Why, in the midst
of conflict and stress, do we seem to lose our capacity to lead?
Often our training in leadership has failed to prepare us for the
challenges we have to face in the “real” world. Contemporary research
in cybernetics, semantics, and human performance technologies has
shown the need for a more authentic, integrated and cross-cultural
approach to learning and leadership. Eastern philosophical systems
and existential practices show great relevance for Western leadership
education. Leadership is more than a title or position. Understanding
and practicing this complex interpersonal process demands a synthesis
of information and performance in a form that Andy Bryner and Dawna
Markova, authors of An
Unused Intelligence, call “kinetic intelligence” which allows
one to walk the talk.
“The way you
view it, is the way you pursue it.” —Unknown
At each epoch in human history, the idea of leadership has
been molded by a dominant cultural or scientific paradigm. The king
or ruler was initially the model for the great leader. When the
science of psychology matured, and leadership began to be studied,
this study moved from traits and states to situations and relationships.
In 1978, James
Macgregor Burns proposed a new concept of leadership and set
the stage for a new direction in leadership research and education.
Burns proposed that “transforming leadership...occurs when one or
more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers
raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.”
Because Burns’ initial work was very much grounded in the old dogmas
and practices of Western culture, however, he overlooked body-centered
consciousness and cross-cultural metaphors and practices.
human performance systems call for a shift in the focus of leadership
study to emphasize personal meaning and human understanding. Personal meaning is the relationship between
abstract symbols and states of affairs in the world. Human
understanding involves image-schemata, metaphorical projections,
and action. Contemporary scientific approaches rely on the human
body as the context and central reference point for investigating
symbolic communication. As George
Lakoff and Mark Johnson have shown, meaning and understanding
are intimately connected to our personal bodily experiences.
leadership scholar, Thomas
Wren of the University of Richmond, Jepson School of Leadership,
has reported that some mainstream commentators have begun to advocate
leadership approaches remarkably similar to a 2,500-year-old Chinese
philosopher, Lao-tzu. A growing number of leadership practitioners,
& Markova, John
O’Neil, James Clawson,
Pino, have recommended the metaphor of the Eastern martial arts
and specifically, the Japanese martial art of Aikido as an appropriate
model for contemporary leadership training.
From my own study,
I’ve discovered that the constructs embedded in Eastern martial
principles, leadership, and conflict management have much in common.
In times of transition and change—when chaos, uncertainty, and confusion
reign—the warrior archetype seems to emerge. Multi-skilled in the
practice of survival, concerned about self-development and educated
in arts and sciences, the samurai (one who serves) metaphor seems
well suited to the authentic challenges faced by those in leadership
roles. To perform at maximum potential, the samurai had to learn
to control both concentration and emotional arousal in chaotic and
stressful interpersonal encounters. Current mainstream leadership
models often fail to address these embodiment issues. Jeff
Dooley, a colleague of Peter Senge at MIT and an Aikido practitioner,
has offered, as one solution, a model that grounds Eastern mindfulness
concepts and methods at the core of all leadership development activities.
(Jeff Dooley, “A Whole Person Approach to Systematic Change
Zen and the Eastern Arts
“I hear; I forget.
I see; I remember. I do; I understand.” —Asian Proverb
What picture comes to mind when you ponder the word “Zen”?
A saffron-robed person of Eastern origin, sitting cross-legged in
silent meditation? Or a martial artist practicing the dynamic forms
of an ancient martial art? Visit a bookstore or library and you
will certainly find volumes on Zen in the religion and philosophy
section—but Zen is not simply a religion or a philosophy.
Zen began as a uniquely Japanese branch of Buddhism, possibly as
a blending of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. Zen developed
into a unique discipline that seeks to teach its practitioners how
to cut through the illusions created by cultural conditioning to
achieve insight into the truth. Achieving this insight produces
a state called enlightenment.
Not intellectual, enlightenment is existential and experiential,
resulting in a deep, transforming, liberating state of awareness.
In orthodox Zen
disciplines, a student needs an enlightened teacher to achieve enlightenment.
Like a skillful midwife, the master teacher models the art and must
steer, prod, and guide his disciple. In the end, however, the disciple
must do the work to confront the cultural concepts and divisions
of a dualistic mind. Ultimately, what changes is not the world outside,
but the person within.
In the traditional
60s classic, Zen
and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, motorcycles and maintenance
are simply creative metaphors that can help focus the art’s practitioner
on the essential purpose of practice. From the perspective of Zen,
this essential practice involves working on one’s mind or on the
state of consciousness in connection with the world. Whether creating
a motor or expanding the mind, each of us crafts and constructs
by the way we move the body. Mindful practice makes things permanent,
For the last
10 years, I have practiced Aikido, a contemporary martial art rooted
in this ancient Zen tradition. Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), a master
of several classical martial systems, who held a unique vision of
the purpose and meaning of human conflict, created the practice.
Aikido practice translates universal principles of balance, center,
and energy into physical applications. The name Aikido literally
means the way of living (do)
in harmony (ai) with
natural energy (ki). Aikido teaches how to control conflict
with minimum use of strength by blending an attack and seeking the
path of least resistance. This practice fosters intuitive understanding
of natural law and peace of mind within the context of action. As
a result, Aikido has been referred to as “moving Zen,” “the way
of peace” and “the non-violent martial art.”
The Art of Teaching Leadership
process must be based on the student’s individual activity, and
the art of education should involve nothing more than guiding and
monitoring this activity.” —Lev Vygotsky, Russian Development Psychologist
Heifetz , Professor of Leadership Studies at Harvard University’s
Kennedy School of Government and a premier scholar and practitioner
in contemporary leadership theory, believes that leadership development
must take place “below the neck and not just above.” Heifetz, also
an accomplished musician, advocates that leaders develop key adaptive
capacities that allow them to “see, hear, cope with failure, and
From my personal
practice of Aikido, I have arrived at a similar conclusion. All
learning must be experience-based. All effective learning must begin
with concrete experience and end in active experimentation. And,
in all artistic endeavors, movement is the essential element that
intimately connects body and mind. Learning to lead should involve
this same cycle. For me, Aikido provides that powerful metaphor
and model for the teaching of leadership.
Burns’ classic definition of leadership and Heifetz’s contemporary
work from my body/mind perspective, Aikido philosophy and practice
can offer a new, innovative direction for contemporary leadership
education. For Burns, transforming leadership is a process of engagement.
Aikido is a practice in engagement. Any authentic adaptive leadership
relationship must also confront and evolve through conflict and
choice. Aikido practice teaches emotional balance and calm along
with effective conflict resolution skills. This is a welcome change
to the command-and-control fighting tactics prevalent in many leadership
provides a microcosm of life. In Aikido practice, each partner learns
to connect and blend with the energy or intention of the other so
that conflict is resolved with a minimum use of force. Through repetitive
disciplined practice, I have discovered some universal principles
of human relations that have changed my perception of the leader-follower
relationship. For me, the practice hall (dojo)
represents a community of practice where we explore together the
relationships between body to mind and body/mind to practice. This
unique method of reciprocal cooperative practice establishes an
ethical relationship on a deep somatic plane that fosters higher
levels of consciousness and moral sensibility. The major impact
of even the most basic training in this Eastern art form changes
the way we “see and listen” to all living relationships. By assuming
the different roles of attacker and defender, each practitioner
learns a degree of flexibility that builds resilience for dealing
with failure and a heightened awareness for staying alive.
“DO”ing Leadership: Practice,
is an accident, but practice makes you accident prone.” —Rossi Richard
Baker, Zen priest
“Ideas do not influence [man] deeply when they are only taught
as ideas and thoughts....But, ideas do have an effect [on man] if
the idea is lived by the one who teaches it; if it is personified
by the teacher, if the idea appears in the flesh,” said Eric Fromm.
As Burns states, “Ultimately, education and leadership shade into
each other.” True education must be a process of leading. Only in
this way can people discover their unique voice, presence, and self.
Aikido the teacher leads the student though a series of skillful
practices emanating from the teacher’s own life’s work. Both teacher
and student learn together to rediscover their own unique natural
character. The central focus of all Zen disciplines is this transforming
process based on high context, informal learning—learning, which
depends on the use of models, practice, and demonstration. Words
can be distorting. Words can distract. Closing the gap between knowledge
and action in leadership education requires a move to a more authentic
experiential training format. Aikido practice offers such a format.
“Those who say
don’t know. Those who know don’t say” — Lao-tzu
Not only is change
slow and laborious, but also change is natural to resist. Practitioners
of Eastern cultural arts may confront additional obstacles in introducing
their work into traditional Western educational organizations because
they emphasize process and performance over pontification and publication.
My work in applying Aikido principles and practices in leadership
seminars have uncovered a few guiding principles:
performance artists for keynotes.
Using a performance
artist in a large group event provides the audience with the opportunity
to see the presenter’s metaphor in an authentic physical medium.
Audience members can observe the presenter walk the talk. This type
of pedagogical approach reinforces the need for acknowledging the
holistic dimension of an effective leadership model and provides
a concrete point of reference for later reflection on their personal
movement activities in leadership workshops.
leaders are introduced to a demonstration of an art, they should
be led through a series of movement activities modeled on the practice(s)
of that art. Moving like the artist helps participants begin to
understand the embodied knowledge and skillful capacities required
of any complex human—behavior especially one like leadership. In
addition, participants might begin to explore their own body learning
styles and begin to plan a personal practice.
in the art. Experience the concepts and relationships viscerally.
Begin to explore the universal principles of relationships that
form the central physical metaphor of all human activity—center,
energy, balance, connection, reciprocity, self. Eastern arts—like
all arts, especially those based on an apprenticeship model—require
a commitment to disciplined practice. Doing an art reinforces this
essential principle. This final approach is most effective if the
leadership educator is a practicing artist.
procedural, and moral issues that currently plague contemporary
Western leadership scholarship and education might be remedied by
viewing the leadership relationship though a different cultural
lens. Asian cultural arts have historically blended consciousness,
conscience, and character in their meditative practices in order
to foster individual and leadership development. Leadership educators
must seek to create learning environments that move beyond the traditional
experiential model of activity and discussion. Leadership educators
who seek to perform on the cutting edge can enrich their own study
and that of those they work with by developing new metaphors and
practices that assimilate more
of the wisdom of the East.
with you ... Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that
can be trained in some manner ... Foster peace in your own life
and then apply the Art to all that you encounter.” —Morihei Ueshiba,
founder of Aikido
Richford has been in education for 18 years and presently is a counselor
with Chesterfield County School System in Central Virginia. He is
also the Director of Leadership Development with the Chesterfield
Education Forum that brings experiential training programs to parents
and children. Richford attended the Jepson School of Leadership
Studies, University of Richmond, as a teacher-scholar, where his
graduate project, “Zen and the Art of Teaching Leadership,” proposed
integrating traditional Eastern mindfulness and martial arts disciplines
into short duration professional staff development models. Learn
more by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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