Learning To Die: The Samurai Executive's Guide to Achieving Greatness

For the samurai to learn
There's only one thing,
One last thing –
To face death unflinchingly

Noted swordsman Tsukahara Bokuden


Arrogance collapses the biggest companies in the world, and it is but one product of the ego. In fact, when the ego is running the show, it can destroy an organization with dysfunctional, selfish, and dishonorable behavior. 

On average, 50% of human productivity in organizations is consumed by dysfunctional behavior. Ever have a fifteen-minute meeting take an hour? In other words, if individual egos driving the company are not stopped, you’re throwing half the payroll out the window, not to mention the immeasurable lost opportunities. 

Why does the ego dominate?

Well, the ego is part of our biological make-up and has been for 20 million years. It has served a useful purpose, in that selfish genetic strategies are very effective for species evolution. Think of a two-or three-year-old child. You don’t teach them to be selfish; they behave that way naturally, driven by the DNA programming in their cells. So are employees, managers, and CEOs. We are instinctive animals and are influenced by our genetics.

In order to combat the ego, we must look back to the ancient samurais. Their view of “death,” both literally and metaphorically, can teach modern day executives much about leadership, and how to unleash performance.

Look Back to Look Forward

    As much as modern management theories teach us to look to the future—with vision statements and goals and idealistic forward-thinking—the fact is that the old, ego-driven turf wars, back-biting, politics, and hidden agendas never seem go away; until they are effectively dealt with as the ancient samurai did: through death. Ignoring the “junk” and focusing on an ideal will never permanently change the organization’s culture because this impulse to misbehave is actually driven by a deep biological need within us – to defend, to dominate. From the ego’s point of view it is not misbehavior but effective coping mechanisms to deal with perceived threats and selfish opportunities.

    Therefore, you must commit metaphorical suicide to the ego so that a higher cause can drive your behavior and that of your executive team. Even though you won’t ever get rid of the ego entirely, “death” in this sense means overcoming the ego so you can pursue a different reality for the greater good.

    Just like the samurais, executives must always keep in mind that some day they will die. Doing this unhooks the ego (which the samurai called “the evil spirit”), allowing you to deal more authentically with issues and problems. Think about it…Most people who survive heart attacks don’t care about office politics anymore. The threat of physical death brings forth bravery, clarity, and often a total life transformation. Learning to die metaphorically has the same effect as literal death and provides a deeper perspective on life. Unfortunately, modern management has lost touch with the knowledge that people who are taught to die properly can actually execute more bravely in their work and not get consumed by the distractions of office politics, infighting, and other causes of cultural implosions. 

    When you accept the idea of death, you gain power and freedom for action; acceptance gives meaning and offers insights. In fact, many companies that are Fortune 500 today were once on the brink of bankruptcy, only to find that acceptance leads to great decisions, which made them great companies down the road. Accepting death, then, really becomes choosing life. 

    Our fear of death, even metaphorically, leads us to cling on to the junk such as wasteful projects or what we perceive to be our turf. But what we must kill is what never should have been there anyway. The acceptance of this idea leads to detachment, which in turn is the path to freedom. This is a process not of apathy but of release, of letting go of bad attachments. The result is the ability to make powerful choices and brave decisions. 


Dead Man Walking

    In order to rid your organization of the ego, which is the root of your company’s challenges, you must follow a proven process. Use the following guidelines to get your company back on track. 


1. Decide what must die.

    To implement this process in a company, the executives of a team must first look at what needs to die in the organization. The organization’s leaders must be willing to bring all of the bad stuff up to the surface and put all that dysfunction up on the wall. The team needs to be willing to self-expose: What haven’t they been saying to each other, though they’re thinking it? Or what have they been saying to select people in a power clique? What information is being withheld? What individual agendas must everyone admit to? At this phase, the CEO and the team take the journey through the valley of the shadow of death and expose all of the ugliness that has held the organization back.

Looking at dysfunction can be tough, and it requires the strength of a true warrior. But only when the team has flushed from its hiding place the biological beast that has held the organization back can it then slay it, and begin plans for what is truly possible. Only when the beast is exposed can you focus on the future—when you have turned the lens on the realities of the present.


2. Look to the future.

    Once the management team is able to voice the things they think but don’t say, then possibilities arise and true goal setting can begin. Together, they then look at a new destination—the leadership environment and style they want to aspire to and represent in the future. They create a new future that’s more powerful than the bleak one the organization is headed toward.


3. Get everyone to commit to endure the pain.

    The CEO must ask the management team to be willing to “die”; to commit enough to endure whatever suffering and pain they must long enough in order to reach the new future they created. However, sometimes the gap is so large between here and there that unless the group is willing to be uncomfortable it is better to stay where they are. If they are unwilling to commit, it is best to find this out earlier rather than later otherwise the process ends up on the pile of other failed programs. This is a dramatic reversal from the typical “touchy-feely” approaches use in training and consulting. The team must be challenged to face the truth and be uncomfortable, to suppress their egos in the service of a greater cause. A good leader can inspire that. 


4. Prepare for rebirth.

    Commitment to conquering the ego and enduring the necessary suffering then prepares the team to move the organization through death to rebirth. After the acceptance of death, the team can ask one another, “What are the critical success factors for getting where we truly want to be?” With the freedom to be brave, they can now create viable strategies to do what is critically necessary to achieve success. You can’t execute the greatest of new plans until you slay the beast that’s been stopping the organization from moving forward. Here the team is able to identify those few key areas which will ensure a successful transformation. 

5. Prevent sabotage

    Contrary to what the training industry teaches, the problems of the past are not in the past, they are in our genes. No matter how great the commitment and the planning, the beast will always seek to reassert itself. The group should list how they can sabotage this process in the future, what should they be sensitive to in order to help pick each other up and continue on the path. Eternal vigilance is necessary.



Radical Methods Deliver Radical Results

    Realize that not everyone is strong enough or brave enough to go through this process. Some will seek to hide out, wait for it all to blow over, and hope they won’t be found out. But they will be exposed, ultimately, by their behavior. They may try to backstab someone, for example, and that person will say, “Wait a minute, you’re violating our code of honor.” They must either join the team of warriors or find somewhere else to peddle their agenda. 

    Though radical, these methods have been proven to work for centuries. And in fact, most people who tackle this process are simply too disgusted or ashamed to revert back to the status quo. They grow increasingly willing to take risks and speak the truth. Examples in our lifetimes abound: Boeing was faltering and couldn’t achieve parity with Lockheed or Douglas through mere goal-setting. They had to accept that they were going out of business. At that point of death they began making different things happen and the commercial jet-age was born. Likewise, Harley-Davidson realized the extent of the threat posed by the Japanese, fired all their consultants, took up the reins themselves, and the rest is history. 

    The point of death can be the point of inspiration. Are you prepared to follow the way of the samurai and face death to achieve greatness?