People with Vision Series

Oda Nobunaga – The Original Chief Executive

In this Series, we feature key people throughout time whose visions have influenced our world today. Tune in for our series once a week.

Oda Nobunaga was the archetype of a successful business executive. He challenged orthodox thinking, ruthlessly exploited competitive advantage, hungered for intelligence about his opponents, had faith in talent rather than hierarchy, and had the vision to create the right infrastructure for commercial success.

Oda Nobunaga - The Original Chief Executive
Oda Nobunaga – The Original Chief Executive

What’s remarkable is that he achieved all this as a 16th-centuryJapanese warlord. At a time when China’s rulers were keeping Western explorers and traders at arm’s length, Nobunaga was actively encouraging their presence as the key to Japan’s and his own advancement. He realized that foreigners brought new ideas as well as new goods.

He had an understanding of economic theory and practice that went deeper than most of his contemporaries. He abolished trade monopolies and opened closed trade guilds to outsiders, as he correctly identified guilds as barriers to competition. This samurai also developed tax exemptions and established laws to regulate and ease the borrowing of debt.

Once he had reformed the trade rules, he set about improving the infrastructure so that commerce could flow more freely. In an era when warlords avoided bridging rivers and building straight roads in order to hamper the movements of their enemies, Nobunaga defied orthodoxy by embarking on major construction projects. His thinking was that good roads meant more access for merchants, which in turn meant more prosperity and ultimately more power for him and his people.

From contact with Western traders, he acquired iron cladding for his warships to make them almost unsinkable. In 1575, Nobunaga used imported muskets to defeat the cavalry of his most dangerous rival, Takeda Katsuyori. The latter’s swords, bows and spears proved no match for the new weapons.

Oda Nobunaga - The First Paper Currency
Oda Nobunaga.

He was also one of the first martial leaders to appreciate the value of intelligence gathering. Until his time, warlords had usually given the greatest rewards to those who fought most bravely in battle, but Nobunaga gave his biggest prizes to those who told him what the enemy was doing before, during and after combat.

Although a leader by dint of birth, Nobunaga was also a meritocrat, believing that a person should be promoted because of his abilities, not simply because of his social class.

Nobunaga was an exponent of a primitive form of market research. Contemporary accounts suggest he would often leave his castle in disguise to mix with his subjects and find out their mood and opinions on political and economic matters of the day.

Even today, Japanese bookshops are filled with works describing lessons that can be learned from Nobunaga, and those books continue to be read widely by business managers and workers alike.