The Tactical Secrets Of Samurai Warriors Can Teach Us Some Timeless Lessons For Leaders

Natori Sanjuro Masazumi was the seventeenth century samurai master strategist who wrote a series of scrolls to preserve the traditions and tactics of samurai leaders, both on and off the battlefield. It’s a treasure trove of battle-tested tactics to lead, motivate and govern groups in high-pressure situations, as is revealed in the newly published ‘The Book Of Samurai: Arms, Armour & The Tactics of Warfare’. Here’s what RSNG learned from reading it...

‘Smooth Things Over Without Severing Ties’ For the samurai, war is just another method of conflict resolution. When your opponent is as highly skilled in lopping off heads with a single strike of their katana as you are, then the smart (if difficult) play is in coming to an agreement, rather than burning down your bridges. ‘Losing your mind because of sudden anger indicates a lack of determination. It is only brute courage and has no value,’ says the scroll. ‘It is usually easier to sever a tie than to settle a dispute. You should attain achievement by taking the difficult way, rather than ruining yourself by taking the easy way out.’

It is said that large fish do not swim in shallow water

‘Do Not Try To Conduct Your Own Combat’ Surprisingly, for a martial society where wearing a sword was the sole preserve of the samurai, their leaders weren’t massively gung ho. ‘Generals should not try to enter combat themselves,’ says Natori-Ryū. Good leadership depends on having a vice-like grip on the wider picture, and a willingness to delegate key tasks, even if it means you miss out on the glory. ‘Even if they attain personal achievement, they risk being killed and such an outcome would cause the men to fall into disorder… It is said that large fish do not swim in shallow water.’

Use People According To Their Abilities In samurai warfare, coordination and mobility was everything – they even moved away from using horses, which were fast, but not as nimble as men on foot. Battalions were made up of up to 12,50 men, making a full force, or ‘sangun’ 37,500. That’s a lot of moving parts, so efficiency and speed were the order of the day, which made evaluating a samurai’s abilities paramount. ‘If a general entrusts more people to a samurai than he is able to manage, then it is the general who is at fault. For example, if a samurai wants to be entrusted with 100 men, consider the capability of the samurai and entrust him with about half that number,’ says the scroll.

Natori-Ryū also says more can be done with less if you have the advantage of being nimble: ‘It will improve his ability to advance and retreat [and give him mobility in battle]. With a small number of men he will not be beaten, even if the enemy force is large.’

‘To Manage Others You First Need To Manage Yourself’ When it came to loyalty to their lords, samurai were steadfast, but this didn’t mean that they were fawningly spineless. ‘The two aspects of [of loyalty and honesty] function like the two hands of a human. If one is disproportionately favoured over the other, difficulty will follow. If a retainer is more honest than loyal, he will sound harsh without realising it. If he is more loyal than honest he will demonstrate a lack of bravery.’

‘Beware Of Self-Pride’ ‘There is an old saying about the poor man who does not flatter and the rich man who is not too proud,’ says the scroll. Samurai leaders were in a position of absolute authority, which made them cognizant of the risk of losing perspective. ‘As minister-generals govern a nation, everyone respects them. This causes them to forget who they are before they are aware they have forgotten. They will think little not only of the humble, but also of the noble and high ranking. This will arouse resentment in the people and set others against them, causing them ruin in the end.’

‘Do Not Think Little Of Things’ For a samurai warrior, honing his weapon skills as a daily discipline over many years, the devil is in the detail. ‘Fire starts with a tiny spark and massive riverbanks collapse because of minute holes. During a campaign even a tiny issue can cause a catastrophic defeat. If it is not ‘nipped in the bud’, it will grow into a disaster that needs ‘cutting down with an axe’,’ says Natori-Ryū.

Keep in mind that kind people are courageous, but courageous warriors are not always kind

‘Always Be Truthful With Reward And Punishment’ It was down to a samurai leader to decide who had performed well and who needed to pull their socks up, then dish out the spoils accordingly. But the scroll reminds us not to confuse this judgement with favouritism. ‘Rewards do not imply favour, and punishments do not imply disfavour.’

When it comes to the speed of your judgement, it often pays to hold back on the stick. ‘Give reward without delay; punishment can be postponed. Give people the benefit of the doubt when rewarding and punishing… Reward and punishment do not depend on high or low status but are the very foundation of authority.’

‘Do Not Be Startled’ The unexpected happens in war, and as professional soldiers it would, at best, look like amateur hour for a samurai to be startled – at worst it would suggest cowardice. ‘Even if hit by thousands of lightning strikes, do not be alarmed. Stand firm like a gigantic mountain. When faced with a critical battle do not go pale.’

Despite this bravado, the scroll reminds us that courage should always be accompanied with kindness. ‘Know that if a person is not kind, no good can come of it. Keep in mind that kind people are courageous, but courageous warriors are not always kind.’

WHAT NEXT? Watch the daughter of Grand Master Fumon Tanaka demonstrate the perfect samurai sword strike.

You can buy The Book Of Samurai: Arms, Armour & The Tactics of Warfare from Antony Cummins here

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