Samurai Leadership—Don Schmincke, Founder, SAGA Leadership Institute

I am sure you are familiar with the ancient Samurai, but did you know they had a comprehensive leadership code? Our guest today, is Don Schmincke, who is the author of the Best-Selling book The Code of Executive, which shares the 47 ancient Samurai principles and how they apply to the 21st century. And we talk through some of them on our episode today.




Don Schmincke is the author of the Best-Selling book The Code of Executive and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. He is an Award-Winning Speaker, Researcher, Founder of the SAGA Leadership Institute and delivered over 1,700 speeches. 


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Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (00:01):

Welcome to the Multiply Your Success podcast, where each week we help growth-minded entrepreneurs and franchise leaders take the next step in their expansion journey. I’m your host, Tom DuFore, CEO of Big Sky Franchise Team. And as we open, I want to talk about the ancient Samurai. And I’m sure you’re familiar with this group of people, but did you know that they had a comprehensive leadership code? And our guest today is Don Schmincke, who is the author of the bestselling book, The Code of Executive, which shares the 47 Ancient Samurai principles and how they apply to the 21st century. And we talk through some of those on our episode today.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (00:42):

Now Don has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and US Today, and he is an award-winning speaker researcher, and he’s the founder of the Saga Leadership Institute. In addition, he’s delivered over 1,700 speeches, predominantly to CEOs and executives all over the world teaching on these principles and ideas. You’re going to love my interview with Don so let’s go ahead and jump right into it.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (01:07):

I’m Don Schmincke, I founded some research institutes but mainly I’m an author and a researcher and people have called me an explorer because I do a lot of expeditions. But generally I’m a teacher, I like to learn and teach.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (01:20):

Wonderful. Well, my understanding here as part of your research and some of the things you’ve done have been published in a couple of your books. And I’d love to just talk about initially the high altitude leadership first and some of the concepts out of that because I found it fascinating.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (01:36):

That was interesting project. I was climbing on one of these expeditions with Chris Warner. He’s probably one of the top rescue climbers in the world, you may have seen him on CNN whenever there’s like an Everest disaster or something. I don’t know Chris but there was an expedition and we were sponsoring some stuff at Johns Hopkins through this thing. And long story short, we were climbing the highest active of volcano in the world, which is in South America. And it was a pretty brutal climb, got to about 20,000 feet. And I’ve learned a lot from not only the people in the region, which is why I was there to explore, but also Chris, and I met Chris and he was going to leave for an NBC special because they wanted to film him on his third attempt at K2, which is the mountain of death, highest mountain in the world.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (02:23):

So what was interesting about that is NBC couldn’t find a cameraman because they were all busy. So Chris comes over to my house because I said, “Let’s do a book, right? And we can write it live.” So it was probably one of the first books in mountaineering that were written live for leadership essentially. And so that’s where the concept came from. Here he is in the death mountain for his third attempt and linking via satellite to me and I’m back in my living room having a glass of wine. But it was a risk I was willing to take. And it was fascinating because we wanted to study humans in death zone environments. As my whole thing is biological leadership, I’m not into trendy leadership theories, I’m into things that Travis as a species for thousands of years. So when we’re able to take a company like 10 times its size within a few years, it’s usually triggering some of these methods that we’ve learned and we’re still learning a lot. But this gave us a chance to see how these human leadership occur when you’re in a death zone, which is above 8,000 meters, it’s a zone where you don’t want to hang out too long because you’ll die, because the oxygen is just too low.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (03:32):

And there was interesting ways of looking at this but we saw aspects of selfishness coming into play, we saw aspects that were actually putting other people’s lives at risk. We saw leadership as really a set of dangers. And what we did is we ended up going through and documenting some of these dangers. And I think it’s interesting cause we got to apply a lot of the work we had done earlier with some of the Samurai research just to see it integrate. So is a really great book. I loved working with Chris, he had some epic stories. I mean the book reads like a novel because he was documenting what was actually occurring at the time. So I had a lot of fun with this book and I think a lot of people have enjoyed it so that’s where it all came from.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (04:13):

Really really exciting. Well, and you mentioned this biological leadership, I’d love for you to expand on that. Talk a little bit about what that means to you and what led you to be interested in this.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (04:24):

I left MIT and I had done some biomedical research there so I started getting into a study of humans as a physical level. But I was at Johns Hopkins, I ended up doing my graduate work there and then teaching there, and I got started getting attached to the executive MBA program. And I just ran into a lot of frustrated executives who were complaining about management theory. There was a new flavor of the month theory coming out, a new bestselling book, and yet when they tried to implement this stuff, sales didn’t grow, performance didn’t grow. I mean, strategy was still flaw before fault or anything, so all this was going on and I couldn’t figure out what was happening. But it was fascinating because I wanted to look at what could be causing the high failure rates and could it be biological.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (05:12):

So I started interacting with some really brilliant people, anthropologists, psychologists, evolutionary psychologist, geneticists, people like that, and began to see some really amazing things, so I began teaching this. I kind of got a kickstart from Oxford University because they gave me access to this ancient manuscript on Samurai, and it was a management training program for Samurai. And so I republished that, it went into a dozen languages and next thing I’m on CNN and things just start taking off.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (05:45):

But what was fascinating is a lot of what they were doing were now defensible and understandable from a medical point of view, from a biological point of view, an evolutionary point of view. So by using these techniques, we were able to test and actually reverse the high failure rate of management theory, and so that’s become a passion for me. So most of my work on these expeditions is to look at remote regions, find out how humans are leading, how much of these patterns could be genetic, and how can we use this to drive higher performance in companies.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (06:18):

So I train about 700 CEOs a year in this, they’ve told me I’ve trained maybe 30,000 CEOs by now over the past 25 years. And that’s a lot of CEOs but I learned from them too because as we’re bringing out this research, I have these audiences of cynical CEOs who’ve seen every speaker in the world, read every freaking book in the world, right? So the best audience, they keep calling me back, so I must be doing something right. It helped me hone and test and validate. So it’s been a really fun research journey over the past few decades with CEOs in multiple industries.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (06:57):

It sounds like it. Well, and one of the things, the code of the executive book that you were referring to with the 47 Ancient Samurai Principles. I’d love for you to just share a few for the audience here. They can get the rest in the book, we’ll make sure we link that in the show notes so they can get a copy of your book there. But I’d love for you to talk about a few of these principles there.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (07:16):

It was kind of shocking when I first got the manuscript permission to republish from Oxford. The first chapters on death, right? And I was like, this isn’t going to go well as a training program. And yet as I got through it, I began to realize they were really not talking about the physical death, the suicides that they were famous for in their rituals, it was really around death of the ego, that they called the evil spirit.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (07:42):

So this let me look at the purpose of ego, why it was there and what was the elements of, how’s that sabotaging companies? So it was neat being able to take this ancient work and see how they fixed it and then apply it to executive teams and see it work again. So it was fascinating. So death was really more around detaching from those things that stop us from achieving.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (08:08):

I find these dimensions fascinating because they are never existing really at a level we want them to be in executive teams, and that is bravery and honor. Now unless you’re in a military operation, generally you do not see any corporate training programs for bravery and honor. And yet by applying this, we were able to increase team speed and decisiveness by 50 to 100 percent. It was just amazing how this could still apply.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (08:35):

So this summer, it was just great taking an ancient training program and validating with modern medical science and then applying it and seeing it work. So these were a few of the ideas that came out of that. And then it led us into this study of Vikings and to explain why mission statements don’t work, how to change all that. But anyway, I can rail along for another couple hours just on this stuff.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (09:00):

Well, I think it’s really, really fascinating. And one of the things just talking about these insights you gained through the study of ancient Samurai principles and you were kind of alluding to this just a moment ago about how it helps enhance people’s careers, their lives, and what you’ve seen in that.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (09:18):

Well, I find that a lot of the bravery, especially if you’re an entrepreneur, and apparently you work with a lot of entrepreneurs I presume. There’s a level of risk that exist. And those that do it well are the ones that are familiar or comfortable with taking risk. So there’s a level of bravery that exists there. And what entrepreneurs sometimes get frustrated with is getting people around them that can play into that game, into that world. Because people like to be safe, but the problem is entrepreneurship is not safe. It’s risk, you’re creating new things, new ideas, new innovations, and trying to scale that.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (09:58):

So I love what we were finding out is that when you can commit suicide to those things that are holding you back, in other words, what in your life has to die for you to move to the next level, was a really powerful principle. And when we run CEOs and executive team service, it’s amazing what comes out of that. Because a lot of what stops us from being greater as leaders or as business owners is we get stuck, we get attached to things that don’t allow us the freedom to take the risks to move forward with more velocity and more focus.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (10:34):

And as they start to focus on this, you see that change start to occur. And one thing as I’m thinking about it is, how do you see that change once these leaders start seeing the change in themselves? How do you see this transfer to their staff, to the people they’re leading?

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (10:49):

Well, what happens is once people get in touch with like what we call the gap, it’s like, here’s their current behavior, but here’s the behavior we want to see in ourselves. And then we start uncovering what are the beliefs driving those two dimensions? And then the final step is what do we have to do to commit suicide to those old beliefs to give birth to the new ones? And then there’s a lot of frameworks throughout history that have been used around that, like codes of honor, just different elements. And what they see in their staff is decisiveness speed picks up as an example. For instance, many companies we’ve worked with will hear anecdotal comments like, “Wow, it took us 10 minutes to make that decision, before it would’ve taken us three months.” And they literally just declare we are faster because we can make decisions now because the egos out of the way, there’s a higher cause driving our purpose.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (11:44):

And we like that because they self measure, we’re not getting in the way of them measuring whatever they want, but we try to find the most critical measurements and have them monitor those themselves. And yeah, it’s fun to see that play out and you need that today because we probably always needed speed, but now more than ever, I think because those that are faster, the companies that are faster can adapt because we have another one of these myths. I do a lot of myth busting and we think, “Oh, you have to have a business plan and execute the plan.” And when I was working with Black Hawk Down, Matt Eversmann, it was really incredible. He was the main character in the book that what I learned from working with the Black Hawk Down scenario was that plans don’t work. You need them, you got to have one, but when you go to execute, you have to assume it’s not going to work. And so the companies and the military operations that win are the ones that can adapt and course correct rapidly.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (12:43):

And so when we apply that into executive team, it helps them then really deal with shifts in economics, with competitive moves, with changing customer buying patterns, I mean all those things that tend to get in the way when you try to execute a perfect plan, there’s constant adaptation. So when we do a strategy session, there’s [inaudible 00:13:05] an example. So maybe make you wait for a couple of days and have this great plan, but after that it’s like, “Look, we want to come back every four to six months not to see what you’re doing, but to see where you’re off course. Because how you are being in that off course moment will determine your success.”

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (13:21):

I have this new book coming out, which I’m not sure what the title’s going to end up being, but it’s really around how to win by losing powerfully. We teach a lot about winning, inspiring, winning. And I’m like, no. When I go look at entrepreneurs, they’re at a long history of failures. And we don’t teach how to fail. We don’t teach how to lose. We don’t teach the learning moments when you’re in the middle of the suffering and the pain and the despair, that’s the moment. We don’t want to, don’t run to your motivational posters and your rah rah rally, right? No, no, be there because that’s what entrepreneurs go through and it’s in those moments they become great. So we’re writing a book on losing.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (14:03):

Well, looking forward to seeing that when that comes out. And I think that any entrepreneur that hears that understands that message because they’ve lived it and they’ve figured out how to embrace what are viewed as losses is really just a learning moment and then adjusting based off of what they’ve learned and not standing still. But I think most people don’t get that, they don’t understand, I think you’re right on there. Well Don, this is a great time for us just to make a transition in the show where we ask every guest the same four questions before they go. And the first question we ask is similar to what we were just talking about, about this loss or losing. And we ask, have you had a miss or two along your journey and career and something you learned from it?

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (14:46):

Yeah, I mean, well geez, what time is it? I make about a dozen mistakes a day. I mean, when I go back, when I was younger and I was starting getting involved in technology, I was really getting into a biotech. I wanted to work in a hospital and the doors closed, it was a total miss for me. But what ended up being is fast forward three or four years later, I’m at MIT automating the Harvard MIT biomedical laboratory. So I never would’ve been there had a career that I thought I wanted, when in a sense there was much more bigger things to happen that I wasn’t aware of.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (15:23):

And COVID I think has been a miss for a lot of us. I mean, that has caused us to re-question careers, business processes and what we’re doing. And for me, it forced me into video editing. Cause I ended up, right now we’re renovating this property but there’s a cigar room downstairs I ended up having all this geared, I learned how to do scripting, filming, lighting, video editing, and I put together becoming Samurai because if you were saying, well this death thing, how can I apply that in my career or my business? And so it was cool, it allowed me to teach because that’s just a teacher. But it was a great format for me to learn how to teach using video online to distribute. So that’s an example, another example.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (16:08):

Oh, phenomenal. I definitely relate to that in the thick of COVID being forced into figure out podcasting and editing and doing all of that. It’s like, “Okay, here we go.” Well, let’s talk about a make or two. There have been some highlights shared with some of your books and some of your research, I’d love for you to share any others you’d like to highlight.

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (16:28):

Most of my makes were from education, just learning and hanging out with brilliant people that I’m really privileged to have access to. It allowed me every time I fail, which I did too often, it allows me a place to get supporter knowledge from really smart people. And so that’s worked. I mean, the whole entrepreneurial book came out of, I’m familiar with Simon Sinek and the Start With Why thing, but his coach is Mark Levy and Mark Levy’s my coach. So Mark took me through the same thing. He was taking Simon through and I became, this is where the whole issue of losing came up. He’s like winning and losing. People talk about winning. They don’t talk about what’s the losing thing. And because he looked at all my research, interviewed a lot of my clients. So that was a make that, and it was all just, I think failing and learning

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (17:16):

Makes sense. Well, let’s talk about a multiplier you’ve used. We get a really just broad range of responses from this question. Is there a multiplier you’ve used personally, professionally that have helped you grow and individually or organizations you’ve been a part of?

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (17:32):

I don’t do the standard multiplier stuff very well. I mean, I’m really very incompetent when I hear people with these magnifiers that, and I could probably learn a lot more about that mostly as a teacher and having taught tens of thousands of CEOs and hundreds of industries. I think the multiplier for me was you, your research has to be fresh and unique and different. In other words, you have to be able to call out the myth, the myths, bust the myths, show why, and then offer something different. And that’s validated and provable. And I think that’s been my best multiplier that I’ve been able to use when I work with companies or teams or speed in my speeches, is to have good evidence-based research. Forget about the trendy stuff that’s unproven, get real and hang out with real CEOs that are doing real work and like that.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (18:30):

Well the final question that we ask every guest, Don, is what does success mean to you?

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (18:36):

Freedom is success. But that is, for me, it’s freedom to continue educating myself to work with really smart people that just I’m really privileged to be able to hang around. Like Cy Wakeman, she’s wrote some great books on reality-based leadership. I love spending time with her. I ran into George Stock who started the manufacturing lean manufacturing revolution 20 years ago. He just, his latest Harvard Business Review articles on the OODA Loop on Jet Fighter thinking and how I applied that to strategy. So I just really have a blessed life where I just have these brilliant people that want to hang out with me a and just learn from them and work with them and explore the future. But to me it’s a freedom to do that and try to stay detached from those things that could stop me, which is a constant battle.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (19:27):

Well this has been a fantastic interview, Don. And before we go, is there anything you were hoping to share or get across that you haven’t had to yet?

Don Schmincke, SAGA Leadership Institute (19:35):

No, I think you, you’ve done a good job, I think exploring all the various dimensions here. I can’t wait for the new book to come out and see what’s going to be happening with that and hopefully inspire so entrepreneurs in a new and fresh way. Cause we’ve got all this stuff in there that we’ve been talking about. So this should be fun.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (19:53):

Don, thank you so much for a fantastic interview and let’s go ahead and jump into today’s three key takeaways. So takeaway number one is to talk about and discuss how Don republished the leadership from the ancient Samurai. And he said that he republished the manuscript that he found that contained the 47 principles in his book, which is excellent, by the way. You should check it out. We’ll have the link in the show notes here. And I found it interesting how he talked about that death was a focus and that was focused on detaching from those things that hold us back. And he said, you learn about focusing on bravery and honor. Takeaway number two is how he’s shared that entrepreneurs oftentimes get frustrated because the people around them are not brave or willing to take a risk. I think that ties back to our first takeaway where oftentimes as an entrepreneur or leader, you have to learn to let go or let those things die off that maybe are holding you back so that you’re willing to take that risk or be brave.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (21:01):

Takeaway number three is when he shared in his multiplier that when you’re conducting research or developing something, it has to be fresh, unique, and different. And he said what he’s done and what he has found to be critical is that you need to bust the myths that so many people believe to be true. Bust those myths, show them why the myths don’t work, and then give them something different to implement that is provable and evidence-based. A great takeaway that maybe you can look at applying to your own product or services that you’re offering or new ones that you’re developing or your marketing efforts or other avenues in your business. And now it’s time for today’s win-win.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (21:48):

So today’s win-win comes from the main principle that Don shared from his book about the ancient Samurai where you look at death as something of an opportunity. And to me, when I was thinking about this in preparation for recording the takeaways here, it reminded me of pruning and how gardeners and people know that gardening, you need to prune the trees or prune the plants. You need to prune those certain parts of it in order for the whole plant itself to remain strong and to grow and to thrive. And I think that’s maybe where the ancient Samurai were going with this in growing yourself.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (22:36):

And so I think that’s the takeaway. If you can continue to prune away those things in your personal or professional life that are maybe holding you back or not allowing you to make those decisions or to grow your company or yourself, I think that’s a great takeaway. It’s going to be a win for you, it’s going to be a win for your organization and those people that are closest to you as well in the relationships you have. And so that’s the episode today folks, please make sure you subscribe to the podcast and give us a review. And remember, if you or anyone you know might be ready to franchise their business or take their franchise company to the next level, please connect with us at Thanks for tuning in and we look forward to having you back next week.

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