When you set out to do something remarkable, sooner or later you realise you can’t do it all on your own.
You’ve got a great idea for a new business – but you only have a fraction of the skills, knowledge and contacts required for success. You need top talent, but you can’t pay top dollar. So you’ll have to make smart use of partnering and outsourcing to make it work.
Or maybe you want to make a difference in your company, but entrenched interests mean you can’t win the fight on your own, so you need to find some allies, fast. You’ve got precious little authority, so you’ll need to develop your influencing skills if you’re to get the right people on your team.
Or maybe your village is about to be raided by the same bandits who took all your crops last year – and you’re just poor farmers, not a warrior among you. You have no money to pay the proud samurai mercenaries who are your only possible salvation. You’ll have to somehow get them to risk life and limb for you (their social inferiors) for nothing more than three square meals a day.
This last scenario was faced by the villagers in Akira Kurosawa’s movie masterpiece, The Seven Samurai, an adventure tale as profound as it is thrilling, and one of the greatest films ever made. (If you’ve not seen it but the plot sounds familiar, you may recognise it from the 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven, based on Kurosawa’s film.)
I won’t spoil the story if you haven’t seen it yet, but here are some clues as to how the farmers recruited their team of samurai warriors – and what you can learn from them about persuading people to join your tribe.
1. Don’t Hire Mercenaries (Even When You’re Hiring Mercenaries)
The villagers have several discouraging experiences when trying to hire samurai as mercenaries. On learning that he is only to be paid in food, one proud warrior exclaims “Preposterous! I can do better than that”.
Of course he can. The villagers are faced with a massive problem: they are looking for hired swords, but have no money to pay for them. They need to find mercenaries who are not mercenary-minded.
Their first clue that they may have found such a mercenary comes when they see a crowd of people watching open-mouthed as a samurai shaves off his topknot – the distinctive hairstyle denoting his rank as a member of the warrior class. It’s hard for us to grasp what an outrageous thing this was to do in Edo period Japan, where social status was rigid and jealously guarded. It would be like seeing a movie star or Fortune 100 CEO exchanging clothes with a homeless person.
The samurai’s name is Kanbei. He is cutting off his hair so that he can disguise himself as a priest, in order to rescue a small child who is being held hostage by a violent criminal. By disregarding his external appearance, he demonstrates that he is driven by nobler motives than money or status.
Takeaway: Look for people who are less interested in extrinsic rewards than intrinsic motivations such as justice, truth, learning, the love of a challenge, or in Kanbei’s words “the fun of it”. After all, you’re not hiring mercenaries – are you?
2. Look for Misfits
If the villagers had relied on typical samurai, they would have had the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell. Many samurai would rather have died than suffer the dishonour of losing their topknot – but Kanbei wasn’t most samurai. By his actions, he showed that he marched to a different drum.
Each of the samurai recruited by the villagers is marked out as distinctive in some way. Kyuzo is a peerless swordsmen. Heihachi shows disarming honesty when he confesses that when confronted by enemies, he usually runs away. And Kikuchiyo is an archetypal misfit, out of place among both the farmers and samurai alike, his Tourette’s-like twitching and barking suggesting a man uncomfortable in his own skin.
Takeaway: Unremarkable people won’t help you do remarkable things. Look for the misfits, the outsiders – the ones who provoke laughter, outrage, surprise or awe. Otherwise, how can you hope to do the same?
3. Don’t Take No for an Answer
At first, Kanbei says ‘no’ to the farmers. He also says ‘no’ to the young samurai Katsushiro when he asks to become Kanbei’s pupil. Later, the lone samurai Kyuzo says ‘no’ when Kanbei asks him to join the team. And the whole group says ‘no’ to Kikichuyo when he applies to join.
Fortunately for the farmers – and the plot – none of these people take no for an answer. They persist, finding creative ways to show their sincerity and find a ‘hook’ that will persuade the other party that their interests lie together. This is in a venerable tradition of applicants being refused at the first time of asking, whether would-be disciples of sages or martial arts masters, or volunteers for Project Mayhem in Fight Club, who have to wait on the doorstep for days before they are allowed inside the leaders’ house.
Takeaway: Whether applying or recruiting, don’t pester people with rude or boring pleas for help. But don’t be discouraged if you don’t get your target first time. Ask yourself “What would it take to impress this person, to show them I’m serious – and that there’s something in it for them to team up with me?”.
4. Find Your Leader and the Rest Will Follow
The villagers know they’re not much of a draw in themselves – but as soon as they see Kanbei, they realise that if they can get him on board, he will be a magnet for the cause. So it proves – like Katsushiro, the other samurai are inspired by Kanbei and eager to fight alongside him. As Gorobei says, “It sounds interesting. I know what the farmers have to suffer. But I’m not accepting because of them. I’m accepting because of you”.
Takeaway: Without a leader, how will you find followers? Seth Godin tells us leaders don’t lead because they have charisma – they have charisma because they lead. So what’s stopping you?
5. Test Them
Kanbei adopts an unusual approach to recruitment interviews: he stations Katsushiro behind the doorway with a wooden stick in his hands. As the candidates cross the threshold, Katsushiro attacks them with the stick. Kanbei’s reasoning is that any samurai worth his salt will be wise to the trick and defend himself. The most impressive performance is from Gorobei, who gets within ten feet of the doorway, stops short and shakes his head: “Jokers”, he says, and won’t go near the trap.
Apparently Thomas Edison was also fond of setting traps for candidates to join his team of inventors. He would take the unsuspecting applicant out to lunch – if he or she put salt or pepper on the soup before tasting it, they didn’t get the job. Edison argued that no-one with so many preconceptions would make a good inventor.
Takeaway: Maybe you can set candidates a trap or a formal test. Or invite them to work together on a live project, to see how they perform in under real pressure.
6. Diversity = Creativity
Cookie cutter teams are great for cookie cutter assignments. But if you want to do something creative and distinctive – say, fight off a group of ruthless bandits – you’re better off with a motley crew.
There’s a lot of research on teamwork demonstrating that diversity = creativity. Diversity can mean a mixture of of races, ages, sexes, able-bodied and disabled; it can also mean diverse skills, experience, knowledge and personalities, which are present in abundance in the group of samurai:
- The Leader – Kanbei
Has the charisma and vision necessary to unite the samurai and villagers behind a common aim, and the willpower and cunning to lead them through the toughest fight.
- The Strategist – Gorobei
Second-in-command, he creates a defensive plan that allows seven samurai and assorted villagers to mount a credible defence against a large group of bandits.
- The Master Technician – Kyuzo
A master swordsman, Kyuzo is not interested in war or the trappings of status – “he only wants to perfect his skill”. This skill makes him a formidable opponent, and an indispensable member of the team.
- The Loyal Friend – Shichiroji
Shichiroji isn’t the greatest or noblest fighter – he admits that he escaped from his last fight by hiding in a ditch while the castle collapsed around him. But he’s a survivor – and a good friend of Kanbei. When the pressure’s on, loyalty and shared experience can count for a lot.
The Joker – Heihachi
Heihachi cheerfully confesses that he’s not much of a fighter, and usually runs away. But Kanbei recruits him all the same, betting that his jokes and good humour will cheer everyone up when they need it most.
- The Novice – Katsushiro
The son of a noble family, Katsushiro is too young and inexperienced to be a leader in battle, but his loyalty and enthusiasm contribute to the team spirit. And Kanbei obviously sees it as his duty to take care of Katsushiro and initiate him in the art of war. By doing so, he is planting a seed for the future.
- The Loose Cannon – Kikuchiyo
Kikuchiyo is a born troublemaker, always getting into scrapes and provoking others to lose their cool. By allowing him to join the team, Kanbei recognises the value of disruption and chaos in jolting people out of their usual thinking and taking them out of their comfort zone.
7. Find a Common Cause and a Common Enemy
Kanbei finds his cause when he sees the farmers’ desperation and their willingness to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve their goal. The bandits helpfully play the role of common enemy.
As the film progresses, tensions emerge within the village, within the group of samurai, and between the villagers and samurai. But they all end up shoulder to shoulder, weapons braced as the bandits come hurtling down the road on their horses.
Takeaway: Nothing unites people like adversity. Find a common enemy. It could be a group of people (like your competitors). Or it could just as easily be another kind of threat, such as swine flu, the recession or global warming.
Over to You
Have you ever had to recruit top talent without paying top dollar? How did you do it?
What team-building principles would you add to the list?
If the bandits were attacking your village, who would you want next to you on the barricades?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.