Tuesday, 15 January 2013

What the Sengoku Warlords can teach you!

Oda Nobunaga berates his followers in typical style

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Sengoku busho – generals, daimyo, and battle commanders of various stripes – are well-known and popular figures from history, and the lessons their lives and actions contain are sometimes taken as models in the self-help/business field. Sometimes, this is done quite seriously, and sometimes in a more light-hearted way.

Typical of the latter is this article I came across in a women’s magazine, which presents an upbeat look at management using some of these famous figures as examples.

It’s no surprise to find that it treats them a little cavalierly, and it was obviously more concerned with teaching business skills than historical accuracy. Nevertheless, it makes for quite an interesting read, and I spent a good few hours of my New Year holiday translating it. The accompanying illustrations are from the original article, and are good examples of typical (and easily recognizable) depictions of the generals in question.

Below is a summary to give a flavor of the analysis that was presented, so read on, and find out why a good leader delegates power, rather than keeping it all to him/her self…

Takeda Shingen "Men are your castles, men are your walls. Friendship is your ally, enmity your foe."

Shingen excelled in ‘people management’, utilizing a pyramid management model. This allowed control of a wide-ranging territory. With Shingen at the top, his immediate subordinates, in turn delegated responsibility to those familiar with each particular area, who were trusted to work out solutions individually. Giving responsibility encouraged positive action ‘on the ground’.

The system was reinforced by meetings to keep everyone informed of developments.

Even those who had proved themselves on the battlefield were observed carefully when placed in a position of responsibility. The skills required on the battlefield and those needed for organizing people were not the same, And Shingen was aware of the possibility of resentment resulting from placing those with no familiarity of a situation in charge of those who were familiar with it.

Shingen would personally watch over his subordinates development until he judged they were ready.

Shingen tended not to place blame or enforce his own solutions on problems. There is an interesting anecdote in connection with his flood control project. In one fiercely flowing stream, the water crashed and swirled around one large rock. Shingen mused aloud, “I wonder who that reminds me of…?” The rough warriors accompanying him were surprised but were forced to look at their own behaviour. In this way, he was able to encourage self-reflection among his subordinates.

Uesugi Kenshin “Fate is in the heavens. This is a holy war! The time to advance is now.”
His great rival, Uesugi Kenshin, was very different, and suffered from an inability to share ideas.  For Kenshin, the timing in battle was a divine revelation from Bishamonten. Secluding himself in a temple, he would wait for inspiration to strike. He would give the order to advance suddenly, and then would gallop through his troops, arbitrarily dividing them into groups. Although this was in accord with his plan, it remained unclear to his subordinates. (Shades of Sun Tzu here).

Kenshin also failed to establish clear aims. Having been appointed to the role of controlling the region by the bakufu, and being charged with punishing those who disturbed the peace, he repeatedly stated that his campaigns were not aimed at the acquisition of territory. To his followers, who made their careers by taking enemy lands by force, there seemed no clear motivation for his wars – and morale clearly suffered.

Kuroda Jyosui (Kanbei) “Was that all you could do?”
Kuroda Jyosui was able, but cold towards his subordinates, failing to recognize their achievements. There is a story that after the battle of Sekigahara, his son was praised personally by Tokugawa Ieyasu for his deed on the battlefield. When he told his father of this sometime later, Jyosui snapped, “You should have struck him down with your empty left hand.”  (I looked further into this and found that his son said that Lord Ieyasu had taken his right hand and praised him. Jyosui replied “What was your left hand doing then?” with the implication being that he should have taken the chance to cut him down – Jyosui thought that he, rather than Ieyasu, should have been Hideyoshi’s successor, but it was not to be.)

Oda Nobunaga “If the bird won’t sing, kill it!”
(Nobunaga is usually given good press, despite some reservations about his manner, but this article doesn’t find much to emulate in his management techniques, commenting on his unwillingness to delegate, and the way he ridiculed his employees. And, of course, we know what happened to him!)

Although this was not a current magazine, it seems that something has been in the air in the past decade.

Lest you think this is an isolated example, how about this, from the website of the Japan Management Association:

During the Warring States period, some 400 years ago, each feudal lord had his 
own distinctive banner. Shingen Takeda's furinkazan and the bi of Kenshin Uesugi,
 who held power around my hometown, are still famous today. These banners raised
 morale during battle, helped to distinguish friend from foe, and provided rallying 
points as tens of thousands clashed in confusion on the field. Though banner
 designs varied from stylized kanji characters to flashy colors combinations, it
 can be said that each represented the enthusiasm and aspirations of the lord and
 samurai that rallied round.

Etsuhiko Shoyama
 President and
 Chief Executive Officer, Hitachi, Ltd.
 Director, Japan Management Association

And then there’s this – an NTT campaign from late 2012, where even Sen no Rikyu gets to make an appearance.

But I digress – we have moved on from lessons learned to pure advertising. Nevertheless, it points towards the continuing popularity, and the instant recognizability, of these figures in mainstream Japanese culture. If anyone has any more examples, I would be interested in seeing them.


  1. Its good to see you posting again. Had pretty much given up on you. Would love to see your take on the GO RIN SHO. What say you?


  2. Hi Kamal,
    I've been pretty busy for the last year or so... but hopefully will get back into the swing of things.

    Something on Go Rin Sho is a good idea – I will put on my (not very long) list of ideas.