When Lenny Skutnik dove into the icy Potomac to save a crew member of the Air Florida crash, he demonstrated mo chih ch'u, a samurai technique for leaping into action without hesitation.
When Chicago human resource consultant David Rogers negotiated a large seminar contract, he incorporated four or five techniques borrowed from the Japanese samurai of 800 to 1800, whom Rogers terms "the most complete fighters ever to walk the earth, the supreme warriors."
"I could see it clearly when the two men from the other firm attempted to counter my technique, waza, and to go after my spirit, ki," says Rogers, president of Service Innovations Corp.
"I understood the way in which they were using their power and saw how to counter it with marui, 'circular motion.' I realized that they were looking for my suki, the gap in my defense, so I employed a technique which I converted from samurai sword master Ittosai's technique."
Samurai have intrigued Rogers, 42, since he was 4 years old and his brother read him tales of Japan. The juxtaposition, then, of samurai techniques and modern American work life didn't seem strange to him.
What was strange and frustrating, says Rogers, was the pervasive belief among American business "that Japanese thought and ideas could not be incorporated in our own firms. I never found anything in Oriental ways that I could not incorporate in my everyday life. I was sick and tired of hearing people say, 'Well, that's Japanese and they can do that, but we can't.' "
Working with travel agencies, government agencies, a major auto manufacturer and accounting firms, Rogers is teaching samurai warrior techniques (primarily from the elite, Bushi) of 11th-century Japan to 20th-century American business people. He's set down the battle plan and code of ethics in Fighting to Win (Doubleday, 203 pages, $13.95).
With the gruesome memories of boiling bodies in Shogun, how does he convince American workers that a samurai warrior is one desirable of being emulated?
Bushi, points out Rogers, were "anything but simple-minded toughs." He characterizes them as "well-educated men who belonged to the highest class of Japanese society," who believed in "the united ways of the pen and sword."
We are, claims Rogers, not unlike samurai: "ordinary men, who through hard training were expected to become capable of extraordinary feats of courage -- something that was impossible unless they were able to overcome the fears, hesitations, doubts and second thoughts that plague anyone going into battle."
Battle, according to Rogers, is precisely what most of life is, and the sooner you come to terms with that idea, the better.
"We are brought up to believe that fighting is the exception, a once-in-a-while thing, when all along it's the rule. From the first day of the year to the last, from morning to night, you're in one battle after another."
The "outer opponents" may be people who block your way, setbacks and crises, while the more common and often more formidable "inner opponents" are fear, worry, timidity and self-doubt.
"I, like a lot of other people, are looking for success systems," notes Rogers, who says the book is not about battle in the traditional sense. "I sensed that I had an awful lot of potential that I wasn't using in action. I studied them all. I dressed for success, ate to win, studied psychocybernetics, and nothing worked for me."
Rogers has a habit of asking people whether they agree with "The Peter Principle," which "claimed that there were an awful lot of incompetent people in business and industry."
"They all say yes, and I ask them 'Are you incompetent?' and they say 'Oh, no, absolutely not.'
"They are more competent, usually, than the jobs require them to be. So why are they not making full use of their potential? It seems to me it's because they're not fighting the way they should be."
Not surprisingly, Rogers' battle approach creates some confusion.
"The first person I told about the idea said, 'Yes, kill the bastards!' and I said, 'No, you misunderstand. My point is there are struggles we must overcome in our daily lives that have nothing to do with hurting another person.'
"Westerners," he says, "often express difficulty in reconciling Zen, a philosophy of peace and compassion, with the samurai way of war." Seminar participants expect him to be a tough, mean ogre.
Zen, explains Rogers, is also "a psychology of action, grounded on decisiveness, spontaneity, strength of will, adaptability, courage and bravery." It is this aspect of Zen that the samurai needed "to rush forward to face the enemy even if only death awaited him . . . to act without hanging back, without reservations and with total commitment."
The idea, says Rogers, "is be more absorbed in the action than in yourself, because if you're absorbed in yourself, it will tend to keep you from the action."
When corporate people first think about leaping into action, they tend, says Rogers, to announce: " 'We have to do an awful lot of deliberating.'
"But frankly they do far too much. The number-one quality cited by the authors of In Search of Excellence was 'a bias for action.' They spend some time in deliberation, but not a heck of a lot. Like the samurai, they chose to move into action and then discover what they need to discover through the action itself.
"One of the things that stops people continually is their ridiculous belief in The One Best Decision. There isn't one best decision. There are any number of perfectly fine decisions. Much of the information is gained from the action itself. You never discover that until you get into action."
The most popular samurai adage, and one seminar participants grasp quickly, is "Always assume the frontal position," or "acknowledging if and when you've got a fight on your hands." The samurai response: Don't hakarai (put your head under the blanket) or akirame (resign yourself to fate). Take a kamae (battle stance).
Rogers demonstrates how the aikido technique of "extending" -- to bring "your opponent's movement a little beyond its natural point of conclusion, leaving him in an off-balance position" -- applies to a work situation. For example, if the boss says, "The situation in your department is very bad," you say, "I agree with you. It's very bad. It might even be hopeless."
The boss says, "It's bad, but there are things we can do about it."
People also respond to the idea of ki, the spirit or energy of a person, a kind of "chemistry" of the samurai. "Infused with ki," says Rogers, "the samurai was able to perform extraordinary physical feats by directing his ki into the physical power of ryoku."
Rogers dedicated the book to his sister, a 95-pound "warrior" who died of cancer at 37, and whose death "clarified for me the difference between small-l living and capital-L gut-level Living."
"Think what a frail thing life is, especially that of a samurai," says a Japanese "primer" for warriors. "Never let the thought of a long life seize upon you, for then you are apt to indulge in all kinds of dissipation."
"Live for a purpose," says Rogers. "I stop people I know and ask them, 'What are you living for? What's your purpose?' They'll chuckle. But I'm serious. Live for something and make it part of your every action."
Although there is a macho association with samurai -- "Fighting is one kind of experience that a lot of women haven't been conditioned towards" -- Rogers sees the philosophy as being equally applicable to women.
After one presentation, a woman approached him and announced, " 'Well, I can see that I'm going to have to hire a samurai.' "
"You don't have to hire a samurai," he said. "Be one."