The Samurai Executive

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

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 uncountable consultants and considered umpteen “Next Big Thing” organizational theories, all the while realizing that each new theory lacks the meaning and depth they seek and will likely fall out of favor in a year or two, just like the others before it.

Those familiar with Samurai principles, however, embrace ancient leadership techniques rather than following the latest management theory du jour. The ancient Samurai ideas have been proven to be far more effective than the strategies hawked in any of the 35,000 new management books published annually. It may surprise you that ancient techniques are so relevant in today’s business world. But believe it or not, they 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. 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.

Implementing Samurai principles in your organization will help you lead change, develop strategy and create and manage great teams. Consider the following:

  • Death. Weak management teams 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 carry out their work more bravely. They are less consumed by the distractions of political infighting and typical cultural implosions. To train your managers for death, you must first look at the ugly realities of your culture. What is not being said? What aspect of your organization that needs to “die” in order for it to move forward? Team members must collaborate to uncover 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 “assassinate” ego-driven agendas with the goal of creating a new destination.
  • Bravery. This is an essential element, not only on the battlefield, but also in communication. Too often, employees are afraid to speak up. They withhold difficult truths or spin reality for the boss’s 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, “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. That attitude creates and perpetuates a culture of weakness. Good CEOs want to know the truth, because even if they don’t like hearing it, they know it’s more dangerous not to know. They seek out the 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 a while, 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, resulting in 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 receive feedback that says 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 messengers. He or she is too out of touch to realize that the problems are real. When leaders set dishonorable examples, it spreads like a virus throughout the organization. From Watergate to WorldCom, there are 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. They don’t just emblaze them on a coffee cup or in a corporate mission statement. And if the values are violated, their sense of dishonor leads them to either leave the organization or take action to fix the problem. Put simply, they do what they say and say what they do.
  • Life Balance. The Samurai were taught to explore the world beyond battle and business, to study arts as diverse as poetry, painting and horticulture to achieve balance in their lives. Only those who achieved this balance were considered effective leaders, strategists and warriors. In our world, executives rarely have the time and discipline necessary to pursue interests outside of work. If you can make the time, though, you’ll learn, as the Samurai did, that you will become inspired to reach new levels of innovation and creativity. This balance extends to the approach you take to the issues and challenges you face in business. The power of the arts becomes aligned with the art of power.

Follow the way of the warrior to business success
These ancient Samurai truths are more than just interesting concepts. They are real-life principles that worked for warriors 12 centuries ago and still work for the workplace warriors of today. Although we know that these truths have a substantial scientific basis in anthropology and evolutionary genetics, these arts were lost as 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 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?