Samu: A Martial Arts Perspective on Executive Leadership

This post was originally published in the personal blog of Chief Instructor Corey Guilbault who also serves as a professional marketing strategist.

In addition to working in the business world, I have spent over half my life in the martial arts. I now have students of my own who I instruct. Often times I am asked if I ‘ever had to use it [martial arts] in real life.’

In a world where most of us won’t get into physical fights for the remainder of our lives, martial arts presents some other useful tools and concepts that we can take with us out of the dojo and into the ‘real world’ of business and relationships.

I’d like to share one of those concepts with you as I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The term is samu. Samu simply translated means something akin to ‘small chores’. It is popular among Zen monasteries and used both in the communal upkeep of the place and as a working form of meditation. Samu is also integral to the traditional martial arts dojo.

I believe samu belongs in business too. In fact, it belongs in the heart of every business person – especially the senior most executives. Here are some lessons to be learned from samu:

If something needs to be done, just do it. Don’t wait for someone else. Don’t find reasons to delay. If you know something needs to be done, you should do it. That may be scheduling a meeting, putting together a presentation, or making photocopies for a meeting. If businesses worked this way things would get done sooner. We’ve probably all sat in a status meeting where a task comes up and everyone looks at everyone else and says “I thought you were doing that?”

No one is too big for small tasks. In the dojo, if toilet needs cleaning, clean it, regardless of whether you are a black belt or a white belt. I sweep the floor of my dojo alongside the newest students, often showing them the proper way to sweep (you can tell a lot about a person’s Aikido by the quality of their sweeping). A student who doesn’t head immediately for the broom closet after class is seen in a poor light. They are likely not to be a good student because they value themselves above what they are learning. This is not too different from an executive who values his time more than other people’s. No one really likes that guy and that impacts his ability to lead.

In a traditional tea ceremony hut in Japan the door is so low you have to crawl through it. This is intentional. By design, even the greatest warrior or lord must humble himself and get on his knees to enter. When executives and leaders are willing to spend some time in the trenches now and then, they connect with their employees and customers. They will hopefully also come to appreciate all the hard work that is done to keep that leader looking good for customers, the board of directors, and the media.

Small tasks reveal big insights. Doing the small chores provides experiential insight than can be very important. Ask an experienced mother about baby products. She will have a mental list of those obviously created, ‘by some single guy who’s never tried to feed a baby while answering the phone’.  Doing the small chores is in essence walking a mile in your assembly worker’s shoes. Or your  salesman’s. Or your customer’s. The insights are invaluable in engineering efficiency and innovation into your business.

The greatest risk of clawing your way to the corner office of the executive floor is that once you get behind the mahogany desk you become comfortable, perhaps complacent, and choose to only spend time in the corner office of the executive floor – far away from employees and customers.

Samu builds pride and community. When the CEO is willing to spend time in the trenches it sends a signal. When employees feel empowered to make suggestions and know the leadership relates to them not from an ivory tower but from a shared experience with the ‘dirty details’ of the business, it sends a signal. It is the opposite signal the Big Three auto makers sent when they flew to the government hearings rather than driving.

Being ‘out of touch’ has cost companies market share, executives jobs and Presidential candidates elections. If you want people to follow in the direction you’re going, they need to believe that you have stood where they stand.

Back in the dojo… Many prospective students walk in my door with romantic notions of the samurai and martial arts. I sometimes begin by explaining to them that  the word ‘samu’ is part of ‘samurai’. In fact, samurai means ‘one who serves’. The senior executive should embody this sense of service… to shareholders of course, but also to employees, strategic partners, customers and the community.

I believe samu has much to offer business people. When an executive begins to feel swept up in the momentum of their own accomplishments it is a cue that perhaps it is time to pick up a broom and sweep up the factory floor.

It is at our own peril that we allow ourselves to become to big to do small things.