow, so leaders need to be continuously creative,” Loghman says. “They must transform their teams into idea factories.”

One creative thinker from China’s Tang dynasty was Chang Hsun, a fortress commander who faced attack from rebel forces. Chang realized that his archers didn’t have enough arrows to suppress the siege, so he instructed his troops to make one thousand mannequins stuffed with straw and dressed in black.

At night the soldiers lowered the mannequins over the fortress walls with ropes, creating the appearance of a bold foray. Soon the decoy soldiers were filled with arrows, which were lifted into the fortress with the mannequins.

On the second night the ploy resulted in far fewer arrows. So on the third night, Chang replaced the mannequins with real soldiers. The rebel forces, expecting more straw dummies, were caught off guard and struck down.

4. Go to the front

Ancient warriors who attained wisdom practiced servant leadership. “These powerful leaders lived and worked as servants to others,” Loghman says. “Unlike self-centered leaders, these authentic leaders relied on their teams and became one with them.”

In times of war, this meant accepting the greatest risks. “The daimyo would be positioned in front of the battle lines, while other samurai warriors were positioned behind as an example of bravery and ultimate service to others,” Loghman says. “This behavior among leaders of ancient warrior wisdom tradition is common across ancient India to Japan.”

5. Be inclusive

The ancient warrior wisdom tradition was not solely the domain of men. In feudal Japan, women samurai were trained in the use of weapons to protect their households and families in times of war.

The list of notable women samurai includes Nakano Takeko, Tomoe Gozen, Hōjō Masako and Hangaku Gozen, to name a few.

“Throughout history you will find numerous formidable women warriors,” Loghman says. “These women achieved mastery and superior leadership.”

Modern organizations also benefit when they expand their leadership ranks to include people from different genders, races and cultural backgrounds.