“Psychological safety” may not be such a new concept after all;) Humiliation has never been a great leadership technique

“If you fall into the habit of getting angry and punishing your men, those who hear about it will not want to become your close retainers. Avoid humiliating them if they already have a sense of shame.”

– Hojo Shigetoki (北条重時) in “The Letter to Nagatoki” (六波羅殿御家訓), circa 1240 AD

Made sense in the 13th century; makes sense in the 21st.

It usually doesn’t help much to kick or humiliate people when they already know they’ve made a mistake (and therefore already feel embarrassed)….maybe “psychological safety” isn’t such a new concept after all;)

Replace “men” with “people” and “retainers” with “leaders/managers”, and you get a feeling that some aspects of leadership haven’t changed all that much over the past 800 years.

Hojo Shigetoki (北条重時)wrote “The Letter to Nagatoki” (六波羅殿御家訓) as a guide to his son Nagatoki (長時) on how to comport himself as a warrior official.

Shigetoki’s letters to his son are the first examples of a genre of documents called kakun (家訓 / House Precepts). Many modern Japanese firms continue this tradition in the form of shakun (社訓 / Company Precepts).

One of the remarkable things about Shigetoki is that despite being one of the top officials (for a time even perhaps unofficially the top official) in the Hojo warrior government, there is no record of him actually playing a significant role in a battle. As Rokuhara tandai (六波羅探題), he did serve as something like the chief of police for Kyoto and western Japan, but records indicate that he led based on his administrative and social skills more than his military prowess.

Shigetoki put more emphasis on getting along with courtiers, warriors and common folk than on dominating or eliminating rival warrior families (though, of course, the Hojo did plenty of that as well).

Certain concepts that are foundational to modern Japanese culture such as “sekentei” (世間体 / society framed as a large community of peers constantly watching and evaluating each other) can be traced back to Shigetoki, who is credited with the oldest surviving written usage of the term “seken” (世間). In modern English social scientific parlance, your “seken” might be your referent group – the people you compare yourself to and whom you aspire to be similar to, accepted by, and/or better than.

Copies of Shigetoki’s letters were preserved and used for centuries by warrior and merchant families as textbooks on leadership, ethics and protocol. As historical documents, they provide a first-hand report on the early stages of a process through which the warriors bolstered their dominance by adding administrative skill and courtier protocol (“bun” / 文) to a foundation of martial skill and battlefield valor (“bu” / 武).

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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