Right and Wrong according to the Samurai

Ethical leaders are the modern warriors of today

Touted as an indispensable read for executives, the “Code of the Samurai” is my latest read and it is fascinating! The timeless lessons offer a roadmap for ethical leadership so needed in our modern corporate world today.

A deep dive into Japanese culture and philosophy

You may know this – the “Code of the Samurai” is a four-hundred-year-old explication of the rules embodied in Bushido, the Japanese Way of the Warrior. Back then, the lives of the samurai warriors were ruled by 7 principles –  righteousness, loyalty, honor, respect, honesty, courage and consistency, and this way of life was taken very seriously, even to the point of death.

Formalized in the Edo period (1603–1868), the Bushido has since undergone many changes but continues to play a profound role in shaping modern Japanese society.

4 lessons from the Samurai

1. Warriors must know what is right and wrong

The samurai believes that ordinarily people are not totally devoid of understanding of right and wrong, but they find it boring and tiresome to act rightly and strive for goodness. Acting wrongly and behaving badly is fun and familiar, so they drift toward that instead.

They also believe that there are “complete morons” who cannot distinguish between right and wrong and cannot even be motivated by shame to do the right thing.

Warriors on the other hand, must comprehend right and wrong, and strive to do the right thing always.

2. Warriors must strive to do right and avoid wrong

After determining something to be wrong, a warrior cannot ignore that demand for justice. The samurai believes that a warrior will always choose to do the right thing.

They also believe that choosing to do the wrong thing originates from a lack of endurance and cowardice in people – which are attributes that cannot be tolerated in a knight.

3. If you do what’s right even when nobody’s watching, that is very good.

There’s an illustration in the modern translation of Bushido written by Thomas Cleary:

Imagine you’re entrusted with a hundred ounces of gold by an acquaintance who later passes away unexpectedly. If you return the gold to the deceased’s relatives, even though no one else knows about it, you have truly acted with integrity.

Now suppose no one knows about the gold he left with you, and you happen to be in need of the money, so this is a bit of luck; why not just keep quiet about it? If you are ashamed to even have such thoughts, and so change your mind and return the gold, you can still be said to have done the right thing.

Suppose you return the gold out of fear of being exposed or judged by another person, it could still be said that you did the right thing – even if the motivations were of a sense of shame.

4. You can train yourself to do what’s right

Consider those who are born brave and are not fazed by arrow and gunfire on the battlefield. However intense it may be, the brave make targets of their bodies, pinned between loyalty and duty.

Then there are also those who are hesitant in danger, their hearts pound and their knees tremble, yet they go ahead. Although they can be seen to be inferior to the naturally brave ones, when they have gone through this time and again, eventually their minds settle and they also become strong and firm, not so different from those who are naturally brave.

Roadmap for Ethical Leadership

The lessons of the samurai offer a roadmap for ethical leadership in the modern corporate world. As leaders, having a moral code will help us navigate the complexities of today’s business landscape with honor and dignity.

As the samurai teach us, true greatness lies not in personal accolades or material wealth but in the steadfast adherence to principles that transcend time and culture.

Sincerely yours,

Stephen Le, Lead Litigator