Leading, Samurai Style
Leadership is tricky for many ‘word people’ (writers, dramaturgs, humanities scholars, editors, librarians, etc.) because 'word people' are often a bit like cats: independent, solitary, self-reliant, and a bit ‘stiff in the knees’ when asked to bow to authority. A cat-ish person trudges to meetings as though a stick prodded them to the room. They offer vague criticisms but no practical solutions, equivalent to the mauled bird corpses real cats notoriously drag around. Then they expect everyone's gratitude for their contribution and proceed to preen until they lose interest, and then glower at the clock indiscreetly until the meeting is over.
If this is a portrait of your last meeting, you may be a cat-ish person.
So instead of talking about leadership with the typical tactics (microphones, ‘80s music, powerpoints, exclamation points, and emoticons) I want to do in our language: through a character study. Enter Pamela S. Turner's biography of Minamoto Yoshitsune, Samurai Rising.
What Minamoto Yoshitsune Taught Me About Leadership:
1. Always be the first to the Emperor.
Once upon a time in the 1100's, Kyoto was controlled by a low-ranking warlord who terrorized its citizens. The retired emperor of Japan invited the Minamoto family to invade Kyoto with his blessing. Yoshitsune led the charge from the south while his half-brother descended from the north. Their enemy ran in fear, but instead of pursuing them Yoshitsune rode directly to the retired emperor’s house and announced himself as Kyoto’s savior. Because he beat his brother there, he gained favor with the emperor. His enemy didn’t distract him from making a great ally.
2. Ask your samurai what they think.
Yoshitsune had humble beginnings and was not raised to be a warrior. Instead of hiding gaps in his knowledge, he often turned to his samurai for help. When embarking on a sea invasion, he asked his men for advice because he was a man of the horse, and not a sailor. This was an incredibly uncommon thing to do in Yoshitsune's rigid society.
Asking for advice does not make you look weak. Even if you have the answer, the point of this exercise is to inspire trust amongst those you have to lead. Yoshitsune was an independent man and a brilliant military strategist, but he still wanted to know: what do my soldiers think?
What will make you look weak is if you fret over the problem instead of taking action and drown in meeting after strategic meeting. Remember, you are the leader and it is your responsibility to get everyone out to sea as fast as you can.
3. Trade in your prized horse for a fallen brother.
When one of Yoshitsune’s sworn brothers fell in battle protecting him, our favorite samurai lord traded his prized horse-- a gift from the retired emperor-- to a monk who would pray continually for his brother's soul. His gift was valuable and deeply personal. In return he earned such profound loyalty from his immediate followers they eventually abandoned civilization and wandered the mountains of Japan with him. For years.
But don’t think you need to give everything you own to your underlings to gain their loyalty. These opportunities should be few and far between. But you need to go all-in when they arrive. Since you have been careful not to show favoritism, all your other underlings can assume a prized horse is in their future if they go to the mat for you.
4. 30 of your best will get more done than the other 3,000
Okay, we’ve all heard this before. The problem is we don’t understand how to apply it. When Yoshitsune and his brother, Yorinori, were ordered to take a fortress they put this principle to the test. Yorinori lead their whole army to assault the front while Yoshitsune took thirty of his best and scaled an unscalable cliff down into the fortress and set it on fire. This forced the enemy out the front gates and head-first into Yorinori’s cavalry.
But what would have happened if Yoshitsune had tried to assault the enemy’s front with his best 30? Slaughter. For some reason leaders try to make their 30 perform tasks best suited for 3,000. Yoshitsune was an excellent strategist because he often used a small force to do what small forces do best. If you have a lean but capable staff, consider how best to use your agile force to scale unscalable cliffs and burn down cities (metaphorically, please). Don’t waste your time emulating mammoth production companies or publishing houses. Be swift, be savage, and be precise.
There is a lot more to learn from Yoshitsune, so I encourage you to pick up Samurai Rising. You’ll also learn from his many, many mistakes from a brief but brilliant life.
One more trick: Yoshitsune always pushed forward. In any situation he kept moving, swiftly and efficiently. If you can do that, your (many) mistakes will disappear in your wake and be forgotten in light of your victories.
3/26/2017 04:25:10 am
Rachel--I love this blog, and I love this post. I'm so glad you're mom introduced me to it. Great job!
3/28/2017 02:47:59 pm
I'm glad you're enjoying it. Thanks for reading!
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