In the year 1643, one of the greatest samurai of all time sat down to write a book. Miyamoto Musashi wanted to share his wisdom on not only how to duel, war, and win, but how to live. Since then, his work, The Book of Five Rings, has gone on to inspire millions of readers, many of whom use it to help them excel at work.
Musashi had his first duel at 13. He went on to conquer one opponent after another. Yet at 30 years old, he looked back on his life and found that he knew next to nothing about strategy. After that realization, he devoted his life 24/7 to discovering an approach to his fighting career that had little to do with natural ability or even technique. When Musashi was fifty, he finally found his strategy. He called it simply: the way.
The Book of Five Rings is divided into sections: Ground, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void. It is a mix of the practical (never have a favorite weapon) and the spiritual (everything in life rises and falls). For whatever position you are in at work, large or small, here are four leadership principles for success from the book, whose impact has lasted now for over three centuries.
Musashi wrote that on the battlefield, it is important to see things that are far away as close and those that are close as far away. How can we apply that to our work? So often we have a fixed view of what we want to accomplish. We skip over details in the drive to make a big dream happen and then wonder why a process falters. Or, we are so fixated on a problem that we go around in circles trying to solve it, with little success. We are too close.
The key to both challenges is to try new perspectives and invite others to offer them too.
A leader must know the big picture of his or her work in the same way a carpenter building a house possesses the blueprint for its construction, Musashi said. He notes that carpenters automatically know which type of wood is strongest for building a specific area of a house. In tandem, leaders must know the resources they have to work with, where to use them, and how.
The most important resource is people. A good carpenter puts people to work according to their abilities, says Musashi, never asking for anything too crazy and encouraging them to excel. In decades past at work, “soft skills,” were seen as secondary in comparison to talents like coding or crunching numbers. Today, thriving companies know that emotional intelligence—the ability to collaborate effectively and grow interpersonal relationships—is just as important.
Skillful people are not addicted to busyness, says Musashi. Of course, in 1643 that was much easier because there was no Internet. We’re currently deluged by data—the world spits out 2.5 quintillion bytes a day according to the software company Domo. This puts a considerable strain on our attention spans and in turn, on how much we accomplish.
Skillful leaders and creators know they have to figure out a way to protect and hone their own rhythms. While endless productivity blogs extol busyness as a badge of honor, the most effective work is done without distraction at a pace that’s right for you. Apps like Freedom and SelfControl can help by blocking the Web for a predetermined time.
Meanwhile, Musashi reminds us that you can’t force a flower to bloom. Rushing to release a project, a plan, or a product before it is ready can result in problems that will cause losses of time, money, and even reputation.
Crossing a ford, Musashi wrote, means setting sail when conditions are right. You must know your ship can make it, he said, and the weather is on your side. The same goes for our lives. From leaving a job to taking one with more responsibility, from starting a new project to killing one that is not working, we all reach decision points at work where we must make a choice. To do nothing is a choice in itself.
What helps us make the right decisions is assessing whether we are at a stable point in our personal and professional lives. In addition, checking conditions—such as the political climate at work—will make the journey easier. And if the wind dies down en route, Musashi writes, be prepared to row the rest of the way.