Many senior executives, CEOs and managers have grown jaded over the past twenty years. In their search for a measurable way to accelerate performance, they’ve worked with their umpteenth consultant, trying to adopt the umpteenth Next Big Thing organizational theory, knowing even as they do that it lacks the meaning and depth they seek and will fade out of style in a year or two, just like the others before it.

However, the ancient principles of the samurai have been proven to be more substantial and more effective than reading any of the thousands of new management books published annually. These ancient techniques may surprise you with their relevance in today’s business world, because they deal more authentically with real organizational issues than any pop theories could ever do.

The samurai warrior serves as an excellent metaphor for leaders throughout the millennia. Unlike some other great leadership methodologies, the samurai system was well-documented, and they were able to survive as an organization for a very long time, repelling every invader with their timeless, culture-crossing techniques.

As a leader in your organization, consider these ancient leadership truths. Implementing them could help you create, manage and lead great teams.

Prepare for Death

Weak management teams are not taught how to “die” properly. You needn’t take this literally, but consider this: few people who’ve lived through a heart attack or other serious illness continue investing their energies in office politics after they recover. The mere prospect of physical death is transformative. When people have been taught to “die” properly, they execute their work more bravely and are less consumed by the distractions of political infighting and other typical cultural implosions. Everything unimportant falls away.

To train your managers for death, look at the ugly realities of your culture. What is not being said? What in your organization needs to die in order for it to move forward? Together, the group must bring into the open whatever is old and dysfunctional: misbehavior, pet projects, turf wars, hidden agendas and backstabbing. With the ugly stuff exposed, you and your team can begin the journey to find out how committed the group is to “commit suicide” to those ego-driven agendas and create a new destination.


Bravery is essential not only on the battlefield but also in communication. People often withhold difficult truths or spin reality for their upline leaders’ sake. By the time the leader gets crucial information, it may have been so politically sanitized that there’s no content left, and no one’s brave enough to stand up and say, “No, here’s what’s really going on.”

Good leaders know that even if they don’t like hearing the truth, it’s more dangerous not to know, so they seek out those people who will give them straight answers.

Lead by example: instill bravery in your people by admitting what you don’t know and encouraging your people to do the same.


Many leaders never think to evaluate a prospect’s capacity for honor. They should. When integrity is not fostered, dis-honor can flourish in the organization’s culture; in the extreme, this can lead to lawsuits and bankruptcies. Dishonor prevails when leadership micromanages instead of leading an empowered, open and honest culture.

When leaders get feedback showing that they’re not leading well, the honorable reaction is, “What do I have to do to change and get better?” A leader without honor is too out of touch to realize that he or she is the problem. From Watergate to WorldCom, there are too many modern examples of what happens when leaders create an environment that lacks honor.

Leaders who embrace the ancient samurai truth of honor live their values, not confining them to a coffee cup slogan or the company brochure. And if those values are violated, their sense of honor leads them to either leave the organization or take action to fix the problem. They do what they say and say what they do.

Life Balance

The samurai were taught to explore the world beyond battle and business, studying arts as diverse as poetry, painting and horticulture to achieve balance in their lives. Only those with such balance were considered effective leaders, strategists and warriors.

In our world, business leaders rarely make the time and discipline necessary to pursue interests that have nothing to do with their work. But if you do you’ll find, as the samurai did, that you are inspired to new levels of innovation and creativity. This balance extends to the approach you take to the issues and challenges you face in your business. You will align the power of the arts with the art of power.

The Way of the Warrior

These ancient samurai truths are much more than merely good ideas from a bygone era. They have worked, not just over the past two years in a bestseller, but for the past 1200 years. Although these arts were lost because our culture’s beliefs changed with time, an ever-deeper exploration of the history of humanity teaches us that some truths are unchanging.

Bottom line, organizations that adopt the samurai techniques see their leadership development and their culture changes go from a 70–100 percent failure rate to a more than 90 percent success rate.

Shouldn’t your organization be one of these samurai success stories?

DON SCHMINCKE is a business consultant and author
of the CEO bestseller, The Code of the Executive.
A graduate of MIT and Johns Hopkins University,
Don uses anthropology and evolutionary genetics
to dispel the usual management and leadership techniques.