Business Columns & Blogs

Nancy Napier: What Sumo Wrestlers can teach business

Wrestler Sadanoumi, top, flips as he throws opponent Shodai outside the ring to win their bout in the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena Jan. 17 in Tokyo.
Wrestler Sadanoumi, top, flips as he throws opponent Shodai outside the ring to win their bout in the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena Jan. 17 in Tokyo. AP

I was in Japan recently to visit a friend I’ve not seen for 20 years. We met on a plane from Chicago to Tokyo, when I was a young researcher for Battelle on the way to give a speech to 200 blue-chip Japanese firms. He was the general manager for Sumitomo Metals, North America.

When I wrote him after my conference, he confessed he’d been worried. You had everything going against you, he wrote: “You were young, female and foreign. I thought your talk would be a disaster.”

I ended up doing a research project on professional women who work outside their home countries and started with Japan as the first test case.

I have wanted to visit for a long time, especially since he is aging. On this trip, I stayed with him and his wonderful “new” wife (he was a widower for a year and has now been married again for 18 years). We talked, ate great food and went to a Japanese style hotel where his wife and I visited the hot springs public baths.

We also watched about five hours of a sumo-wrestling tournament on TV.

Now, I admit I wouldn’t normally seek sumo wrestling out. But he was interested and was tired from speaking so much English (my Japanese is limited to asking for a cold and delicious beer). As we watched, I tried to figure out what this activity might offer business leaders who are open to learning from 400-pound men, whose work may seem strange to our eyes.

First, you can’t avoid global competition. The Japanese are devastated that sumo-wrestling champions have come from outside Japan for the last decade, in a sport that was founded in and dominated for hundreds of years by one country. Right now, the Mongolians, Russians, a Bulgarian and even a Hawaiian are fierce competitors to the Japanese. But that is motivating to the Japanese right now, not discouraging them.

Second, big bodies can be nimble. Sumo wrestling has a lot to do with timing, leverage and smarts. Watching these men prepare (eyes-closed meditation, stretching, glaring, tossing salt) and then move with unexpected speed, balance and yes, even grace, makes me wonder how big organizations could do the same.

We talk often about remaining nimble, like a small startup. Staying nimble works with a 400-pound man because all of the pieces integrate and work together (mind, heart, body). How could that happen with a big organization?

The announcers talked about how wrestlers use a “new” grip, or a different face push, or how smaller wrestlers out-leverage larger people. How could businesses do the same?

And last, I appreciated the respect wrestlers show for each other and the sport. Much of sumo wrestling is ritual: The referee wears a Shinto priest-style garment, the wrestlers hand sacred water in a wooden ladle to one another, they toss purifying salt onto the ring. These actions speak to honor and legacy.

So much of what we do today focuses only on the new, to tossing what was “before.” Yet perhaps it’s time to review what may have value (to avoid reinventing the wheel) and what needs to be eliminated, rather than just tossing wholesale what has come before. Might work in business. Maybe also in politics.

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