4 Leadership Lessons From The Samurai

Nov 13, 2015 7 Min Read
Learning and growing never stop

In 2014, during the launch of TalentCorp’s “Women In Leadership” mentoring programme, keynote speaker Datuk Seri Idris Jala posed a question to the audience:

“Why is a Samurai fighter the hardest fighter to fight?”

He quickly explained that the Samurai fighter would be willing to die in a fight. It is almost impossible to kill someone who is willing to die.

As I was pondering this insight, I knew I had to explore the Samurai warrior and its leadership. And as I explored these Samurai warriors, some amazing insights on leadership and life emerged.

Here are my top four insights.

Samurai Leadership Insight 1: Defeat is not an option

Lord of Echigo in the 16th century explained the Samurai’s fatalistic approach to combat:

“Fate is in Heaven, the armour is on the breast, success is with the legs. Go to the battlefield firmly confident of victory, and you will come home with no wounds whatever.

“Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive in the battle and you will surely meet death. When you leave the house determined not to see it again you will come home safely; when you have any thought of returning you will not return.

“You may not be in the wrong to think that the world is always subject to change, but the warrior must not entertain this way of thinking, for his fate is always determined.”

If you look at the world’s best leaders and talent, they all believe that defeat is not an option they have.

Meredith Grey a surgeon from Grey’s Anatomy adds, “Defeat is not an option, not for surgeons. We don’t back away from the table till the last breath’s long gone. We’re not easily intimidated.

We don’t flinch. We don’t back down and we certainly don’t surrender, not at work anyway."

“… To do our jobs, we have to believe defeat is not an option. That no matter how sick our patients get, there’s hope for them but even when our hopes give way to reality and we finally surrender to the truth, it just means we lost today’s battle, not tomorrow’s war.” (Season 5, Episode 19 – Sweet Surrender)

We know that the road to success is littered with failure. If, however, we truly believe that at the end of the day, we will succeed and win, we will quickly brush off the dust and jump back onto our feet and work towards our victory.

Knowing deep down that defeat is not an option, we will then have a total bias to action and work doggedly towards our goals.

Failure is not defeat. Failure only becomes defeat when we surrender. Defeat is not wanting to go through another failure and picking ourselves up.

Legend has it that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés burnt all his boats once his men stepped out of them into enemy territory in 1519. He did that to ensure that his men had no opportunity to retreat and had to give everything they had to win.

Do we give everything we have? Everything? Or do we have the option to give up when we feel lazy, tired, and uninspired?

Samurai Leadership Insight 2: Victory begins from within

Stephen Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, writes about having a personal victory before a public victory. It is very much the same with the Samurai warriors.

Before they even enter battle, they must have won their “private battle”. Sun Tzu writes:

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

There is a battle that rages within each of us. We need to resolve that inner “war” and be clear as we enter the public realm on what success looks like.

Many of us have no clear vision, nor do we have the end in mind. If we do not resolve this before our “public performance” then regardless of the outcome, we may not be able to know if we have succeeded.

Each of us have a different purpose and differing goals and aspirations. If we cannot clearly articulate that goal, then we may never achieve our dreams. It has to start from within. Are we self-aware?

This might interest you: The Genesis Of Success: Self-Awareness

Samurai Leadership Insight 3: Reasons are rubbish

Most of us usually have some great excuses and reasons when we fail. Many times, these are valid reasons.

For the Samurai warriors, there can be no reasons or excuses. If you fail, you fail. Even if your reasons for failing are infallible, it does not matter. You failed.

And if we learn from the Samurai, we can learn there is power in never having reasons. Why is this the case?

Because many times, reasons provide us with excuses to continue behaving in a dysfunctional way. If we have a reason for our failure, we never seek to look at ourselves and our shortcomings.

Excuses deny us an opportunity to look at our personal shortcomings.

I have noticed in many organisations, including mine, numerous individuals who will point out a fault for why they failed. Instead of fixing themselves, they try to harp on how the world needs to be fixed (or the office!) but never themselves.

The best way to change the world is to first change yourself. However, having good reasons and excuses is a sure-fire way to blame others and never see the “log in your eye”.

Like the Samurai, resolve in your heart that whenever you fail to accomplish something or miss your target or goals, first and foremost, look at yourself. Eliminate the need for having a reason. No excuses.

Just take a good look at our shortcomings and make a good plan to improve ourselves. If we keep doing that daily, we are bound to become great Samurai-like leaders.

Miyamoto Musashi, one of the greatest Samurai of all time wrote a book called The Book of Five Rings which articulates the Bushido Samurai code. One of the key principles outlined in the book is to “be always honest, especially with yourself.” So, no excuses. Total honesty.

Samurai Leadership Insight 4: Continuous improvement

Musashi who lived from 1584 to 1645 made another important point in his book on the Samurai Bushido code. He laid out that an important success factor for life was to “constantly improve your skills and knowledge”.

More than 500 years ago, Musashi and the Samurai warriors clearly understood the importance of constant growth.

Many of us enjoy status quo. We love our lives to be constant and we detest change. In the book, Musashi also expounds the importance of always “keeping an open and receptive mind”.

We need to be constantly learning and growing. Learning is a painful process as learning requires us to change our mindset, change our skillset, change our behaviour and even change our ability and skills. Change is never easy. Yet to progress and become great, we need to constantly change and learn.

This might interest you: A True Leader Learns And Grows

How many of us really take time to improve ourselves daily? If you really want to improve your leadership skills, are you spending time reading and learning from other leaders?

Or even simply spending 10 minutes a day at www.leaderonomics.com learning great leadership insights. Spending a few minutes a day learning is an arduous task.

Yet, we need to schedule it and be consistently working to better ourselves in our personal life, professional work and in every aspect of our lives. Do you schedule in continuous improvement in your life?

Final thoughts

Martin Luther King Jr once said:

“Consider that people are like tea bags. They don’t know their own strength until they get into hot water.”

Many of us have deep power and strengths like the Samurai. After all, they are also just human. However, to unleash that power, it requires us to abandon excuses and focus on continuously growing and improving. Start from within and never let defeat be an option.

Listen to its corresponding podcast here.

Roshan Thiran is Founder & CEO of Leaderonomics. He is against war and fighting and has a preference for peace but has been intrigued by the inner power of the Samurai warrior. To get his daily leadership nuggets, go to www.facebook.com/roshanthiran.leaderonomics or follow him via Twitter (@lepaker). 


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Tags: Be A Leader, Growth


Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at www.roshanthiran.com

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