A Day in a Tokyo Sumo Stable: a Lesson in Tribes and Leadership
At 6’ 1” and 215 pounds, I don’t often feel dainty. But after a day in the Chiganoura Sumo Stable in Tokyo watching the wrestlers in training, I felt like a downright delicate flower. These were some seriously substantial dudes, who were not only huge but also wickedly fast, seemingly indestructible, and very, very dedicated. I’d been reading Seth Godin’s Tribes about the time I visited the stable, and I was struck at how in many ways the Sumo wrestlers were the ultimate tribe.
While I’d always found Sumo wrestling interesting, I learned that I had only the thinnest understanding of the sport. It turns out that it’s not just huge guys ramming into each other at top speed. Even just a few hours of close watching revealed so much more strategy, technique and nuance than I’d every suspected. Yes, there were the terrifying collisions of mountains of flesh, but there were also lightning-quick footwork, Judo-like use of balance and momentum, and subtleties in posture and hand techniques. In the midst of what looked like a stalemate of immovable object vs. immovable object, a flash of hand and foot would suddenly send an opponent spinning out of the ring, sometimes on his back.
Even more fascinating than the athletic aspects of the sport, Sumo has incredibly deep roots in Japanese culture, more defined by a nation’s history and religion than any modern sport I can think of. Originating more than 1500 years ago, Sumo began as a harvest ritual to ensure healthy crops. Shinto principles and practices are deeply intertwined in the proceedings of a match, from the canopy over the ring that resembles a Shinto shrine, to the tossing of the salt before the match, to the dress of the referee (who carries a sword in the event that he must commit suicide over a bad call).
Given the deep national identity of Sumo, it’s not surprising to see the wrestlers show such extraordinary dedication to the sport. Almost every aspect of life as a Sumo wrestler is prescribed: they eat, train and sleep in the stable; they must wear the traditional robes everywhere they go; they are not allowed to drive; they must be self-effacing, soft-spoken when in public; and when competing they must never gloat at a win or show disappointment at a defeat. The training regimen is extraordinarily demanding and punishing, especially for the newer, lower-ranked wrestlers who must sweep, cook and serve their seniors while also absorbing some occasionally brutal hazing. Sumo wrestlers typically have a substantially shorter life span as a result of this lifestyle. They are powerfully committed to the tribe of Japanese Sumo wrestlers.
Because of these deep cultural roots in Sumo, it was all the more surprising to see an Anglo wrestler amidst the Japanese in the stable, devoting himself so fully to the life. Much more than a Brazilian soccer player joining a Spanish team, this represents a stunning leap across tribal chasms, forcing the foreign wrestlers to accept all the challenges and limitations of Sumo, as well as to flawlessly learn all the nuances of language, culture and behavior of that tribe. And judging by how tirelessly he threw himself into punishing round after round, alternately crashing into the ground or the wall, it was clear that this foreigner was fully invested as a member of that tribe.
But even more surprising was to see him also act as a leader in the tribe. As it turns out, he was among the best wrestlers in the stable, clearly more skilled than many even to my untrained eye. In the course of the day, I was fascinated to watch him not only dispatch many of the other wrestlers with ease, but also dispense coaching, advice and encouragement with absolute confidence and authority — no hint of a tentative, hesitant attitude of “Hey, I know I’m not from around here, but do you mind if I suggest…” And these more junior wrestlers listened to his guidance with rapt attention. There was no visible hint of anyone questioning his right to adopt that coaching role in that moment. He was clearly both a devoted member of that tribe as well as a respected leader in it.
This fascinating experience helped reinforce some notions of tribes and leadership for me:
Powerful tribes rally around powerful ideas. These Sumo wrestlers were doing more than a job on more than a team. They were a part of something bigger than themselves that had inspiring resonance for them. Leaders must always create that energizing and binding sense of purpose.
Everyone can lead. Leadership isn’t a title. You don’t need permission or an invitation. My western Sumo wrestler had no formal role in coaching his stable mates. It’s about stepping into the opportunity with confidence and positive intent.
Don’t let perceived barriers stop you. Leadership can be scary. It’s easy to think of reasons why you shouldn’t step up and lead — like a different national identity, or imperfect command of Japanese. But if you get caught up in worrying about leadership “legitimacy”, others will lose out of the value you can bring.
Tribes can overlap and get along. We’re all members of more than one tribe at any one point in time. And we all have a different set of overlapping tribes — nationality, profession, political party, sexual identity, value systems, favorite band, etc. These memberships are often defined by great passions and powerful convictions, and our own unique portfolio of memberships in large part defines us. At the same time, seeming conflicts in tribal make-up — such as American citizen and Sumo wrestler — don’t have to get in the way of relationships, collaboration and progress.
I’ll admit that this last point feels particularly poignant these days, given the decibel level of American political dialogue. Our tribal identities are creating a painfully divisive and unproductive environment. Conversations with colleagues, friends and family are now fraught with the risk of tripping awkwardly over these tribal divides. The Chiganoura wrestlers were clearly able to see that the Sumo tribe bound them so powerfully that their national tribe didn’t get in the way of living together, training productively and supporting one another. I wish we could remember now and then, amidst all the rancor, that first and foremost we all belong to the tribe called Americans, and even more importantly, to the tribe called humans.