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Monday, August 23, 2010

The Agile Ronin

I was recently cheered and inspired by Jonathan Rasmussen's post on the "agile samurai," also the title of his recent book.  In his blog, he suggests that the the samurai, unlike the "rice pickers," are the ones who:

  • say what needs to be said
  • call BS when they see it
  • laugh in the face of unrealistic schedules and expectations
  • tackle all the hard, complex, thorny stuff no one else wants to wade into
  • are technically excellent at their craft
  • take pride in their work
  • and are comfortable in their own skins
I liked this description, but it made me nervous in some ways as well.

So since I'm prone to zealous pursuit of metaphors, to the point of finding and reading two or even three results of a Google search as I look for enlightenment, I investigated real-life samurais and found that they were actually constrained significantly in their behavior, living by a creed of "loyalty to one's master, self discipline and respectful, ethical behavior."  Such a person might think twice about pushing back on authority in a corporate context.

In fact, it appears that the bold warrior implied by Rasmussen's description is most likely not a run of the mill samurai, but rather a ronin, the "masterless samurai," who lived by his own ethical code but had no permanent master.  Prior to the awesome 1998 movie with Jean Reno, ronin were already famous in Japan through the mythology that grew out of the eighteenth century heroics of the "47 Ronin." Wikipedia says that the story "was popularized in Japanese culture as emblematic of the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor that all good people should preserve in their daily lives."  But this story also holds some cautions for people who value, say, continued employment.
From http://japanesetex-style.blogspot.com/2011/02/47-ronin-kisshoji-temple-osaka.html
Without giving the full plot away, the incident involved 46 principled men revolting against all established authority to avenge their leader, the 47th man, who committed ritual seppuku at the request of his boss, the shogun, rather than apologize after he physically attacked a person who severely annoyed him.  Before he died he announced his only regret was that he swung and missed.  Of course, once the 46 successfully killed Kira, the annoying person who caused all the ruckus in the first place, they were also immediately requested to fall on their own swords, literally, which they did.  

In the aftermath, commentators complained about a number of things, including that the 46 should have slit their own bellies immediately upon taking their revenge, rather than waiting for orders, since they were being cowardly if they hoped for a non-death sentence.  Others argued that they shouldn't have waited a full year to take their revenge since the annoying person at the root of the problem was 60 and could have died in the interim.  As in so many real life situations, an odd situation seems to have spun out of control and then been very weirdly interpreted after the fact.

At any rate, at the end of the day, the implied hypertext behind the concept of the "agile samurai" is probably a little disruptive to the central message of the book and the blog.  It is sometimes good to remember that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.