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


The Dance of Power

Strozzi asks, “What does that do for you?”

Hutson answers, “It enables us to embody our commitment. That helps us be a team in a deeper, more connected way. Something happens when you bring your body to work. You are more whole, so people see you as more authentic. I also think this is effective with our team because we’re all scientists. We want to know the how of things, verify results, check interpretations. If we can physically feel one another breathing slowly and moving firmly, it gives us confidence in what we’re doing. If we’re moving frantically or being in our heads, we know we’ve got a problem. This stuff is real, based in the physical world. It’s data, and scientists want data.”

The day finishes with a rondori exercise, in which everyone moves randomly all at once. Without warning, individuals approach one another. Those approached can either accept by linking arms and moving forward alongside the person or refuse by turning the person aside and moving him or her in another direction. The exercise begins chaotically, with people crashing into one another. Refusals are awkward, leaving those who made them uncertain where to go, how to walk away. Strozzi takes his time, watching with focused attention, then steps to the center of the room and says, “Come at me.”

People do. He intercepts them, harmonizes with their movements or turns them away, remaining consistent and firm in every encounter. “We respond with strength and compassion whether we’re accepting the request or not,” he says. “People feel you in relationship based on how you are physically present with them. That’s more important than your words.”

In traditional aikido, a rondori is a sustained and simultaneous attack on a single person, with students and masters attempting to throw the individual to the mat or pin him or her down. The rondori was what first suggested to Strozzi that aikido could be adapted to help people in organizations. “I realized that rondori is what life is like at work these days, stuff flying at you, all the e-mails and endless requests, that experience of constant bombardment. Doing a rondori exposes your habitual responses to pressure — withdrawal, tightness, over-accommodation, over-responsiveness, fear, desire to dominate, coldness — so you can see how you handle it. It gives you a chance to practice a different way to respond, so you can keep your dignity, act with clarity, maintain your awareness. Practicing helps you develop the musculature for effective action.”

Supporting spoken commitments with physical presence is a way of “putting it on the mat,” aikido-speak for expressing one’s philosophy through skilled and conscious action. In a traditional dojo, putting it on the mat involves hand-to-hand combat. But in Strozzi’s leadership dojo, the principles of aikido are interpreted to support awareness: There are no locks, no pins, no flips, no holds. The sequence of movements that distinguishes aikido — responding to aggression by entering into the center of an attack, blending with its energy, and guiding the attacker to a neutral place –– are adapted for a nonmartial context.

The day at the dojo is full of action. Only at lunch do students sit down. It’s a departure from the typical leadership development class, where people listen to a speaker, take notes, write down commitments, and discuss what they have learned. “People in organizations don’t move enough,” says Strozzi. “They don’t engage their bodies. In the dojo, we do everything standing up. When you’re standing, you can move. Being human is about standing up. Assuming a vertical posture is what set humans on their evolutionary path. It’s what makes us distinct, gives us our power. It’s our way of staying aware.”

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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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