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7 Leadership Lessons From Japanese Art

        posted by , August 16, 2013

Is leadership an art or a science?

If you're like most people you probably answered art. There's nothing definite about leadership. There's no manual. It's more art than science.

If leadership is an art then what are the aesthetics of leadership?

Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that attempts to explain the appeal of art and culture. What is the appeal of a great leadership style?

The following aesthetics of Japanese art apply well to leadership:

1. Wabi-sabi (imperfect)

Wabi-sabi says that things are more attractive when they're imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

The classic example is sakura (cherry blossoms) — they bloom with a brilliant glow in early Spring and then fall to the ground within days. According to wabi-sabi cherry blossoms are more aesthetically pleasing because they don't last.

sakura ukiyoe

If you're trying to improve your leadership capabilities in a tough business environment it's difficult to imagine how a Japanese aesthetic that calls for imperfection is going to help. However, there are plenty of solid leadership applications of this advanced philosophical concept.

Resistance to change is a major problem for leaders. Your organization will cling to stability and permanence. Every leader needs to sell the appeal of change.

People desire stability and perfection. It's up to the leader to sell change (impermanence) and practical approaches (imperfection).

2. Iki (sophistication)

Iki is the Japanese aesthetic of sophistication and originality. It emerged with Japan's merchant class as a contrast with samurai aesthetics. Samurai aren't usually considered iki but there are exceptions.

Iki is simple, spontaneous, direct and self confident.

Iki is not pretentious, complicated, showy or refined.

iki leader

Iki can be considered the Japanese aesthetic of business leadership (although it also applies to anything from art to nature). According to iki, leaders who are original, direct, self-confident and unpretentious are appealing.

3. Shibui (subtle)

Shibui is the Japanese aesthetic of the simple, subtle and unobtrusive.

purple kimono

Shibui is key to influence and motivation. Subtle persuasion goes a lot further than bashing people over the head with your ideas.

4. Jo-ha-kyu (slow, accelerate, end)

Jo-ha-kyu is a tempo that starts slowly, accelerates and ends suddenly.

It's an aesthetic ideal used by traditional Japanese marshal arts and tea ceremony. It's also easy to spot in modern music, performance arts, film and advertising.

tea ceremony rythm

Jo-ha-kyu is an excellent tempo for public speaking. By building momentum and ending suddenly you'll leave your audience intrigued.

5. Yugen (mysterious)

Where does the smoke come from?


Yugen is the Japanese aesthetic of the mysterious. Yugen suggests that things are more appealing when something is held back.

Yugen can be applied to leadership style, influence, motivation and strategy.

6. Geido (discipline and ethics)

Geido states that discipline and ethics make things more appealing. It's an important aesthetic for Japanese marshal arts.

kyodo focus

Nobody wants to follow an undisciplined leader with no ethics. Develop your ethics, publish them and acquire the discipline to apply them to your leadership.

7. Ensō (the void)

Ensō can be translated "circle". It's a concept from Japanese Buddhism that's not easy to intellectualize. It's everything and nothing.

Ensō has been described as minimalism, nothingness and absolute elegance.

wabi sabi buddha

If you figure out how to apply Ensō to your leadership you'll no doubt go far. It's considered the ultimate aesthetic.

gion festival

This is the last in a 9-part series of posts called how to win at leadership.

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