The Way of the Warrior

“Keep death in mind at all times.”

—Code of Samurai

The way of the warrior is the powerful code of the Japanese Samurai and was responsible for their ability to rule Japan for 700 years. It still provides the foundational principles that influence modern Japanese culture.  In Ben Horowitz’s book, What You Do is Who You Are, he shares the importance of the Samurai text, Hagakure: “The way of the warrior is to be found in dying.”

Contemplating your own death is a powerful principle when applied to life and leadership. In Joe Ehrmann’s book, Inside Out Coaching, he challenges coaches to think about how we will define success on our deathbeds:

“If you were on your deathbed today, and you wanted to measure your success in life, if you wanted to measure the kind of man or woman you were, it would come down to two things, and only two things. First: Life is about relationships. It’s about the capacity to love and to be loved. […] the second thing people want to know is what kind of difference they made in the lives of others, their community, and their country.”

However, Horowitz encourages us to contemplate not our own death, but the death of our organization: “Meditating on your company’s downfall will enable you to build your culture the right way. Imagine you’ve gone bankrupt. Were you a great place to work? What was it like to do business with you? Did your encounters with people leave them better off or worse off? Did the quality of your products make you proud?”

In sports, the ending of every team (in your league) except for one ends in “death” (a loss). And technically, even those who go out on a win by winning their championship still experience the death of that season and that team. But often, we start our seasons, our programs, and even our careers with the following goals in mind: Win the championship. Build a championship organization. Coach at the highest level.

But what if we started with the death of our team, program, and career? Imagine you already lost; you were already fired, or you already retired. What was significant about being a part of your program? Were people better off having played for your team?

Surrender the Outcome

In sports, one of the great clichés is to control the controllables! We talk to players about controlling the controllables but asking this of our athletes (or even ourselves) is unreasonable because we haven’t surrendered the outcome yet, and, in the back of our mind, we still believe we have control over our fate. How can we truly surrender, when at the end of the day, we measure our success by an external goal?

Mike Neighbors, formerly the Head Coach at the University of Washington (now at Arkansas), talked about how his team would write down their goals and then burn them. After burning their goals, they would write down their commitments and standards. The idea behind this is not to focus on what we can’t control, but instead on what we can control.

While this is effective and powerful, a certain element is still missing: We need to contemplate death. We need to contemplate and reflect on what will happen if our goal is not achieved. And then decided: What do we want that experience to be like? What do we want the season to have been about if we don’t win?

Try It Out

  1. Death: Have your players write down their goals on a piece of paper. Burn them or bury them.
  2. Contemplate Death: Ask your players, “At the end of this season, if we don’t achieve our goal, what do we want it to feel like?” Players should write what they will want to think and how they will want to feel in the locker room, regardless of the outcome.
  3. Commit to Living: Ask your players, “Between now and then, how do you want to do things, regardless of the outcome?”