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THE SAMURAI AND THE MANAGER

by Rene T. Domingo (email comments to rtd@aim.edu)

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.

  • finance 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
  • production managers gaspingly trying to beat daily delivery schedules
  • personnel managers endlessly engaged in an arm-wrestling contest with labor unions, which we call "industrial relations management"
  • marketing managers desperately struggling to meet sales quotas during the last few days of the month.

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.


 

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