4 Samurai Culture Lessons for the Workplace

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "What You Do Is Who You Are" by Ben Horowitz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What was samurai culture like? What aspects of it should be applied to organizational culture?

Ben Horowitz believes business leaders should follow the samurai’s example of intentionally defining foundational beliefs coupled with instructions for everyday behavior. We’ll explore Horowitz’s four lessons from the samurai honor code as well as examples from the business world.

Keep reading for details on these actionable values from samurai culture.

Lessons From Samurai Culture

The samurai were a military class that ruled pre-modern Japan from 1186 until 1868. Their virtues, expressed in an honor code or bushido, were so effective that they kept the samurai in power for nearly 700 years, and they’re still echoed in modern-day Japan. (Shortform note: In The Book of Five Rings, written in the 17th century, samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi reflects on bushido, emphasizing the importance of constant practice, achieving mental and physical equilibrium, and ways to defeat any enemy.)

Horowitz explains that the honor code established a common foundation for samurai culture consisting not only of values but also instructions for applying them in every situation. Bushido refers to these actionable values as “virtues.”

(Shortform note: As with the term culture, Horowitz applies to business another word we’re used to seeing in other contexts. Virtue is a concept more commonly discussed in ethics or philosophy, and when the samurai talked about virtues, they were in fact talking about the ethical and philosophical foundation of their culture. Nowadays, virtue is often defined as the moral excellence of a person, but other, more expansive definitions refer to virtue as an attitude, disposition, or character trait that enables us to be and to act in ways that develop our human potential. This latter definition is closer to the one Horowitz gives of beliefs that are consistently translated into action.)

(Shortform note: In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown argues that the gap between aspirational and actional values—what we believe in versus how we actually act—leads to disengagement at work and in society at large.)

Lesson #1: Always Be Aware of Death

Many of bushido’s virtues are recognizable in Japanese culture today, such as in their commitment to the highest standards of quality. Horowitz argues that this commitment to quality stems from the samurai virtue of honor, which they expressed as: Always be ready for death. To the samurai, this meant ensuring an honorable legacy regardless of when they died by constantly performing to high standards.

(Shortform note: While modern Japanese culture’s admirable commitment to quality echoes the bushido principle of behaving with your legacy in mind, the same principle can be twisted in a harmful and unhealthy way. Psychologists worry that a drive for perfection and the safeguarding of honor, both rooted in centuries-long tradition, contribute to high rates of suicide in Japan—the highest in all of Asia.)

In the same way the Samurai prepared for death, Horowitz encourages business leaders to consider their company’s death. If your company went out of business today, would you be proud of its legacy? Horowitz argues this mindset helps you look beyond the usual ways to measure success, such as profit, and consider the organization’s purpose and impact. (Shortform note: In his book Who Will Cry When You Die?, Robin Sharma also advocates contemplating the end of your life to determine the values that actually matter to you. Sharma argues that to live a life you won’t regret, you must take control of your life today, beginning by identifying your purpose and using that to craft a life you will be proud of.)

Lesson #2: Choose Your Virtues With Action in Mind

To apply the samurai approach, you must begin by choosing your culture’s virtues carefully. Horowitz advises you to reflect on the behaviors that will translate your virtues into the culture you want. Remember, culture is created through the actions of your employees. Additionally, Horowitz identifies two characteristics a virtue should have to be effective:

Characteristic #1: A Virtue Must Be Achievable

Effective virtues are practical and set you up for success, not failure. To create an effective virtue, Horowitz says you should specify what the belief would look like in practice, so you can determine whether it’s a virtue you can live up to. If you’d have a hard time applying the virtue consistently, it doesn’t belong in your culture, because you’ll constantly fall short. For example, accountability is a popular corporate value. A cultural virtue for accountability might be, “See our actions and decisions through, even when the outcome is not favorable.” You would only incorporate this virtue into your culture if you can commit to that level of accountability.

(Shortform note: In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown shares advice on how to make sure you regularly practice your values (virtues). She suggests creating a list of behaviors with which to regularly assess whether you’re putting your beliefs into practice. Consider what kinds of behaviors support the belief and what kinds of behaviors would be outside of it, and go back to the list often to see if you’re practicing your beliefs.)

Characteristic #2: A Virtue Must Be Defining

Effective virtues define who you are as an organization, so they point to what makes your company unique.

You shouldn’t select virtues that all other organizations in your industry are already espousing. If they are industry givens, your employees practice those virtues by default, and there’s no need to enforce them specifically. What’s more, Horowitz warns not to take cultural industry standards for granted. They might not work for you, or you might adopt the cultural practice without adopting the belief that underpins it. For example, fun office perks such as games and nap pods became popular thanks to Google’s emphasis on encouraging creativity. But flooding an office with perks without the underlying commitment to creativity doesn’t accomplish much. If employees can play ping-pong between meetings but don’t have opportunities to pitch new projects, the virtue of fostering creativity with play becomes meaningless. 

(Shortform note: One way to choose virtues that define your organization is to identify the ones that your star employees already have. In Traction, Gino Wickman advocates determining your organization’s core values by listing the characteristics of your star performers and deciding which of those define your company.)

Lesson #3: Explain How to Apply Virtues

Effective virtues incorporate definitions, instructions, and examples. Horowitz explains that bushido contained all the information warriors needed to apply the virtues, starting with precise definitions. It defined what each virtue was and what it wasn’t, and explained what each looked like in action. The virtues complemented each other, preventing warriors from narrowly pursuing one to the detriment of another. For example, a warrior should have the courage to fight, but should also be benevolent and not harm anyone unnecessarily.

(Shortform note: Horowitz’s description of bushido might make it seem like the code is a single, coherent book. However, it’s actually a collection of texts written throughout the reign of the samurai, and it evolved and changed over time, sometimes contradicting itself. But despite having different authors through different eras, it maintains a coherent overall ethos and approach to the way of the warrior.)

Besides instructions, bushido gave concrete examples of how to apply each virtue, using storytelling to make them easy to understand and remember. The stories tried to foresee every possible scenario in which a samurai would have to apply a specific virtue. The stories also anticipated different reactions a warrior might have and explained how well each reaction fulfilled the code’s expectations. Finally, to keep the virtues alive, the samurai taught these stories to every new generation, thus cementing them in the psyche of all warriors across centuries.

(Shortform note: The samurai approach to communicating virtues through storytelling is one companies might already be familiar with, but in other contexts. For instance, in Building a StoryBrand, marketing expert Donald Miller explains how to use stories to create the most effective marketing campaigns by casting customers as the heroes of a story about your brand. He also explains how to foster engagement from employees by sharing the same customer-centered story with them and then creating an employee-centered story that casts them as heroes and aligns their purpose with the company’s mission.)

After choosing your virtues, Horowitz recommends taking these steps to follow the samurai approach for applying them:

1) Define the virtue explicitly. Explain it in unambiguous terms and address as many scenarios as possible to help people understand and apply it in all situations.

2) Make the purpose of the virtue clear. Having a compelling “why” will make the virtue easier to apply, so make clear why you’ve chosen the virtue and what it will accomplish.

3) Set up rules that force people to put the virtue into action. Following a rule rooted in a cultural virtue will help employees acquire the virtue through muscle memory. The rule will force them to engage in the specific behaviors that the virtue calls for, and help them internalize the virtue by acting on it. For example, if the virtue is efficiency, you might set up a rule to “Get it done now, improve on it later.”

4) Make virtues complement each other. Balancing your culture’s virtues will prevent people from fixating on one behavior to the detriment of other equally important ones.

5) Integrate the virtue into the hiring and onboarding processes. Using the definition of the virtue and the actionables you have established, develop a cultural interview to assess whether candidates can put the virtue into practice. Once they’re in, the onboarding process should teach them the right cultural lessons from day one.

Five Elements of Strong Cultures

In Multipliers, Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown identify five elements of strong cultures that fit the samurai approach. Some of them overlap with the steps Horowitz lays out:

Vocabulary: Everyone uses the same definition for words and phrases, such as the definitions of virtues.

Conduct: Everyone responds a certain way in a certain situation, such as following rules to put the virtue into action.

Convictions: Everyone agrees on what is true and shares assumptions, such as the purpose of the virtue.

The final two elements complement the samurai approach:

Myths: Everyone admires the same people based on their accomplishments, behavior, or traits. You can do this by identifying employees who embody the virtue and highlighting them as role models.

Customs: Everyone adheres to the same customs and behaves the same way. You can do this by ensuring that every employee will have the opportunity to put the virtue you’ve selected into practice.

Example: Creating a Rule to Enforce a Virtue

When Horowitz co-founded Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm, he wanted the central virtue of the firm’s culture to be respecting the entrepreneur. To establish the virtue, he applied the samurai approach:

  • First, he defined the virtue in two paragraphs, giving specific pointers on what respecting the entrepreneur looks like in practice, and why it’s important. 
  • Next, he made the purpose clear by explaining why the entrepreneur was the firm’s focus rather than the investor. 
  • Then, he established an actionable rule to drive home the point: Whenever an employee was late to a meeting with an entrepreneur, they’d be fined $10 for every minute that passed.
  • Finally, so that respecting the entrepreneur wouldn’t prevent employees from giving negative feedback when necessary, he balanced that virtue with another: Always tell the truth.

(Shortform note: Horowitz’s rule for employees might seem harsh, but it’s designed to help the firm stand out in a context where entrepreneurs hoping to get funding are typically expected to wait for venture capitalists for as long as it takes. In addition, Horowitz says the rule works as a way to measure culture fit in the hiring interview process. When managers explain the rule during interviews, a conversation ensues about why the firm has taken that stance. By the end of that conversation, if the candidate doesn’t agree, it’s clear they’re not a good fit with Andreessen Horowitz.)

Lesson #4: Start With Three Essential Virtues

While Horowitz argues that you should choose virtues specific to your company and its strategy, as the samurai created an honor code specific to being a warrior, he also believes there are three foundational virtues essential to every organization: trust, freedom to speak up, and loyalty. (Shortform note: Some experts agree that there are certain values all companies should have, but in Built to Last, Collins and Porras argue that visionary companies have different philosophies and all they agree on is on consistently adhering to whatever philosophy or values they claim as their own.)

Essential Virtue #1: Trust

According to Horowitz, trust is essential because organizations can’t succeed unless employees trust that their leaders and peers are furthering the mission. But trust can only come from being consistently truthful, and in high-stakes environments, that’s easier said than done. Horowitz points out that sharing inconvenient truths can create uncomfortable situations and make a company vulnerable. Giving people inside or outside of the organization access to information that puts your company in a negative light, or reveals your weaknesses, can prevent immediate gains. 

For instance, if a company is closing a low-performing branch, being truthful about what’s happening would get negative attention and might even cost it some business. The leader wouldn’t want people to think the company’s in crisis and worry that it might close other branches, or stop fulfilling its commitments to customers. Being less transparent about what’s happening might be appealing—but Horowitz says this would be a mistake because it would undermine the trust employees, clients, and partners have in the company.

Essential Virtue #2: Freedom to Communicate Concerns

The second virtue Horowitz argues all organizations need is the freedom to communicate concerns. If team members don’t talk about the problems they notice, the problems become much harder to solve because, by the time you find out about them, they’ve grown exponentially. 

Horowitz outlines several reasons employees might hesitate to share their concerns:

  • They might have caused the problem and don’t want to expose themselves to negative consequences for their job or career.
  • They might not know how to solve the problem and don’t want you to interpret this as a lack of ownership.
  • They might not want to interfere with immediate company goals by addressing a long-term issue. 

Essential Virtue #3: Loyalty

The final virtue Horowitz believes all companies should incorporate is loyalty. Loyalty sets off a virtuous circle that makes work relationships productive and sustainable. Ideally, when leaders are loyal to employees, employees want to stay in the company and therefore strive to do their best work. In turn, leaders know they have a workforce they can rely on, and they do their best to keep them happy.

However, to foster the virtuous circle of loyalty in a dynamic labor market where people change jobs often, Horowitz says you must define and communicate how you will show loyalty to your employees so they know what they can expect from you.

4 Samurai Culture Lessons for the Workplace

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Here's what you'll find in our full What You Do Is Who You Are summary :

  • The three reasons leaders should care about culture
  • How a sense of purpose boosts employees' performance
  • What the Samurai and Genghis Khan can teach you about leadership

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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