I’m slow reading What You Do is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz, and writing a series of posts to capture some key points from each major section. This post is about how understanding the Bushido code can help build a stronger company culture.

The first lesson is the difference between values and virtues; the former being a set of beliefs vs the latter being behaviours, and how Bushido is structured:

Bushido looks like a set of principles, but it’s a set of practices. The samurai defined culture as a code of action, as system not of values but of virtues. A value is merely a belief, but a virture is a belief that you actively prusue or embody.

So many corporate cultures center around ‘values’ which immediately makes them ineffective. As Ben states, “what you believe means nearly nothing. What you do is who you are.”

The second lesson is on the importance of death. In the samurai context this meant living with the highest degree of honor and attention to your craft, because death can be around any corner.

The idea is to take care of your public and private duties day and night, and then whenever you have free time when your mind is unoccupied, you think of death, bringing it to mind attentively.

In a company context keeping death in mind at all times also means thinking about the worst case scenario and planning for what happens next. How do you want your company to be talked about after? How do you want your employees to feel about their time there? Keeping these questions in mind will help you prioritize what’s really important.

Although there are eight samurai virtues, the ones discussed in detail in the book were honor, politeness, and veracity or sincerety. Honor is about how you apply your set of standards in an organization - whether it’s with business dealings, product quality, or employee issues. High honor companies are consistent and systematic in their approach. Politeness is about expressing love and respect for those around you. To ensure that politeness didn’t get used to be fake, there was strong emphasis on the truth - expressed in the virtue of sincerety.

Why did the bushido have such a profound impact on Japanese society? The complex answer is that the samurai developed and refined their culture continuously over a very long period of time, using a variety of psychologically sophisticated techniques to make it feel indelible, inescapable and completely natural.

The simple answer is that they kept death in mind at all times.