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 / Winter 2007 / Issue 49(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Dance of Power

Richard Strozzi-Heckler teaches military and business decision makers how to build the muscle and fluency of leadership.

Is leadership an art or a science? The question has long been subject to debate. Which side you’re on probably determines whether or not you believe leadership can be taught. But for developing leaders who can respond to the challenges of today’s 24/7 business environment, perhaps the art-versus-science dichotomy is too theoretical to be of use.

Photographs by Tom Tracy

Richard Strozzi-Heckler has built a distinctive and influential career based on the proposition that leadership is neither art nor science, but rather a practice that can be developed and trained for. Just as a pianist must run through scales in preparation for a concert and a ballplayer must spend time in the batting cage before a game, so in Strozzi-Heckler’s view can a leader methodically build fluency and muscle through the regular exercise of disciplines that require simultaneous physical and mental effort.

“Human beings change through practice,” he says. “You can be very smart, but if you just talk about something, you never learn to do it. And practice requires being systematic, performing a sequence of movements over and over until it becomes part of your physical being, part of who you are.”

This emphasis on practice in the service of continual refinement connects Strozzi-Heckler with the most effective organizational ideas of the last half century: W. Edwards Deming’s method of building quality in a given process, Peter Senge’s work on systems thinking, and the continuous improvement loops (known as kaizen) that characterize the Toyota production system — the precise recalibrations that have transformed the management of supply chains. All these innovations emphasize the process of becoming, rather than the achievement of a final state. So it’s not surprising that they all draw upon Eastern culture.

Strozzi (the Heckler part of his name, which came from a stepfather, never really stuck) adds a refinement to this tradition by translating its intellectual under­pinnings into a form that can be physically embodied. Just as Frederick Taylor mapped the precise physical movements that maximized productivity in the industrial era, so Strozzi provides a means for maximizing the opportunities inherent in our knowledge era by showing how wisdom can be made manifest through human movement.

Drawing on a lifetime spent studying martial arts and Eastern philosophy; decades of training in competitive sports; and stints as a marine, soldier, volunteer firefighter, psychologist, and professor, Strozzi has created an eclectic but disciplined and replicable program for helping leaders develop the physical presence, fine-tuned awareness, bias for action, and precise articulation of purpose that inspire confidence and trust among those who work with them.

Over the last 25 years, he has delivered his programs to an extraordinary range of clients: not only to executives at companies such as Pfizer, Motorola, Cargill, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Cemex, and Capitol One, but to senior military leaders, U.S. Marines, Navy SEALs, and counterinsurgency agents operating behind the front lines. He has also worked with law enforcement officials, urban gang members, prisoners, Olympic athletes, and professional sports teams. The level of conditioning among these highly varied participants runs the gamut from channel surfer to triathlete. Yet in Strozzi’s classes they come together in a choreography of complex movement that is physically challenging but unconnected to the Western understanding of athletics.

In the mainstream Western tradition going back to the Greeks, the physical component of leadership has been identified with athletic prowess. Athletics have been viewed as a vehicle for building “character” (the Outward Bound course that requires battling the wilderness), instilling self-discipline (the batting cage), or imparting the habits of command that come from captaining a team. Given this close association, organizations have often assumed that athletic excellence automatically translates into skilled leadership. Think of how many companies are quick to tell you that the CEO quarterbacked for a championship team in college, or that the managing partner has been invited to play the Pro-Am at Pebble Beach.

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  1. Klaus-Peter Gushurst, “The New Leadership — Sober, Spirited, and Spiritual,” s+b enews, 1/08/2004: Explains how leadership styles today combine the classic values of discipline and execution with the contemporary values of openness and natural expression. Click here.
  2. George Leonard, The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei (Dutton, 1999): Evocative overview from the man who introduced Strozzi-Heckler to the military.
  3. Nikos Mourkogiannis, “The Realist’s Guide to Moral Purpose,” s+b, Winter 2005: Four ideals of leadership that appeal to our deepest instincts — and that can inspire a company to long-term success. Click here.
  4. Randall Rothenberg, “Noel M. Tichy: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Spring 2003: The University of Michigan leadership teacher says that the essential leadership skill is teaching. Click here. 
  5. Richard Strozzi-Heckler, Anatomy of Change: A Way to Move Through Life’s Transitions (North Atlantic Books, 1997): How to gain a new awareness of one’s potential and range of choices using practices drawn from aikido and Lomi body work.
  6. Richard Strozzi-Heckler, Holding the Center: Sanctuary in a Time of Confusion (Frog, 1997): Strozzi-Heckler calls on personal experience to analyze the balance between instinct and choice, and between power and generosity.
  7. Richard Strozzi-Heckler, In Search of the Warrior Spirit: Teaching Awareness Disciplines to the Green Berets (North Atlantic Books, 2003): Is it possible for a soldier in the age of high-tech warfare to act morally? Strozzi-Heckler explores this question.
  8. Richard Strozzi-Heckler, The Leadership Dojo: Build Your Foundation as an Exemplary Leader (Frog, 2007): An exploration of three critical leadership questions: What does a leader do? What are the character values most essential to exemplary leadership? How do you teach these values?
  9. The Strozzi Institute Web site: More information about Richard Strozzi-Heckler’s organization. Click here.
  10. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feeds. Click here.
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