Business Management Articles / Asian
and Business Management
THE SAMURAI AND THE MANAGER
Rene T. Domingo (email comments to email@example.com)
An illuminating anecdote about one of Japan's
greatest samurai swordsmen, Tsukahara Bokuden
(1490-1572), was related by Japan's foremost
authority on Zen Buddhism, Daisetz T. Suzuki,
(1871-1966), in his classic work “Zen
and Japanese Culture”. Bokuden wanted
to give the final test to his three sons after
having trained them in the art of swordsmanship.
So he put a pillow at the entrance to his
room such that it would fall on the head of
anybody who touched the curtain upon entering.
The eldest son was called first. Before entering
the room, he noticed the pillow right away,
put it down, entered the room, and returned
the pillow to its original position. The second
son was called next. He entered the room touching
the curtain. The pillow fell, but he caught
it with his hands and then carefully returned
it. When the youngest son was called in, he
rushed into the room, the pillow fell on his
neck, but he split it into two with his sword
before it dropped to the ground. In passing
judgment, Bokuden announced that the eldest
son was a master swordsman and presented him
a sword. The second son was asked to train
more diligently. Finally, the youngest son
was declared a disgrace to the family.
This anecdote shows that mastery of swordsmanship
went beyond acquiring proficiency in the techniques
of the art. The same can be said about the
art of management, or any other art for that
matter. A most common sight is the ever-busy
and energized manager who attacks and confronts
problems relentlessly and enjoys solving them.
Like the Bokuden's youngest son, who feels
pride and pleasure in the burst of pillow
feathers on his face as he wields his sword,
this manager is a disgrace to the managerial
profession. For the art of management has
nothing to do with solving problems -- it
has everything to do with preventing them:
planning, organizing, and controlling. The
more problems a manager solves or the busier
he is with these means the less "managing"
he has done or has been doing - less planning,
less organizing, and less controlling. At
most, what he is trying to do is damage control.
The true master of the art of management,
like the eldest son, avoids wielding and using
the bag of management tricks and techniques
he has mastered by understanding and managing
situations and relationships, rather than
confronting and managing problems. He has
this extraordinary sense of knowing and anticipating
what can bring about disruptive situations;
he corrects situations and not problems. With
this knowledge, he puts everybody and everything
in their proper places at the proper time
-- so that he does not have to manage. Like
the noblest victory of the master samurai,
which is winning without fighting or conquering
your enemy without drawing your sword, the
master manager, the professional manager,
manages "without managing".
In many companies, we see numerous examples
of managers, like the third son, who mistakenly
consider their daily problem-solving feats
as accomplishments of exemplary managership
deserving a pat on the back and a pay increase.
managers performing daily an exciting balancing
act called "cash-flow management"
: running after over-due accounts receivable
and running away from over-due accounts
and loans payable
managers gaspingly trying to beat daily
managers endlessly engaged in an arm-wrestling
contest with labor unions, which we call
"industrial relations management"
managers desperately struggling to meet
sales quotas during the last few days of
The busy managers above are not managing for
they have no time to plan, organize, control,
much less think. Like the third son, they
enjoy splitting the pillows and problems that
fall on them. And this frantic schedule will
go on forever unless they start managing and
preventing the pillows from dropping.
Another samurai anecdote of Suzuki is about
a personal guard of the Shogun of Japan who
went to see a master swordsman, Tajima No
Kami, to be trained in the art of swordsmanship.
Upon seeing the guard, the master asked him
where he had learned the art of swordsmanship.
Surprised, the guard explained that he had
never learned the art anywhere and he had
come precisely to learn it from the master.
Tajima insisted that his client was already
a master swordsman, which the guard repeatedly
denied. Finally, Tajima asked him if he was
a master of something else, if not swordsmanship.
After some reflection, the guard explained
that since his youth, he realized that as
a samurai, he should not be afraid of death
in any situation. The thought of death had
ceased to worry him. He asked Tajima if this
mastery of death was the thing he was referring
to. The master exclaimed that this was precisely
what made him already a master swordsman,
for the final test of swordsmanship, which
many of his sword-proficient students failed,
was overcoming the thought of death. Realizing
that the guard needed no further training
from him, Tajima dismissed him.
Managers do not actually die for the company
unlike the samurai for his master; they just
die managing. But the samurai's mastery of
death more closely corresponds in the art
of management to the manager's acceptance
of responsibility for his decisions and their
consequences, whatever they may be. Thus,
the ultimate test of managership is not the
amount of techniques, experience, and energy
he has, but his complete determination to
stand by his principles and decisions in the
company, oftentimes to the extent of sacrificing
his future and neglecting his family, both
of which could be worse than death.
Unfortunately, many of those whom we call
and pay as "managers" turn out to
be escape artists especially when things go
wrong. They have perfected only one trick
through sheer repetition: escaping responsibility.
There are two ways to perform this well-rehearsed
stunt: 1) the disappearing act - an act done
when things go wrong because of you and there
is still time to vanish and get somebody else
blamed 2) the pointing-finger trick - what
you do when there is no time to disappear
because the curtain has been raised, and you
have to blame (point a finger at) somebody,
anybody, for your mistakes. These managers
are true masters not of management but of
saving their own skin; and their tribe is
increasing. So next time you hire a manager,
look into his eyes and not at his lips; he
may be an escape artist who could ruin your
company. But check again. You may already
be running a circus.