Thursday, February 11, 2010

In Memory of George Leonard

February 1, 2010
I walk into Peet’s Coffee.
A young woman, Jamie, serves my usual: small decaf and zucchini bread.
The tattoo on her wrist reads: “To Heaven and Hell – Follow Your Heart”
A deep voice in my mind whispers, “Say Alert!”
It is the voice of George Leonard.

The Retrospect
Kahlil Gibran’s (1883-1931) The Prophet speaks to the philosophy of an imagined Almustafa. In magnificent prose it touches on timeless topics of significance and substance: giving and law, reason and passion, children and marriage, freedom and pain, self-knowledge and friendship, good and evil, and finally death. Then, it says farewell. The Prophet opens with Almustafa standing and overlooking Orphalese, his beloved city, contemplating his life, now nearing its end.

[H]e climbed the hill without the city walls and looked seaward; and he beheld his ship coming with the mist. Then the gates of his heart were flung open, and his joy flew far over the sea. And he closed his eyes and prayed in the silences of his soul. But as he descended the hill, a sadness came upon him, and he thought in his heart: How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city. -- -- The sea that calls all things unto her calls me, and I must embark.

Gibran, a Lebanese immigrant, published The Prophet in 1923, from Boston where he lived. It has been in print ever since. In August of that year, and a thousand to the south, the family line of Aaron Burr, an American politician and Revolutionary War patriot and third Vice President of the United States produced a new child. As with the words of Gibran and his Almustafa, the words and writings of this son-of-the-south would over a lifetime be recognized as wise, profound and significant. His actions would influence millions. His philosophy would touch the heart of the lowly, the average and the advanced. His name: George Burr Leonard. He passed away Tuesday, January 6, 2010, at his home in Mill Valley, California. He was 86.

The Man
George Leonard’s love for letters and music spanned a lifetime, as did his love for country, freedom and people. As a youth he had his own swing band. He served America in combat as an A-20 fighter-bomber pilot in WWII, and again during the Korean War, this time as an air intelligence officer. After the wars he advanced in one of his many passions, writing, and became an award-winning editor for Look Magazine. His articles covered the Civil Rights movement in the US before it was safe or popular to do so. He rubbed shoulders with Martin Luther King, Jr., and shared office space with Bobbie Kennedy. He chronicled the rise of the Iron Curtain (literally) in Eastern Europe – driving its length by car and probing its turf on foot. That he contributed extensively for Esquire would be an understatement. He remains that magazine’s most prolific writer. His twelve books included "Mastery", "The Ultimate Athlete", "The Silent Pulse", "Education and Ecstasy", "The Transformation", "The Way of Aikido", "Walking on the Edge of the World" and others. As with The Prophet, “Mastery” has never gone out of print; it is read today around the world and in easily found bookstores throughout the US.

He developed, practiced and taught a method of self-understanding and study, Leonard Energy Training. He presided over Esalen Institute’s board of directors and co-founded ITP International with Esalen’s founder, Michael Murphy. At the time of his passing he was Esalen’s president emeritus. Recognized by Time magazine as the father of the human potential movement in the US, he in fact coined the phrase "the human potential movement."

At age 47, George Leonard began to study a Japanese martial art, Aikido. A few years later he co-founded the Aikido of Tamalpais dojo in Mill Valley, California, with two others who were on similar paths: Richard Strozzi-Heckler and Wendy Palmer – both now recognized globally for their work in realm of the human potential and as Aikido teachers (sensei). He advanced to the rank of fifth-degree blackbelt, and regularly trained and taught the art until well past his 80th year. He remains perhaps the most authored Aikido sensei in the world. Except for Kisshomaru Ueshiba, son of legendary Morihei Ueshiba O’Sensei who developed Aikido, it could be argued that George Leonard, more than any other human being, influenced more people in the world to take up, examine and practice this martial discipline. His purpose: self-awareness and peaceful resolution to conflict.

The Connection
The lens through which I knew and experienced George took root in 1990. I encountered a leadership and team effectiveness simulation he had created. He once explained, “I had been thinking of communicating the value of life’s vividness and this just kind of came to me on an afternoon walk from my home to the dojo. It was influenced by encounters I had had with old war buddies, my study of the Japanese culture, and of course, Aikido. I suspended the class I was going to teach and asked everyone if they wanted to play a game for a little while. They said OK. A week later they were emotionally still in it and I knew something special was going on here.” He would later copyright, name and trademark this as The Samurai Game®

Unlike any other effectiveness simulation then or now, the Samurai Game® sources its strength from participants; becoming a sort of human chess match wherein players are also the pieces bound by rules which, like haiku, constrain yet offer unlimited possibilities for expression. Within the game a lifetime can be experienced. With Aikido as its foundation, it begs individual understanding of integrity, respect, compassion and decisiveness; and it demands honorable interaction and blending with opponents without the certainty of a favorable outcome. For the sake of a singular purpose all are asked, as George would often say, to “engage wholeheartedly and generously” and win or lose (metaphorically live or die) - to honorably serve others, particularly the opponent.

In 1995, the connection took a large step. He agreed to become one of the founding Associates of Allied Ronin. I was (and am) humbled and will be forever grateful. Five years later, because of an important need he had been expressing, I began to directly serve him and his Trust for the purpose of strengthening the training and certification of those who would seek to facilitate this simulation. We led many Games together, most at his dojo in Mill Valley, preceded and followed by meetings, innumerable phone conversations and lots of fun and laughs. The standards for facilitator training and certification were enhanced and codified. With this he and his wife, Annie, became for my dreams – some personal, others professional – close allies and dear friends. George was always available to listen to the deeply personal, some happy, some agonizing. He was always willing to reveal himself as well. He understood that that which is personal is what lives are anchored to, resonate with and revolve around. Anchor, resonate and revolve: words not haphazardly chosen. He acted with a heart seeking to understand.

I once nervously suggested to him that the Samurai Game was his greatest creation, a rather bold statement, given his contributions as an author. I offered that it would be great it to take it around the world. His reply, “Why not?!” Looking back, it was he and the Game that began to take me around the world - to witness things and be with people that in my wildest dreams never thought possible.

The Impact
Today almost forty certified facilitators serve his traditions and requests through this simulation. These are sons and daughters of the world; citizens of Mexico and Poland, PR China and Taiwan, the UK and SE Asia, Australia and the United States. Some are well-seasoned group process facilitators. Some own their own training and consulting organizations. Some are college professors. Some are renowned authors. A lawyer and an engineer. Some work with youth-at-risk who walk the edge of life and death and are confined to institutions. Some are simple men and women, relatively unknown, who have no great following, yet possess the heart to serve and assist people. Today, others seek to join their ranks.

The Game, once only an afternoon thought, has been repeatedly delivered on every continent with the exception of Antarctica and South America. Its use and popularity are growing. With it George Leonard has touched through action the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world – including those at the United Nations Secretariat, AIESEC International and it 90 some country constituencies, AT&T, Societe Generale’ Corporate & Investment Banking, US Army Special Forces, Vantage Corporation in PR China, Nokia, Verizon Wireless, the Julia Morgan School for Girls, Brandeis-Hillel School, the Horizon Academy, Texas A&M University, University of Nevada, University of San Francisco, the Organizational Behavior Teacher Society – and hundreds of other organizations. Indirectly, millions of people have felt its impact. Enhanced are their individual and group awareness, and their connection with a strong internal ethical code. Far reaching when compared to the few hundred meters that distanced George’s Locust Street home from his dojo off East Blithedale Street in Mill Valley.

The Words
On October 6, 2006, a surprise email arrived from Steve Fujitani of Honolulu, who I hadn’t seen or heard from in nine years. It read:
"So, here I am, years after playing the Samurai Game and it starts to come back, all the wonderful truths and ah-hahs ... then I find something I wrote to my kids dated November 1997 when I played it with you. All the wisdom shared about leadership, fears, agendas and truths ... I look forward to continuing the journey, as I'm sure are many others who've truly experienced the Game.

Sometimes life's greatest ah-hah's take an eternity to make themselves apparent, but... hey, as long as we get past the outer layers, right? I played [it] in 1997, but I feel a though I just woke up - again. Sailing's always been my passion, but skippering my own boat out on the deep blue was a real fear, as was the restaurant (Souvaly Thai Cuisine) I'm now opening. In retrospect, I think the leadership training and the Samurai Game played a big part in overcoming the phobias we unnecessarily weave into things, preventing us from achievement we'd otherwise never know."

On February 1, 2010, a message arrived through Face Book from Marta Bruske, past president of AIESEC Poland. It read:
I was intending to get in touch with you so many times for last few years and somehow never managed. I feel really ashamed I waited with writing this email for so long :) There has been so many things that happened since we last met on the conference in Poland. I spend last years looking for the right place for me. I lived in Brussels and London for some time. Last year I came back to Warsaw and finally I got some time to join AIKIDO trainings.

I was thinking about it since ' samuray game' in Netherlands. I guess I just had to wait for the right moment to come. I am still a newee in this area. Practicing not even a year but enjoying the learning a lot :) I joined Aikido Kobayashi dojo.

How is samuray game evolving? I still live this experience (even though it has been so many years ago!) and I know that many people who played it feel the same. I owe you big THANK you for that! - Best Wishes! Marta

The Thought and Thanks
Today we live with technologies that advance in complexity and capacity each moment. Their speed and application increase exponentially. We no sooner purchase the newest gadget than we are encouraged to buy the next. Why? Because we are informed that we need to. What was the latest and greatest a moment ago is now passé. We are told (and subsequently we begin to think) these technologies can make life easier and better. In reality, our problems and potentials are not unlike those of Kahlil Gibran’s era. Resolving human conflict, living with dignity, being honesty, acting honorably, offering respect to others and especially to one’s contrary – these are not things purchased. These are the rhythms of the breath of life; rhythms that cannot be bought and sold; rhythms that must be felt and heard, spoken to, developed and practiced. They form the ongoing challenge and responsibility of individuals and communities who seek constructive approaches to life rather an addiction to acquisition.

Our world wants answers to issues not unlike those faced by the people who sought advice from Gibran’s ancient, mystical and imagined Almustafa, the Prophet. Now, as then, many desire to acknowledge only themselves as the source of their own success, boasting or seeking to be self-made. Unfortunately they confuse and blur the line between being independent and disconnected. We sadly tend to forget the impact that others before us have had when fortune knocks on our door; yet we do remember the impact of others when misfortune stands in its place. Yes, individually we must raise our own sails to catch the winds of grace that blow. But the winds of grace that touch our lives issue forth from the inspired breath of those whose feet have trod valleys and shorelines before us.

All human beings stand beneath the shadows and in the shade of others. Some of us resent and resist this. They see shadows and shade to be limiting. Shadows are produced by obstructions to light. Shade is cold. The worry of these unfortunates is that they might live an unseen life. I had the fortune to meet and walk with a man in his shadow; a shadow beneath which I and countless others found warmth; a shadow that, paradoxically, offered and continues to offer illumination.

George Leonard’s life (1923–2010) will be memorialized at a service on Sunday, February 28, 2010, at the Mill Valley Community Center, 180 Camino Alto, Mill Valley, California, from 3:00 pm until 6:00 pm. Tax deductible contributions may be made in his name at

“What will count in the long run
is not just what we learn to do
but what we are willing to be.
The most promising adventure is worth joining
only if it contributes to the common good.”
-George Leonard (2006, The Silent Pulse, p.191)

1 comment:

Matt said...

Lance, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. George was an incredible man, who has had a tremendous impact on so many. While I am sorry for your loss, I am in awe, and ever thankful for his contributions to the world.