Today, current leadership and organizational assessment methodology measure such varied constructs as learning agility, team effectiveness, strategic effectiveness, and employee engagement. Most organizations however, in their attempt to be forward looking, have forgotten to heed the guiding wisdom of history’s great leaders, men and women who were able to accomplish extraordinary feats, often under the most difficult conditions.
The most overlooked of these leaders are the ancient warrior sages. Throughout history there have been great men and women who embodied superior leadership qualities. Many of them were powerful warriors who led their people to victory when their rights and freedom was at stake. Because these leaders used both wisdom and strength in leading their people to victory they were called warrior sages. Throughout history they have passed down a profound storehouse of wisdom and tradition that are as valid and effective today as they were a thousand years ago. Among those warriors were the samurai.
The word samurai bring about images of feudal swordsmen who were harsh and brutal. Here, however, we are discussing those exceptional samurai who achieved the height of wisdom and mastery called Kensei (Samurai sage). The performance of such samurai went beyond today’s acceptable levels of performance and reached meta-performance. This type of performance is the result of years of training and self mastery. It is so powerful that it affects each and every area of one’s life, and has an impact so great that today’s business standard for performance pales in comparison. An ancient Chinese proverb states: “We are not afraid of those who practice a thousand different things but beware of the one who practices one thing ten thousand times.”
A good example of wisdom and self-mastery is illustrated by the story of Yamamoto Kansuke who was known for his ability to triumph without resorting to combat.
According to legend, Yamamoto Kansuke was going to be retained by Takeda Shingen, when one of Shingen’s most notable samurai challenged him to a duel. Despite the fact that Kansuke was an excellent swordsman, he had but one eye, was lame and had several fingers that were missing. Nonetheless, he accepted the challenge, but demanded that it be called a “battle” instead of a duel because of all of his physical disabilities. He requested that the battle should be fought in a small boat, which was anchored in a lake that was near their location. Kansuke felt that such a “battle” would be more of a fair fight, as both would have their movements restricted during the actual fight. Both Kansuke and Shingen’s samurai were taken out in a small craft to the boat where the battle was to take place. As they boarded the boat, Kansuke used his sword to create a hole through the boat’s hull. He suddenly jumped back into the transport boat, and shoved it away. The samurai, who didn’t know how to swim, suddenly found himself standing in a boat that was slowly sinking – and had no way out. Kansuke then threw the samurai a rope so that he could pull him to safety, thus saving his live. Shingen, who was intently watching the entire episode unfold from shore, realized the remarkable wisdom of Kansuke’s strategy and retained him immediately. He watched Kansuke win the battle without fighting, while being able to protect his own life.
Simultaneously Kansuke left his opponent uninjured, and he later became Kansuke’s ally. More importantly, prior to utilizing the two strategies that were used, Kansuke analyzed all of the variables involved: his own physical limitations and disabilities, the samurai’s dependence on his swordsmanship, the values and needs of Shingen and the overall environment where the battle would occur. By doing so, Kansuke showed that he could serve as a respected samurai strategist for Shingen, and continued helping him in his rise to fame while building his reputation as one of the most feared and powerful warlords of his time.
The ancient warrior wisdom tradition is about conquering yourself and becoming the best version of yourself. It’s about applying the warrior tradition and discipline to develop superior leadership. It’s about using warrior strategies and wisdom to navigate through life and work with precision. Seneca, the adviser to two of the Julio-Claudian emperors, Claudius and Nero, writes:
“The soul should use times of security to prepare itself for harsh circumstances. It should fortify itself, when enjoying the blessings of Fortune, against the blows of Fortune. A soldier practices maneuvers during peace¬time and constructs defensive ramparts, although no enemy is near, and wearies himself with nonessential exertion so that he can be ready for necessary exertion. If you don’t want someone to panic in a crisis, you must train him before the crisis.”
In the book “Leadership: The Warrior’s Art” published at Army War College, Christopher Kolenda writes: “The undeveloped mind, when bombarded with information and external stimuli, quickly loses the ability to decide and the courage to act until the moment of crisis. The developed mind can part the shadows of chaos, disorder and confusion to create a vision and pursue it with conviction, keeping the organization on the proper azimuth to achieve its purpose. We can learn from the ancients that acquiring the full spectrum of courage (intellectual, physical, and moral) requires the continuous development of mind, body, and soul.”
One samurai sage who had achieved self-mastery and wisdom was Munenori:
During the summer of 1615, the Tokugawa forces surrounded Osaka Castle, ready and willing to end the influence of the Toyotomi and its supporters. The only problem was that the castle was virtually impregnable, and was defended by almost sixty thousand men. However, the surrounding troops had nearly double the amount of men. There were attacks and counterattacks, yet there wasn’t’ a decisive winner on either side. Despite the overwhelming numbers of men on Tokugawa’s side, the battles ended in a stalemate. One day the stalemate was broken, when a force of about thirty desperate men led by Kimura Shigenari forged a surprise attack and successfully entered shogun Tokugawa Hidetada’s camp. A battle ensued, and the shogun’s men were confused by the tenacity of the assault, as the attackers made their way to within a very short distance from the shogun. Suddenly, they were met by a middle-aged samurai, who was calmly standing in front of the shogun’s horse. Without hesitation, he stepped forward and using amazing speed, remarkable dexterity and ballet like grace, killed all of the attackers. Once he removed the shogun from harm’s way, he took up his post and continued caring for the shogun’s horse. That samurai was Yagyu Tajima no Kami Munenori, who was the sword instructor to the shogun. He was also the man who was most trusted to stand by the shogun’s side. Hidetada was patiently taught many times by Munenori in the dojo, but now his old teacher had demonstrated his swordsmanship to him – balancing the thin line between life and death. One could surmise that later that night the shogun resolved to pay more attention to his teacher’s instructions during training. After the castle had fallen and they returned to Edo, he would take his bamboo sword and practice with a renewed sense of purpose.
Throughout history, samurais became scholars and physicians and some studied calligraphy, music, painting, philosophy, history, dance and theater among others. The way of the ancient warrior wisdom tradition is equally filled with creative thinking and thinking outside of the box. A good example is the following story that occurred during the Tang period in China:
“General Ling Ku-Chao surrounded the fortress at Yung Ch’in with strong forces, and the garrison was quickly isolated and cut off from any outside relief. The fortress commander, Chang Hsun, realized they didn’t have enough arrows for the archers. So he devised a plan that had his soldiers making a thousand mannequins of straw, dressed in black clothing and secured with rope. They then lowered the mannequins down the fortress walls at night. The rebel soldiers saw the mannequins and thought they were men coming to fight, and showered the straw soldiers with arrows. Hsun’s men then raised the straw soldiers and retrieved thousands of arrows, renewing their own supply. Chang Hsun repeated this the next night, but this time the soldiers only shot a few arrows before retreating. On the third night, Hsun’s men lowered real soldiers, and this time, thinking it was a ploy didn’t fire a single arrow, instead laughing at what they thought were mannequins. Chang Hsun successfully lowered five hundred soldiers, catching the enemy by surprise and struck them down.”
Classical ancient warrior texts are filled with stories of ancient warriors and their lore, as well as practical wisdom. The knowledge inherent in these texts was mostly kept secret to keep it away from those with negative behavior. They are considered sacred as they are derived from the knowledge and life experience of those who died in battle. The texts are diverse and span geographically from India all the way to China and Japan. Examples of these doctrines are; Sunzi Bingfa, Sanshihlu Chi, Go Rin No Sho, Heiho Kadensho, Bushido Shoshinshu, Wubei Zhi, Bubishi, Takuan Osho Zenshu, Skanda Purana, Agni Purana, Dhanurveda and Arthashastra among others. Although some of the manuscripts have been translated, many of the doctrines and texts are yet to be translated and usually are passed orally from the masters of the path to select students who have shown high morale caliber. Individual lacking nobility in character therefore would not be taught. “With soap you cannot whiten the coal” said Kabir the famed Indian mystic poet.
Ancient Sanskrit texts of India had a profound impact on Chinese and Japanese philosophy and warrior traditions. The ancient civilization of India grew up in an isolated sub-continent bordered on the north by the world’s largest mountain range – the Himalayas, which divides India from the rest of Asia and the world. The barrier, however, was at no time an insurmountable one, and at all periods both settlers and traders have found their way over the high and desolate passes into India, while Indian have carried their commerce and culture beyond her frontiers by the same route. One such example was Hiuan Tsang (c. AD 600-64) a Chinese pilgrim and one of the most distinguished Buddhist scholars of his time who traveled to India in 629 AD. He stayed for 16 long years, traveling extensively and holding discussions with other scholars and gathering scriptures and texts to take back. In Kanchipuram he became a friend of the local king and his face was later carved on the temple built shortly after his visit. It goes without saying that the Indian influence over China has been enormous. The past ambassador of China to USA, Hu Shih could not have placed India’s influence over its neighbor more clearly, when he stated that, “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border”.
India boasts a multitude of manuscripts and doctrines covering the warrior arts. The great epics known as Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as the Puranas, and various Shaivite texts are just portions of this vast storehouse of wisdom. Dhanurveda written by Sage Vyasa for example, discusses the training of a warrior and particularly an archer. Many such texts traveled with Buddhist missionaries such as Bodhidharma, Ajitasena, Amoghavajra, Bodhivardhana and Buddhapala to China and eventually Japan and had a direct influence on their warrior culture and practices.
It is important to note that the ancient warrior tradition was not solely the domain of men. Throughout history you will find numerous formidable female warriors who engaged in battle alongside with samurai men. These exceptional warriors were members of the samurai class in feudal Japan and were trained in the use of weapons to protect their household and family in times of war. In Japan the list of female samurai are long and diverse including Nakano Takeko, Tomoe Gozen, Hojo Masako and Hangaku Gozen to name a few. These women achieved mastery and superior leadership through intensive training. In modern times, Teddy Roosevelt demonstrated the warrior spirit when he was shot during a speech.
The date was October 14, 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt was running for a second term and campaigning in Milwaukee. Unbeknownst to him, John Schrank, a Bavarian-born saloonkeeper from New York had been following Roosevelt’s campaign from New Orleans with a.38 caliber revolver. As Roosevelt stood up from his seat in his automobile to wave at his supporters, Schrank pulled the trigger from the front row of the crowd. The bullet hit Roosevelt squarely in the chest, just as a bodyguard tackled Schrank and put him in a headlock. Roosevelt insisted on giving his speech, refusing to go to the hospital. He began his speech by saying, “friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” Roosevelt talked for at least 55 minutes longer, while wearing his blood-soaked shirt. While his voice weakened and his breath noticeably shortened, Roosevelt glared at his aides whenever they admonished him to stop speaking and begged him to go to the hospital. They even stationed themselves around the podium, ready to catch him if he collapsed. After he concluded his speech, he agreed to visit the hospital, where he would spend the next 8 days. The bullet had lodged in his chest wall, and doctors felt it was too dangerous to remove it. Once the wound healed, he never reported any problems from his injury again.
The ancient warrior manuscripts and texts use ample metaphors and stories to teach. The stories are filled with profound wisdom, strategies, tactics, codes of conducts and much more. Metaphors are a powerful and unappreciated leadership tool. Metaphors connect us emotionally and intuitively to a level of understanding that is beyond the rational mind.
The Japanese samurai developed their sophisticated warrior system and its philosophy on the battlefield while ruling Japan for almost a 1,000 years. They developed battle tested codes that became a template for the development of their characters as well as principles to live by. The Japanese have long associated the sword and the spirit, both in history and in mythology. The sword serves as an instrument of life and death, honor and purity, authority and often, divinity. According to the ancient warrior tradition, one must first die to become a true Samurai. However, this is not the death of the body, but the death of the previous behavior, character, visions and beliefs that limit one’s power and performance. This death is similar to a snake’s shedding of skin.
According to ancient warrior tradition, the mind is often likened to a wild horse and the warrior as its master rider who must remain vigilant in order to discipline and bring it under control to eliminate limiting beliefs and behavior. The great ancient Indian warrior sage Vasistha states: “Time is merciless, inexorable, cruel, greedy and insatiable. Time is the greatest magician, full of deceptive tricks. This Time cannot be analyzed; for however much it is divided it still survives indestructible. It has an insatiable appetite for everything. It consumes the smallest insects and even the highest mountains.”