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


The Dance of Power

He took a six-month leave from his counseling practice, found a substitute to teach at his school, and made arrangements for his children, whose custody he shared with his ex-wife. The reaction from his Bay Area community was swift and outraged. A close friend excoriated him for “teaching meditation to a bunch of trained killers.” A choleric colleague publicly berated him for “taking money from the enemy.” A professor at a dinner party shouted at him that peace would never exist until the military was abolished.

Arriving at Fort Devon in the sweltering heat of August, he encountered a corresponding measure of antagonism from soldiers more accustomed to chewing tobacco and pumping iron than meditating or bowing reverently to opponents. Students protested that a practice rooted in Buddhism was anti-Christ. He was called everything from a heretic to “a San Francisco psycho-queer.”

But one look at the soldiers convinced him that they needed what the program had to offer. Superbly conditioned and physically strong, the Green Berets were also extremely rigid, their power concentrated in their upper torsos, their center of gravity so high (“typical in American males”) that it threw them out of balance. With chests thrust out, eyes narrowed, and jaws clenched, they had armored bodies, on guard and ready for attack.

But direct attack, like the soldiers’ unbalanced bearing, was useless in aikido, where intuition and grace put conventional strength at a disadvantage. Aikido emphasizes balance and contradiction. The practitioner displays strength in yielding, exerts force through nonassertion, unleashes power by blending and harmonizing with an attacker. Morihei Ueshiba, who developed aikido in Japan in the 1940s by combining jujitsu hand-to-hand techniques with traditional sword and stick fighting, taught that dominating others and winning at all costs had become obsolete with the advent of weapons of mass destruction.

Martial training, in Ueshiba’s view, must teach practitioners to disarm aggression rather than provoke it, to move with an opponent rather than charging at him. The master envisioned a world in which warriors offered loving protection to the community instead of seeking combat. Aware of this tradition, Strozzi saw aikido as the key discipline for developing warriors who could meet the demands of 21st-century warfare. Countering unconventional threats and undermining insurgencies would require that soldiers win the confidence of local populations and neutralize soft power. This, in turn, would require focused awareness, the ability to blend and harmonize with opposing forces. Strozzi says, “Our challenge was to get them to focus their attention internally, toward what they felt, sensed, and imagined. For men trained to perform feats of bravado and succeed through the sheer force of will, it was like asking the Hulk to take up knitting.”

The Green Berets were skeptical as they filed into the dojo Strozzi had constructed for them in an abandoned recreation center at Fort Devon. When he tried to talk about the philosophy of aikido, he was taunted. Let me have a baseball bat, and I’ll show you an American martial art. Hand me my .44 Magnum, and then try your technique. He knew that winning the men’s confidence would require sureness and skill. As he noted in the book he wrote about the experience, In Search of the Warrior Spirit, “Being inauthentic was a cardinal transgression in the eyes of these men. It unleashed the predator within them.”

In other words, he had to walk his talk so he could be credible, and he had to do it fast. In his book he describes arranging for another instructor to charge him from the back of the room full force with a bayonet fixed to an M-16 automatic weapon. As the man came screaming toward him, Strozzi stepped forward to blend with his attacker’s movements. Sensing an opening, he turned the knife out of his attacker’s hand and guided his body onto the mat, pinning him in a secure hold that looked effortless.

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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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