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Outstanding acts from the last samurai

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Learn from the last samurai, Saigo Takamori, who’s still revered in Japan 120 years after his death for his courage, simplicity and fairness.

A few examples of what made him such a great leader:

Courage. Saigo was driven by duty and the conviction that he was destined to accomplish great things. He aspired to rescue Japan from its internal divisions and outside threats, which gave him courage even in the face of death.

Simplicity. For the samurai, frugality and modesty were moral imperatives. Even as a high-ranking official, Saigo preferred simple clothes over fancy duds. Legend holds that he once visited the imperial palace dressed in a cotton kimono and straw sandals. A guard stopped Saigo, assuming him an intruder, and a noble had to confirm his identity.

Saigo relaxed by making his own hunting sandals and fishing lures. Wanting to be both a great and loyal leader and to lead a quiet life fishing with his friends, he found little joy in power or the perks of power. This ambition, coupled with simplicity, made him an intensely compelling leader: He wielded power with amazingly little self-interest.

Fairness. Two examples: 1. Saigo did his utmost to keep captured foot soldiers from being killed or exiled, arguing that they were merely pawns. 2. In a rare endorsement of a Western institution, Saigo hailed Western prisons as enlightened. Unlike Japanese prisons, they didn’t just punish but tried to rehabilitate inmates. It was Western prisons, he said, that embodied the Confucian ideals of humanity.

— Adapted from The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori, Mark Ravina, John Wiley & Sons.

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