A Warrior’s Way of Business: Petaluma-area institute draws clients from around the world to hone mental, physical skills based on Eastern traditions

[Published on March 14, 2001, © 2001, by The Press Democrat; BYLINE: RAYNE WOLFE]

Among the dairies and sheep ranches west of Petaluma, something named Rancho Strozzi may sound like another farm. Far from it.

The Rancho Strozzi Institute is run by a former Marine and martial arts expert whose blend of mental and physical training is sought after by corporate chieftains and military leaders alike.

The institute’s training techniques have been adopted by the Marine Corps worldwide. And about 500 business professionals and private students pass through the sprawling 13-acre institute of barns and ranch houses off Middle Two Rock Road every year seeking the wisdom of founder and teacher Richard Strozzi Heckler.

His goal: to show students from AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, dot-coms or the Marines how the principles of a strong body and mind are critical to success in business or the military.

“Remember that movie, `The Karate Kid’? It looks silly, but developing simple disciplines and raising consciousness is ultimately beneficial,” said Heckler, who is a psychologist, a fifth-degree Aikido black belt and a prolific author.

In demand but down to earth, Heckler admits that each tax year finds him challenged by the prospect of filling in the “occupation” box on his IRS form. Some years, he just types in the word “teacher.”

Rancho Strozzi’s rustic buildings include a farmhouse that has been converted into a modern office. The weathered cookhouse where gourmet meals are prepared sits atop a hill, facing a meadow where Heckler’s wife and institute co-founder, Ariana, keeps horses used for training and therapy.

The institute has a staff of seven, who recently were busy preparing for a three-day Leadership Convention, slated for late April. People who attend that event — many drawn by the current popularity of Eastern thought and physical discipline — will pay $575 to hear Heckler, his colleague Dick Leider, and guest business leaders discuss the creation of meaning and purpose at work.

They will meet in what looks like a barn, but is really a “dojo,” which simply means a place of training. Visitors to the dojo will leave their shoes at the door and stand upon a padded floor to do exercises similar to martial art movements.

The setting is peaceful, with the sound of horses’ whinnying blending with other sounds heard on a farm.

Most business professionals come to the Petaluma retreat for “Professional Mastery” classes, spread over six three-day weekends, which are held four times per year. Attendees first learn exercises and practices that help them to see themselves as others do. As the group continues to meet, each attendee is coached on how to listen, stay centered, and move toward goals.

As the training nears completion, students have defined detailed personal goals and have started making changes in their lives in order to attain them. “One of the things we do is have our students write out an emotional autobiography. Understanding how your history has shaped you is a crucial step toward positive change,” Heckler said.

Is this Northern California narcissistic self-devotion gone mad or do people really benefit from time spent learning to find their own centers, communicate and practice positive responses to negative events? Tom White, chief executive officer of Webprint.com, an online printing service, has attended three programs. “It’s a commitment of six to eight weekends with time in between to read, think and learn new skills. Students come to Richard because he’s an exceptional teacher,” said White.

Heckler began his career as a psychologist in Washington state. While earning his Ph.D. in psychology, he became fascinated by the psychology of winning, due in part to his own experiences as a college and amateur track star. He won the 100-meter dash in the Central American Games in Mexico City in 1967.

“What I saw is that success was more mind than body. I also recognized the value of a strong coach and I thought I could apply that to my practice,” Heckler said. Working first with individuals, inner-city gangs and athletes, while at the same time earning sequential belts in Aikido, it seemed natural for Heckler to integrate the sources of so much of his own personal satisfaction into his practice. “I find somatics — when the mind and body connection is enhanced — fascinating. Life is improved when that happens,” Heckler said.

Heckler has developed a worldwide following based on his expertise in somatics and his thoughts regarding human beings and technology, as well as his Aikido mastery.

Many students first learned of his multifaceted expertise when he was tapped to join a three-man team to develop a new training program for the Marine Corps special service teams.

Once he got the troops to stop humming the theme from “The Twilight Zone” every time he spoke of using meditation to control respiration, the task went smoothly.

That program is now institutionalized in all major Marine schools on both coasts, with 275,000 Marines having already received the training. Each year, 40,000 additional service men and women will go through the program.

Madison Avenue has taken up the new Marine mantra with the recruiting slogan based on Heckler’s principles: “Marine Martial Art: You’ll Bow to No One.”

Heckler also trained the Green Berets at the request of the Department of Defense. Code named The Trojan Warrior Project, that adventure is described in his book, “In Search of the Warrior Spirit.”

Heckler believes the Western mind is trained to think of the mind and body as disconnected. “Somatics emphasizes the symbiosis. And I use martial arts exercises to accomplish that,” Heckler said.

In addition to co-founding Rancho Strozzi 15 years ago, he is co-founder of Tamalpais Aikido Dojo, Two Rock Aikido Dojo and the Lomi School. He has taught at Sonoma State University, the University of Chicago, the Esalen Institute and the University of Munich.

Heckler was house hunting when he first saw the Petaluma property that has become his professional home base. “In 1987, I had finished one big commitment and could settle anywhere I wanted. I was visiting friends and just started driving around with a Realtor — just for fun. But the moment I saw it, I knew I would live here,” he said. Since converting the property to a learning center, the Hecklers have built another home nearby.

Rancho Strozzi Institute is busy year-round. If a group of businesspeople finished with a corporate session is driving down the road, a group that has paid $1,250 per couple is passing them on their way to a weekend relationship seminar. Events can last days, weeks or longer. One special training session is spread out over 18 days and costs $5,000 per person.

The institute’s roster of corporate clients includes: AT&T, Monsanto, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Capital One Financial Corp., Boston Edison Electric, Simon & Schuster and Burst.com.

Women attendees outnumber men, 65 percent to 35 percent.

Richard Lang, chief executive officer of Burst.com, a San Francisco company that sells streaming video systems, has spent nearly $50,000 to have his entire 30-person firm trained at Rancho Strozzi. Subsequently, his key executives have gone back to Petaluma twice to enhance their skills and deepen the level of mutual trust. “Sure, a couple of employees stood in the back and snickered at that first session. But those are the people who are not emotionally prepared to reveal themselves,” Lang said.

“A lot of time has gone by and I’d say that we still benefit daily from what we’ve learned. Personally, I know that I am living a much more conscious life and I’m much more aware of and prepared for the positive and negative energy that comes at me as CEO a hundred times a day,” Lang added.

Learning by role playing
Simple practices taught at Rancho Strozzi Institute can include role playing to defuse anger. One person plays the boss and a second person plays an angry employee. As the angry role-player advances, the person in the boss role observes the agitated person and stands to greet and recognize that person, but turns his body to the side as the two come closer.

By diminishing the face-to-face confrontation through body placement, the emotional compression of the feelings of anger between the two individuals is reduced. The goal is to defuse negative energy, learn to listen respectfully, consider the source of the approaching person’s anger and address problems thoughtfully, without sacrificing the personal dignity of either person.