In 17th century Japan, there was a samurai so skilled that myths started to grow about him while he was still alive. After his death, he became a legend of super natural skills with the sword. His name was Miyamoto Musashi, and he is known to have gone undefeated after more than 60 duels. Interestingly, not only was Musashi a master swordsman, he was also a poet, an artist, and a philosopher. So was the range of his skills that near the end of his life, upon request from his disciples and supporters, he wrote a book containing what he considered to be the ideal qualities of a samurai. The premise of the book is that a samurai master must explore all crafts and have a proper understanding of all trades in order to be the best possible warrior. This is The Book of Five Rings, a martial-arts manuscript with lessons for every walk of life, including business.
In order to understand the business applications of The Book of Five Rings, we must first understand its origin in Japanese culture and the martial arts. The book is divided into five chapters based on the five elements of Japanese Buddhism: earth, water, fire, wind, and emptiness. Being a martial artist myself, I will attempt to summarize each chapter’s core martial teachings as follows:
- Earth: A samurai must have rigorous knowledge of swordsmanship, practice with discipline, stand firmly, and keep good balance.
- Water: A samurai must be able to move his body and handle his sword in a fluid yet overwhelming fashion, thus imposing his own rhythm in combat while disrupting that of his opponent.
- Fire: A samurai must be vigorous, able to move quickly in any direction, strike his sword cleanly at any angle, and shift directions in the blink of an eye, thus forcing his opponent to retreat and make mistakes. Fierceness is key to creating opportunities and seizing them.
- Wind: A samurai must be alert of his surroundings in order to use topography, weather, lights, and shadows to his advantage, while also learning from his opponent so as to use his skills against him.
- Emptiness: Once a samurai has mastered the combat techniques resulting from the first four elements, he must then let go of everything he knows by forsaking any preference for one technique over another. The samurai master must become one with his sword, contemplate all techniques at once, and choose the best technique at every single moment until victory is achieved.
By exploring its basic martial applications, we can see that this book’s teachings are of universal value. More specifically, this samurai manual offers powerful lessons to people in any kind of business. Let us explore this further.
Musashi’s Teachings for Business
If you have leadership and P&L responsibilities in any business industry, you must already foresee the useful applications of Musashi’s lessons. You already know that the business arena is a battlefield; and that being in business requires you to be a warrior. What Musashi’s teachings imply is that to excel in business you must become a business samurai.
Musashi’s use of the five elements to describe the ideal qualities of a samurai also serves to describe the ideal qualities you must develop to excel in business. In this regard, we have the following five lessons:
- Earth: You must have a solid understanding of your industry, a clear vision for the future of your business, a sound strategy to follow, and a resilient personality to deal with uncertainty, contradiction, and stress.
- Water: You must have the ability to think with fluidity and flexibility in order to look at problems from different points of view, reformulate the current strategy when necessary, and often reinterpret your own knowledge of the industry to assess new opportunities and threats.
- Fire: You must be able to process new information quickly and act decisively in order to seize high-value opportunities before your competitors do, and to avoid sudden but serious obstacles.
- Wind: You must learn permanently from your competitors and be at the forefront of innovation in order to stay ahead. Market trends, opportunities, and threats are only visible to those who are alert.
- Emptiness: Finally and most importantly, you must be able to apply the aforementioned qualities depending on the situation. Filling a market void is the driving force of every business. And, just as a samurai would likely lose a duel by forcing the wrong technique into any combat situation, you would also fail in business by trying to fill a market void with the wrong idea, product, or service.
That Musashi’s teachings are valuable in business should come as no surprise. Anyone who has gone through exercises in strategic planning, tax planning, product design, marketing, talent management, or any other business task should immediately see the parallelism. In today’s economy, being successful in business requires knowledge and expertise in all areas of business while also having a strong, resilient personality, a winning mindset, and the humility to learn on a daily basis. As established before, the business arena is a battlefield; and being in business requires you to be a warrior. In this regard, if you want to come out victorious on a regular basis, following these samurai lessons will give you a valuable advantage. But, as you strive for success in the marketplace, make sure to do it with honor, the ultimate samurai virtue.
What Do You Think?
Which of Musashi’s elements is your main strength and which is your weakest quality? If the business arena is a battlefield, what is your best weapon? If being in business requires you to be a warrior, are you ready for battle? Is there room for procrastination, slacking off, mediocrity, and whining in a battlefield? Is there room for such things in business? What does honor look like in business?