How the Zen Archer Manages Change

By Shannon Sage

How the Zen Archer Manages Change

Several weeks in advance before we write our newsletters, we often will brainstorm about how to bring you timely, insightful topics that honor your professional intelligence and time.  Last month, we decided that we’d wrap the topic of strategy around the concepts central to “Zen in the Art of Archery,” a book written by Eugen Herrigel in 1948.

While in Japan as a professor (1924-1929), Eugen Herrigel experienced Japanese culture and became a student of archery from a skilled and somewhat controversial teacher, Awa Keno. As a master of his venerable technique, Keno became disenchanted with traditional approaches to the practice of archery. He began to refer to long-respected ways of training as “kind of a hereditary disease,” which lead him to develop his own style of shooting even while being considered a lunatic for doing so. The essence of his style was to hone proper skills as a foundation, then train one’s mental and spiritual energy to enter into the “absolute way” of performance and achievement.

As Keno’s student, Herrigel wove his appreciation of Zen Buddhism into his lessons, which inspired his writing for “Zen in the Art of Archery.” While this newsletter does not necessarily seek to endorse Herrigel’s interpretation of how Zen and archery intersect, we do value his writing with a few strategic considerations:

  1. Transformational culture change can be met with fierce resistance: Keno wasn’t afraid to scrutinize and change ritualized approaches to temple archery, even under great institutional and personal scrutiny. Have you taken stock of your “rituals” or routines lately to verify their utility in today’s environment?
  2. Foundational training should be approached as a kind of “muscle memory.” Once training reaches the highest quality possible, achievement becomes a matter of will. What type of “muscle memory” does your organization need to excel?
  3. Never underestimate the power of ideas outside of your culture to impact your reality. This book was published in post-war Germany, where the concept of Zen was as familiar as sand is to the Arctic. Yet, it took hold and continues to influence the way Westerners interpret archery.

Keno was a visionary in the realm of Japanese temple archery. He created a space for the practice of archery that had not dared to exist within established traditions. He emphasized the evolution of process into a higher realm of individual awareness, which is what empowerment is all about. While Herrigel’s interpretation has its critics, the impact of ideas born from his experience make a difference for readers sixty years later. Our take-away: Lessons in transformational change management and leadership are timeless.

Of note: The appreciation and respect Herrigel conveyed for the Japanese culture is heartfelt and shared by our team at OnStrategy in light of the catastrophic tsunami suffered this week (March 16, 2011). We continue to publish our original newsletter concept in honor of those coastal communities as they struggle their way past this disaster, and post this clip to remind us of how much can change in just a few minutes of time:


Culture is of internal worth only to the degree that it values what is happening externally.

Shannon Sage

Shannon is a Client Engagement Manager at OnStrategy with experience in marketing, social media and strategic planning. She manages the survey database, supports the integration of survey results and analysis, and she answers client’s questions and concerns.



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