Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Samurai Leader

Correction. I am not a servant leader as my last post suggested. I am a Samurai Leader.

I am in a process of applying for senior or middle management positions. Most of those jobs in any organisation call for leadership abilities and examples of your leadership abilities. When I've thought how I'd address these requirements based on an organisational setting, I was stymied.

Leadership is a vexing topic. To paraphrase the father of stress research, Hans Selye, everybody knows what leadership is, but nobody really knows. I have determined what leadership is. Leadership is an ambiguous concept. There are many, many different definitions and explanations of leadership with no consensus. Above all else, leadership is an industry. Countless books and articles are produced on the subject, and countless courses, seminars and programmes are offered all in the name or producing or improving leaders. It is a multibillion dollar global industry. Leadership is also a cult. It is a religious movement where leadership is idolised and revered. Every one is to be or aspire to be a leader.

To cut a long story short that forms the basis of an article I wrote that is going to be published in at least one business magazine, I developed the concept of the Samurai Leader:

'When I considered my leadership abilities and leadership style, I found the focus on leadership distracting and misguided. Why would someone want to be a leader? There are many answers to that question but most involve satisfying personal desires such as power, ambition, prestige, status, material benefits etc. Are these the attributes we want of our ‘leaders’? As Douglas Adams wrote in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: ‘It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.’

When I considered how I would respond to questions concerning my leadership abilities, I found that I didn’t want to talk about leadership, rather, I wanted to talk about service. To serve means to be of use in achieving or satisfying something, in this case organisational goals. There is a scene towards the end of The Last Samurai where the Emperor asks Algren about the death of Katsumoto: ‘Tell me how he died,’ Algren replies, ‘No, I will tell you how he lived.’

Tell me how you lead. No, I will tell you how I serve. I am more proud of my service than my leadership, and I believe the organisations I served benefited from my focus on serving rather than leading.

Samurai is a Japanese term that is used to refer to the professional warrior of medieval Japan and is translated as, ‘to serve.’ ‘Samurai leadership-management’ is a concept that I have developed to refer to a focus on service and 'getting the job done' to advance organisational goals. Is it a leadership or management style? Who cares? It is a way of getting the job done and advancing organisational goals. ‘Leadership-management’ merges the concepts that some say are different, some say are different sides of the same coin, some include leadership within the functions of a manager, and some use the terms interchangeably. Now the focus is simply on how a person gets the job done and advances organisational goals. 

Do not confuse service for servitude. Samurai serve, but they are not servants. Robert Greenleaf developed the servant-leader model of leadership in 1970. The focus of the servant-leader is nurturing those who are served, generally those within the organisation, and generally those in subordinate positions. That is an idealistic, socially biased model of leadership. It is idealistic and biased because Greenleaf was a Quaker advancing a religious/social agenda. The samurai leader-manager is focused on serving the organisation and advancing organisational goals, not being a servant to other organisational members. This does not suggest sacrificing others for the sake of organisational goals as the US military ‘nobody gets left behind’ philosophy in Black Hawk Down exemplifies.

How does a samurai leader-manager serve? Ideally, through the application of jujutsu. Jujutsu is a Japanese martial art that was derived from the hand-to-hand fighting skills of the samurai. It is made up of two ideographs: ju meaning gentleness or giving way and jutsu meaning art, so jujutsu can be translated as ‘the art of giving way’ with the implication of first yielding to ultimately gain victory. The idea of yielding to gain victory is a philosophy that permeates East Asian culture and the East Asian martial arts, from judo to Mao Zedong’s (Mao Tse-tung) military strategy have recognised and implemented this principle.

The Taoist analogy of the yielding nature of water to overcome obstacles is often used to explain the principle of ju: ‘Nothing in the world is softer than water, but we know it can wear away the hardest of things. The supple overcomes the hard, and the so-called weak, the strong.’ How soft was the Boxing Day tsunami or the 2001 tsunami of Japan? How soft are the monster waves at Teahupoo, Tahiti or Pipeline, Hawaii? Another translation of ju is adaptable or flexible. This is a more useful interpretation of the principle of ju. The most efficient way of overcoming an opponent is to not resist their force but to use their force against them. But efficiency and effectiveness are two different things. Sometimes you simply need to use force to overcome your opponent. The attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour fits in with this expanded idea of the principle of ju.


Shouldn’t we be more focused on service rather than leadership? Shouldn’t we be more interested in samurai leader-managers. Tell me how you lead. I’ll tell you how I serve. Domo arigato gozaimashita.'

What do you think about the concept?


  1. Perhaps we could talk of the Aikido of Leadership? As in the way Ai+Ki - harmonizing/unifying the mind (team) for maximum expressiveness/effectiveness?

    I like this whole idea though, good stuff!



    1. Thanks Leo

      In my original draft I also expanded on jutsu vs do.
      Jutsu is described as self protection and do self perfection. In an organisation, the ultimate objective is organisational goals. Samurai fought for their clan or their leader, so jutsu. A lot of 'leadership styles' that are people/relationship oriented often lose site of leadership in pursuit of organisational goals and so might be classified as do.

      Maybe aiki-jutsu might be more appropriate in an organisation setting when discussing leadership-management.

  2. We have what is called a 'Leadership Committee' in my department. I would enjoy pricking the bubbles of the self-important members, if only they 'got it' when I tell them, 'You do realize...that the term 'leadership committee' is an oxymoron...right?'

    Nothing but blank stares. So, while I enjoy your thoughts above, I think sharing them with a search committee will garner the same reaction. Blank stares...

    1. Thanks Narda

      There is more to the article I wrote that would confound your leadership committee. For instance, how do you identify a leader? Leaders are often distinguished to managers. Leaders have followers and managers have subordinates. In an organisational setting, try and determine if a subordinate was also a follower.

      Then there is the issue of whether an organisation needs leaders, and in fact, if the organisation has leaders it casts doubt on the quality of the people, systems and structures of the organisation. This is when leadership is defined in terms of social influence/inspiration.

      I agree with you that sharing these quandaries with most in organisations would be met with blank stares. I'm in the unenviable position of knowing too much but yet still having to demonstrate leadership abilities in order to gain employment.

  3. In a nutshell, leadership is the ability to inspire others to do things willingly and with energy. In a nutshell the epitome of leadership is when others will willingly give their life in support of you and your beliefs.

    All the definitions are simply rhetoric but to inspire others to walk your way, i.e. your example, your words and your moral deeds.

    1. Hi Charles

      That is a common definition of leadership. But what are the implications of this in an organisational setting, including law enforcement and the military.

      If you need leaders in an organisation, what does that say about the quality of the people, systems and structures of the organisation in meeting organisational goals? If an organisation employs self-motivated, trained, professionals - do they need to be inspired to do their job?

      I've been working since 1982 in a variety of executive positions, and I can honestly say I've never been inspired. I did great work and managed others without inspiring them, and they did great work. At the jujutsu school I trained and taught at, the head master is often thought of as a great leader, but he didn't inspire me. I was self-motivated, diligent, focused, etc. In an organisational setting, have I then never met a leader?

      The elite units such as SAS and Navy Seals, do the troopers need to be inspired to do their job. Or are they highly trained, highly motivated troops who are capable of acting independently and in a group to achieve the goals without the necessity for an inspirational leader?

      I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm just saying the issue is a lot more complex when you apply the inspiration definition of leadership to an organisational setting.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.