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.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

In Business - The Book of Five Rings

Corporate Kendo - Tips for the Marketplace (from Samurai Businessman, New York, June 29, 1981)

Back in the 1980’s, The Book of Five Rings was partly popularized by selling it to the business crowd – touted as the secret of Japan’s economic success, managers and executives of all stripes were encouraged to read it and benefit from the insights their competitors’ thinking.

I came to Musashi myself through a teenage interest in the exotic, of which martial arts were part, and this was certainly pretty far from its use for business, but Musashi’s popularity in the USA was, indeed, business driven. An article from a 1981 edition of New York Magazine makes for interesting reading, explaining that one of the early proselytizers, the advertising executive George Lois said:

"I have some advice for American businessmen who are trying to figure out why the Japanese excel in business. Buy and study a copy of Musashi's A Book of Five Rings."

It also includes the corrective from a senior correspondent for the Nihon Keizai Shinbun, who said that Japanese businessmen were “far too concerned with the future to be rummaging around in the past.” (Flippo, C. (1981) Samurai Businessman, New York, June 29, 29-31).

Interestingly, he was turned on to it by Kaneda Masaichi, a famous baseball pitcher. (perhaps it was in the air - Oh Sadaharu, a contemporary of his, practiced batto (drawing and cutting with the sword) to improve his batting).

I recently came across an article addressing historical sources of East Asian strategy and their application to business. It dealt with Gorin no Sho, the Three Kingdoms and Sun Tzu, highlighting connections between them and giving guidelines for using some of the key concepts they contain in business.

Here are the main points it presented with respect to Gorin no Sho:

1) Grasping relationships and multiple perspectives… To gain new knowledge or find innovative solutions, the student must avoid unilateral thinking and the limitations of a one-track mind.

2) Seeking knowledge and information. Victory may be achieved when the “rhythm of each opponent” is known.

3) Being patient. It is best to wait for the opponent to make the first move, according to Bushido (the way of military men).

4) Training and disciplining oneself.

5) Disguising emotions and intentions. “(A)lways be the same way in any situation, and keep your mind in the Middle Way attitude,” wrote Musashi… Furthermore, people should never reveal their honne (real intentions) and always “ act in such a way as to not reveal the depth of your spirit to others, “ Musashi stated.

6) Possessing flexibility. Despite Musashi’s advocacy of the middle-of-the-road approach, he emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional flexibility during a confrontation.

7) Using diversion. Wrote Musashi: “Once you have distracted {your opponent}, gain the advantage by following with your attack.” While promoting patience, Musashi also advocates swift action at the opportune moment… (here the author goes on to expand this point rather than talking about diversion).

8) Divide and conquer. “(W)hen you have seen that the ranks of the opponents have been disarrayed… push in and strike strongly without allowing any time to lapse.”

9) Assessing the terrain. Musashi’s analysis is analogous to Sun Tzu’s statement that “it is of utmost importance to force the opponent into a disadvantageous position.”

Tung, R.L. (1994) Strategic Thought in East Asia, Organizational Dynamics, Vol 22(4), 55-65.

This brings up a couple of interesting points.

Firstly, I’m not sure I would be able to reduce my understanding of Musashi’s work into only nine or ten points, but I find it interesting to see the ideas of someone who has done so, if only because examining someone else’s view of a work enables you to reassess your own view of that work. It gives you a tool to measure or assess your own understanding.

Secondly, it calls into question the value of works such as Gorin no sho, that were clearly written with regard to specific contexts, for a specific audience, and referenced things with which the average reader no longer has knowledge of. The concepts outlined above are not particularly profound – whether or not they are particularly useful in a business context, I am not qualified to say. I suppose they might provide some food for thought, especially for those involved in business with East Asian companies, who were not familiar with the culture.

Sun Tzu, which was also discussed in the article, is referred to much more commonly – despite the lack of a familiar context, it seems to have become a much used text in a variety of contemporary business and military contexts. There have been far more incisive and focused texts on strategy and tactics in these areas, but it has remained one of the most often cited works, famously quoted by Gordon Gecko and assigned as reading by the USMC for officer training. Perhaps the very fact it is so general that it allows for creative interpretation for its readers and broad applicability across a variety of fields and situations.

In Japan, too, Sun Tzu has been written about in a business context, but a quick perusal of the book shelves suggests that it is less often used as inspiration than The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and other, home grown sources. In this latter category, it is not Musashi who features most often, but the generals of the Sengoku period, the Age of the War.

Yes, there's plenty of interesting material there!