Four Lessons for Young Corporate Strategists and Executives: Messages From a Japanese Ace Pilot

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Mr. Saburo Sakai (1916-2000) was one of Japan’s leading ace pilots during the World War II. His book, “SAMURAI,” became very popular all over the world. After the war, he established a printing company and served as CEO. During his service as the CEO, he was also active as a speaker for young corporate strategies and executives in top executive seminars. He usually gave four lessons to be great strategists and executives based on his own experiences as a leading fighter pilot as well as a top executive. In this article, we will go over the four lessons.

1: Good fighters never lose their temper.

Mr. Sakai said that great strategies would never work when pilots would lose their temper during the fight. Air fights need very fine tuned strategies and must be always be directed and coordinated carefully. In order to be able to direct and coordinate during the real fights, fighters must be cool no matter what was happening. At the same time, pilots must smartly retreat in order to take a second chance when something went wrong.

Therefore, pilots were not assumed to do something to lose the second chance by doing stupid things. Especially, they were not expected to lose their temper in such undesired and unexpected situations. He saw many pilots lost their temper and did Kamikaze-attack. He always banned Kamikaze-attack to his fellows and ordered to make smarter judgments if something went wrong. His motto was, “Come back alive to fight again.”

Young strategists and executives can learn from this lesson. When they are upset about unexpected and very poor performances of their strategies, they may make bad moves such as continuous investments in the ineffective strategies in order to save their faces. This is because they may lose their temper and may not consider (1) if the strategies are not appropriate from the beginning, (2) if business environments have dramatically changed, (3) if they can modify the strategies in order to deal with new environments, or (4) if they have to introduce alternative strategies or develop new strategies. Being able to control temper under any circumstance is the first qualification to be a good strategist or executive.

2: Good fighters make the best possible strategies and moves within capacities of their planes.

Mr. Sakai always said that he tried to do his best within capacity of his airplane. He also said that the best strategy would always fully consider capacities of airplanes that they would use. For example, if your plane can fly at 360 miles per hour, it will not be a good idea to continuously fly at 400 miles per hour during the fights.

Mr. Sakai said that he did not do fine plays during the fights even if he could do the fine plays anytime when he had to do. He went on that truly excellent ace pilots would know capacities of their planes and strategies within the capacities so that they would never put themselves in situations that they had to do fine plays.

Young strategies and executives can learn from this lesson. When we dp not consider capacity of your organizations such as human resources, organizational structure, production capacity, quality standard, financial positions, investors, market share, product attractiveness and positions, band names, and other things, we cannot make effective strategies. The worst strategies are designed and implemented based on wrong assumptions, desires, or ideals due to lack of information about real capacities of organizations.

When you are going to design strategies, make sure you have all realistic information about capacities of your organization. It would be a good idea to also know how past strategies worked in order to gain more information about the capacities.

3: Good fighters know timing and ways of retreats.

Mr. Sakai said that he became a real ace pilot when he mastered timing and ways of withdrawal from air fights. So many pilots were shot to death because they missed the timing of retreats or did not know how to retreat safely for the second chance.

Young strategists and executive can learn from this lesson. When you notice your strategy is not working well, you must know right ways to timely withdraw the strategies. You must be brave enough to decide to withdraw, first. Then, you must be able to convince other executives, estimate sunk investment and additional costs of withdrawal, make timetable of withdrawal, and move on new strategic planning.

4: Good fighters always respect the idea of “lower risk with higher performance.”

Mr. Sakai would never take unnecessary risk during air fights. In order to lower the risk, he always tried to fight under preferable (safer) positions for better performance. This was his strategic policy to create competitive advantage first and compete within the advantage.

Young strategists and executives can learn from this lesson. When you plan strategies, risk assessments are essential in order to secure appropriate returns. While your strategy may be miracle to generate huge returns in very high-risk environments, you can be more strategic and safe when you find lower risk strategies to generate higher returns. It is not wrong with you if you look for lower risk strategies in order to gain more returns relative to the risk level.

Mr. Sakai was a great fighter and air strategist during the World War II. He has been famous not only as the ace Zero-fighter pilot but also as one of the pilots who fought the last air fight of the World War II in August 17, 1945. Just before his death, he worked with ex-American ace pilots for Microsoft’s computer game, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 2. If you are interested in Mr. Saburo Sakai’s stories, you may want to read his book, “SAMURAI.”

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