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Jack Richford’s Homepage

An Unused Intelligence. Andy Bryner, Dawna Markova (Conari Press 1996)

The Art of Peace: Teachings of the Founder of Aikido by Morihei Ueshiba. John Stevens, editor (Shambala Press, 1992)

Corporate Aikido: Unleash the Potential Within Your Company to Neutralize Competition and Seize Growth. Robert Pino (McGraw-Hill, 1998)

The Leader as Martial Artist. Arnold Mindell (HarperCollins, 1992)

The Leader of the Future .” William C. Taylor. Fast Company Magazine. June 1999. Harvard’s Ronald Heifetz offers a short course on the future of leadership.

The Leader’s Companion. J. Thomas Wren, editor (Free Press, 1995)

Leadership. James M. Burns (Harper & Row, 1978).

Leadership Aikido: 6 Business Practices That Can Turn Your Life Around. John O’Neil (Harmony Press, 1997)

The Leadership of Hindu Gurus.” P. A. Gyan (1999). [Requires Adobe Acrobat]

Leadership Without Easy Answers. Ronald Heifetz (Harvard University Press, 1994)

The Magic of Conflict. Tom Crum (Simon and Schuster, 1987)

Metaphors We Live. George Lakoff, Mark Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 1983)

Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. George Lakoff, Mark Johnson (Basic Books, 1999)

Teaching Leadership through Aikido .” James Clawson (1996). [Requires Adobe Acrobat]

A Whole Person Approach to Systematic Change Management .” Jeff Dooley. Selected Papers (1999). [Requires Adobe Acrobat]

Zen and the Brain. James H. Austin. (MIT Press, 1998)


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.

Leadership Studies

“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.

Contemporary 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.

Contemporary 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, Thomas Crum, Bryner & Markova, John O’Neil, James Clawson, and Robert 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 Management,” 1999)

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.

Historically, 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, not perfect.

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

“The educational 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

Ronald 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 stay alive.”

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.

Reinterpreting 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 models.

Aikido practice 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, Practice, Practice!

“Enlightenment 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.

In 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:

1.   Use 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 leadership paradigm.

2.   Use movement activities in leadership workshops.

Once aspiring 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.

3.   Do the art!

Immerse leaders 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.

The conceptual, 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.

“Aikido begins 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

Jack 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



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