(This article is based on the work of Robert Pater – references are given at the end)
Miyamoto Musashi’s Gorin-No-Sho (Book Of Five Rings) is a 17th century classic text on kenjutsu, martial arts and philosophy. At one point in this short book, Musashi briefly lists nine principles of strategy – but he gives very little detail on what they mean, or how to apply them in practice.
Robert Pater heads an organisational consulting firm based on martial arts principles and methods, with predominantly larger companies worldwide (www.movesmart.com).
He has used his own knowledge of corporate leadership, and martial arts practice and philosophy, to flesh out the nine principles, and share his own interpretation of how we can apply them in the modern world.
Robert focuses on the workplace, but because he really sees martial arts as a way of living, these ideas could just as easily apply to the dojo, or even our personal lives . . .
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The nine principles are:
- Do not think dishonestly
For Robert, this is about looking inwards – and being intensely aware of your own strengths and limitations. We should fearlessly strive to increase our self-knowledge wherever possible, through inviting helpful criticism and feedback from others, self-assessment tests and so on.
Robert also advises us to pay particular attention to mixed feelings about anything, as these can often be powerful messages from our inner voice.
The key point is: Make self assessment an ongoing, ideally daily, default – this relates to first of all knowing yourself personally; and then also knowing your organisation.
- The Way is in training
This principle is already familiar to us as martial arts practitioners. We also know that whatever you learn in the dojo needs to be pressure-tested. Robert advises that we must apply this principle to all our learning in life, including book learning:
Make it a habit to practice applying what you have read, seen and heard […] as soon and as continuously as possible. Watch the result, then readjust accordingly.
Robert also recommends teaching others, as developing others is a highly effective way to ensure that you deeply understand and can actuate any skill or body of knowledge.
- Become acquainted with every art
Just like different martial arts styles, every leadership style has strengths, limitations and blind spots. Robert advises us to learn as much as we can about these different styles, and as Bruce Lee would say: Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.
He also recommends learning as much as you can about the range of arts within your organization, by which he means the work of different departments, or the range of functions within your own department.
Robert also proposes that once you have mastered any art or skill – even a leisure activity such as music or gardening – you can generally apply its principles back to the art of leadership. He believes that, ultimately, leadership means being able to tap and unleash the power to make things happen, to change the course of the future.
- Know the Way of all professions
It’s often seen as a good thing to specialise in some field. However, Robert advises us to also always keep an eye on the bigger picture, rather than getting lost within our own silo.
Be flexible, positive and actively supportive of other managerial and departmental missions. Think globally and systematically to aspire to influence your organization.
He recommends taking opportunities to learn about the principles and paradigms of other professions, and fill in gaps in your knowledge. Above all, Robert advises us to learn and use the jargon of other professional groups, as this will enable you to make better contact and speak fluently with them, and quickly become more accepted – and influential.
- Know the difference between loss and gain in worldly matters
Robert acknowledges that keeping sight of what’s important can become difficult in times of stress. But this is all the more reason to slow down, maintain that famous martial artist calm, and avoid being reactive wherever possible. Note that numerous companies are now exploring and extolling the benefits of “mindfulness” – which is a critical skill developed in many martial arts.
He also reminds us that, as former Intel CEO Andy Grove said, activity is not output. Relating this back to martial arts, doing fancy flips and high kicks may look cool – but they won’t necessarily help you defend yourself. So for example at work, it’s not about how many hours people have worked, how many meetings they have attended or how many more policies were written. Instead we should focus on impact and results.
Finally, Robert reminds us that short-term losses can often lead to long-term gains – or vice versa; short-term gains can lead to long-term loss. He urges us to be aware of this dynamic and control it, by being mindful about the risks of apparent short-term gains; and proactively finding ways to convert losses into gains.
Again using a martial arts metaphor, there are times where positioning to absorb a lightly glancing blow may actually help you set up to successfully end a fight.
- Develop intuitive judgement and understanding for everything
Many martial arts focus on developing intuition for when and how an opponent will attack – through reading his or her breathing, energy and intent. Similarly, Robert talks about staying connected to your organisation – Perceive it as a living, breathing organism. This includes being aware of whatever is going on within different parts of the system – and interpreting the messages this can give us (and actions needed) about the health and needs of the organisation.
Just as martial arts training allows us to ultimately become calm and peaceful in the face of an attack, Robert contends that the more we develop our leadership knowledge, experience and intuition, the better able we’ll be to stay calm and handle tricky or potentially dangerous work or everyday life situations as they arise.
- Perceive those things which cannot be seen
Rather than overly relying on past performance data, Robert advises us to extend your leadership antennae, and look out for the invisible factors that determine organisational reality. These include:
- Atmosphere or mood
- Hidden agendas
- Areas most resistant to change
- What tasks or jobs do not get done
- Who gets promoted and who doesn’t
- Reactions of those you serve
- Environmental factors that affect productivity (colour, sounds, lighting, use of space, temperature etc)
- Pay attention even to trifles
Robert suggests that things we may see as small and unimportant can actually have a big effect on staff morale – for example, the leader’s tone of voice or quality of eye contact when communicating, vacation schedules, or when to call staff meetings.
He also reminds us that grassroots gossip and perceptions can be highly influential in an organisation; and so we should:
- Pay close attention to the morale and performance of entry-level personnel
- Consider going to lunch or having coffee with new staff; they see the organisation with fresh eyes
- Nurture hourly staff; those in relatively low-paying, low-status positions likely have more contact with customers than any other employees
- Do nothing which is of no use
This is about minimising “busywork” (looking busy, attending unimportant meetings etc); and patiently and persistently focusing on the tasks that will really add value. Robert notes that dynamically relaxing can make us more effective, although this may feel counter-intuitive:
Relaxation is an ally. It releases bound energy and generates a feeling of power. Leaders can develop this skill with practice. Relaxed leaders who stay calm are more efficient. During turmoil, such leaders can see opportunities unfolding. They believe in themselves and, consequently, so do their employees.
[…] Too many leaders react too soon. Waiting and watching can be the best course of action. Overactivity can harm a project. Being caught up in a frantic need for activity wastes energy and power, and depletes resources.
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It’s amazing how Musashi’s ideas, written hundreds of years ago, can still ring so true.
Just to reiterate, Musashi himself gives almost no information on how to interpret and apply the nine principles; the ideas expressed here are Robert Pater’s own views.
You can use Pater’s ideas directly; and/or you can read other critics; and/or you can return to Musashi’s text and seek to make the principles truly your own, with your teacher’s guidance as appropriate. To borrow the words of Brian Massumi:
The best way of all to approach the book is to read it as a challenge: to pry open the vacant spaces that would enable you to build your life and those of the people around you into a plateau of intensity.
In other words, this article, and Robert’s books are your possible starting point – the rest is up to you . . .
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- Robert Pater. (1999). Chapter One of Leading from Within: Martial Arts Skills for Dynamic Business and Management (Book)
- Robert Pater. (2016). Mastering the Martial Art of Leadership (Article): Part One; Part Two; Part Three
- Miyamoto Musashi. (c.1645). Gorin no Sho (A Book of Five Rings) – available for free download here
- Brian Massumi (1988) – Translator’s foreword to A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari