What can Japan’s Ninjas Teach Emerging Leaders Today?

Published 4 June 2020

A trip to Ninja town, Iga, Japan, throws up three surprising but significant questions for emerging leaders today.

Japan’s Ninjas were stealth agents who specialised in espionage and strategy, gathering intelligence about enemies in order to reduce their military power. They thrived in the 15th and 16th centuries during Japan’s Warring States period, when they were hired as mercenaries by warlords to facilitate in battles and conquests. Iga in Mie Prefecture and Koka in Shiga Prefecture were known for producing the best-in-class ninjas. Reflecting on a visit to the Ninja Museum in Iga, here are three significant questions for emerging leaders to consider.

    1. Have you disqualified yourself even before the mission?

One of the first exhibits in the museum reads: “The ninja, though their profession was very special, were no different from other people… So, enjoy the ninja world as if you yourself were a ninja.”

When offered a stretch role or given a challenge by our bosses, some of us become our own worst critic. Fearing failure or suffering from other inhibitors, we disqualify ourselves from the outset. We prefer to stay with the familiar, even if dull. We give up the opportunity to venture on new adventures. In doing so, we never realise exciting possibilities. We never become special agents on missions, while admiring others who did and wishing we could have.

The ninjas of the past remind us that they too were ordinary people.

The next time you instinctively withdraw from a challenge, stop. Ask yourself if there are genuinely valid reasons for you to do so, or whether you are simply disqualifying yourself due to entrenched personal fears and inhibitors?

If the latter, deal with them and take on the challenge. It’s time to stop undermining yourself, start preparing for your special mission and to enjoy it.

    1. Will you devote yourself to your mission?

Ninjas were ordinary human beings like you and me, but their devotion to their training – in order to successfully accomplish their missions – was extraordinary. They, of course, trained their physical and mental strength daily. But their commitment went beyond that into many other aspects of everyday life. For instance, they took care to keep themselves clean so that they would not smell and give away their presence while on a stealth mission. It also meant that they had to give up eating strong-smelling foods, even if tantalising. In fact, they mainly ate vegetables, tofu and miscellaneous grains, also to stay lightweight and facilitate stealthy movements. Even in sleep, ninjas slept with their left side down to guard their heart, lest an enemy attacked with a sword! A line in the exhibit puts it well: “In short, their life was all training!”

If you are earmarked for a leadership position or an upcoming assignment, how are you training yourself now? How devoted are you to accomplishing the mission of that appointment or assignment? The ninjas lived out ceaseless commitment, discipline and personal sacrifice. The kanji characters for ninja – 忍者 – literally translates as “one who bears and endures”. Instead of disqualifying yourself from a challenge from the outset, you should establish your conviction and devotion to the mission at hand. If your conviction is lacking or not firmly rooted, you risk dropping out halfway when the costs and sacrifices seem too much.

It is wiser to find a mission you truly believe in and will commit to, and then train yourself to endure and succeed for the long haul.

    1. Are you equipping yourself with intentionality, never mind if ordinary?

Fantastical tales around the ninjas may lead us to believe that they had superpowers, such as walking on water. Many of us also associate them with fascinating weapons such as the shuriken (ninja star), thrown unerringly to assassinate an enemy. In reality, ninjas did not bother to fashion a glamourous brand for themselves. In fact, they did the opposite, dressing their extraordinary abilities in ordinary appearances. For instance, a typical ninja wore a farmer’s work clothes to avoid suspicion. He paired this outfit with sickles and other farming tools to inconspicuously carry out his espionage. [Tip: Four sickles could be bound together to serve as an anchor, thrown over a wall to help him up and across!] He also lived in a seemingly humble, one-story farmhouse. Yet, this farmhouse had been intentionally designed with specific functions. For instance, it housed a hidden staircase to lead to an upper-floor hideout; revolving walls and secret passages to aid in escape; and specially constructed floorboards that concealed weapons, gunpowder and secret documents.

As a leader, how are you dressing yourself today? In the leadership role you are in or about to take on, are you building and moving with intent? What are the ordinary things in your environment that could serve useful functions and aid in the fulfilment of your leadership mission? Never mind if they lack a “wow” factor and do not receive likes on social media. The ninjas of the past remind us that the seemingly ordinary, when used intentionally, can serve exceedingly well on missions. It is far better to pursue the useful ordinary than forsake your mission for superficial glamour. All the best with yours.

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