“The course of organizations from beginning to end,” by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

“Where is Aikido headed as a cultural phenomenon?”

stan-pranin-closeupI recently read an article that purports to describe the general course of organizations from founding to dissolution. Here are the 19 steps:

1. A charismatic founder establishes a small, dedicated organization.
2. He builds it in terms of a vision.
3. He dies.
4. His subordinates battle for control.
5. Losers depart.
6. The new leader is an intellectual lightweight — an infighter, not a visionary.
7. He re-focuses the organization.
8. The donors are mostly well-meaning simple people — joiners, not thinkers.
9. They are committed to the organization, not the founder’s vision.
10. They are oblivious to the changes at the top.
11. They will not tolerate criticism of the organization.
12. They get old.
13. They die.
14. They are not replaced.
15. The organization shrivels.
16. There are more coups.
17. No one cares any more.
18. The organization limps along.
19. It becomes a trivia question: “What ever happened to….?

In your experience, is this an accurate description of what normally occurs to organizations? In your opinion, have aikido organizations followed a similar pattern?

I submit this to your collective wisdom for discussion.


  1. The big question isn’t what was lost. That is just as it will be. The two relevant questions are what is retained and how tolerant is the organization of exploring and re-creating what was lost. So, at this point it is relevant to ask both questions of aikido. Eventually organizations succeed or fail by their ability to attract people and funding. From a martial point of view, efficacy is always reinvented. This goes from the individual level, you’ll never, or at least very rarely, have the same encounter twice. What worked last time may or may not work this time if you do. At the grand level, consider WWII. Pearl Harbor was much more effective than the assault on Port Arthur, but eventually just as inconclusive. The German reprise of the Schlieffen Plan of 1914 in 1940 might have worked. Guderian’s improvisation when the plan was compromised, however, worked better than anyone on either side could have imagined. Then there was N Africa, especially consider the fight for the Kasserine Pass.

  2. History repeating itself: the endless battle between greed and mutual welfare.

    A charismatic visionary leader surrounds himself with four kinds of followers:
    1. Those who are attached to the persona of the leader. They are more likely to stay home in the leader’s absence and quit after he leaves or passes away. Change is their excuse.
    2. Those who are attached to the name and reputation of the leader for self-serving purposes. Sometimes they cannot wait and they may reveal their true agenda before the leader’s departure by taking early advantage of their position. They are more likely to claim their independence, loosen the standards and fabricate their curriculum in order to accommodate their personal needs. They will often be followed by yes-men who in turn will quit or become independent. That’s the dead end.
    3. Those who are loyal to what the leader represents and his teachings. They see and accept their leader as a fully realized human being with his qualities and flaws. They are more likely to stay together since they are aware of the challenges that they will have to overcome in order to keep the teachings alive. They will keep a low profile so that their followers can focus on the teachings and prepare the ground for another fully committed leader to arise in the future.
    4. Those who are a combination of the three previous ones (most of us belong to that category, right?) They live in doubt, cannot make up their minds, don’t want to hear, don’t want to see, don’t want to say. They look for convenience and are likely to follow their friends. Occasionally someone from that group will wake up and join the third group. However few of us are willing to admit our bad decisions and use them as a part of our study. Hence we are more likely to let history repeat itself.

    This topic requires a lot of deep thinking and sharing. We know the lessons of history. Can we learn from them and evolve?

    Thank you Mr. Pranin for reopening the case.

    Patrick Augé

  3. My Gibeaut says:

    As long as my dojo has nice parties with yummy food, I’m showing up.

  4. You can also divide time in four steps (I’ll draw a parallel with painting for illustration -so to speak- purpose):

    1. A researcher, free spirited, creates (whatever he creates). Van Gogh Draws sunflowers. Ueshiba creates Aikido.

    2. The elite recognises its value and quickly adopts the novelty. Van Gogh sells its first painting and becomes famous in a few years after his early passing. Ueshiba becomes famous and attracts students in the 30ies.

    3. The mass market. The discovery is sold/monetized in many forms. Van G’s sunflowers end up on every damn chocolate box and many imitators try to paint sunflowers like the idealised master. The Aikikai spreads Aikido round the world.

    4 Death. Everybody gets bored with sunflowers. Young artists go beyond, young testosterone lads go MMA.

    And eventually recycling (back to moment 1 but on different terms):

    Ueshiba recycled Daito ryu, someone will recycle (or is currently recycling the sunflowers). Like in chemistry, nothing is lost, everything transforms. Someone will recycle Aikido, probably by rediscovering its inner logics,
    just like some artists will integrate Van G’s work in their own. There is a hidden tradition beneath the surface: people who work without prejudice, fully, honestly.

    This is why preserving the tradition is so important whatever we do with it. Artists should learn drawing, even if they don’t draw anymore afterwards. Aikidoists should study and transmit the kata even if they don’t understand them fully.

  5. Steve Varley says:

    If an organization is built solely around copying a charismatic founder, it indeed may be fated to move through these 19 steps. Consider “generation loss,” where fidelity and sharpness are gradually lost through generations of even high-quality reproduction.

    It is possible to evolve but remain mindful of the spirit that drove the founder to their conclusion. Minoru Mochizuki Sensei passed this on to his students, and my teachers challenge me with this model still today. While this is a time-consuming and serious way to practice, it is rewarding!

    Steve Varley

  6. William Brown says:

    Hello, Mr. Pranin,

    Thank you for your article on organizations. I wondered if you were directing this (perhaps as a warning?) to certain aikido organizations. Whatever your purpose, you shared something that made me ponder the beliefs and associations that I have for myself and that I have observed.

    As I read, I jotted down some questions and comments about the list (in parentheses):

    3. He dies. (Doesn’t the battling for eventual ownership happen before the death of the founder?)
    5. Losers depart. (They splinter off and create their own organization together or separate organizations individually.)
    6. The new leader is an intellectual lightweight — an infighter, not a visionary. (This can go the other way too: the successor brings some new dimension to the organization that profits it in some way – such as, well, PROFIT.)
    7. He re-focuses the organization. (On what? Whose vision?)
    8. The donors are mostly well-meaning simple people — joiners, not thinkers. (Very judgmental, especially with the use of the word, “donors” – aren’t the people who join looking for the message that the organization is offering? An organization tends to attract like-minded people seeking that message.)
    9. They are committed to the organization, not the founder’s vision. (At this point, do they even know the founder’s vision? Or are they aware only of the successors’ individual visions – their re-interpretations of the original vision, i.e., what they have been told?)
    14. They are not replaced. (I do not understand 10 – 14.)
    15. The organization shrivels. (By this time, the “organization” has already splintered into several separate mini-organizations that carry a little bit of the original message – much of which has been re-interpreted. There is something of the original in it, but much is also the newer version.)
    16. There are more coups. (Redundant – there will always be battles for power in organizations where power or gain is considered the reward…)
    17. No one cares any more. (Actually, people do – but only in small groups, who practice it in what they believe to be the original, purest form.)
    18. The organization limps along. (Public education has gone through many steps in this process; so has the Catholic Church. While they are not the same as their original versions, they continue to move along but continue re-defining themselves. Is this evolution or compromise? I think both.)
    19. It becomes a trivia question: “What ever happened to….? (This is why we need Aiki Expo!)

    Organizations should not be confused with the messages/ visions/ values that they are supposed to uphold and live. Organizations are constant re-interpretations of the messages/ visions/ values from the perspectives of who is in charge (which implies looking at this person’s values) and who are the clientele (which likewise implies looking at their values). Look at Church and Christianity, for example, and school and education: they tend to become different institutions.

    Aikido does not seem to have a universal message, only individual organizations’ and practitioners’ versions of the message (such as those shared here in the Aikido Journal). As my teacher advises us, “We cannot escape who we are,” and this is manifested in our practice and in our organizations. But we do have our practice.

    This is one important reason why you, Mr. Pranin (or someone who may be willing to take up the charge and start learning to do this), needs to continue organizing the Aiki Expo gatherings: to continue the promotion of the message, wherein the common thread is our practice but is only a starting point, and maybe bring up dialogue about what that message is. Maybe this will be one step we can take to avoid our practice becoming a trivia question.

    Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts.



  7. I think what Chiba sensei has done to establish Birankai is what is called for–there was a very nice introduction in the form of an essay on that page about how Birankai was established, but at any rate, spreading Aikido and allowing non-Japanese blooded persons to earn rank of shihan has definitely, in my opinion, allowed Aikido to flourish where otherwise it would tend to “die” for lack of inclusion of non-Japanese.

    Birankai URl (N. America–includes link to other continents where Birankai is has been established):

    • “Allowing non-Japanese blooded persons to earn rank of shihan” is common sense as long as the standards are maintained to their initial high level.

      Wasn’t it a requirement that only uchideshi could become shihan?

      Patrick Augé

  8. Thank you Mr. Pranin for giving us the opportunity to voice our opinions. Taking a quote from the first Spiderman movie, “with great power, comes great responsibility.”

    This point in addition to the Seven Tenets of the Samurai should be our mission and guiding precepts in the “Perfection of Character” as taught by O-Sensei, Kano Sensei and Funakoshi Sensei and other great teachers.
    All of our reasons for starting along our path in Aikido and the martial arts are as different as each one of us. The choice of our teacher is often by chance, good fortune sometimes careful research.

    Aikido teachers have a great responsibility to Ueshiba and Kano Sensei’s teachings and hence other revered great teachers, Mochizuki Sensei being one.

    These inspired and charismatic teachers lived the Samurai Tenets and Great Responsibility.

    After their death they left their precious teachings to their top students, the next generation. This is where lust for power, sense of independence, greed, arrogance etc. surface as subodinates battle for control.
    The next generation may not possess the intellect, the charisma, the talent but they must lead to the best of their ability, maintain the standards and the teachings, share them with other teachers and continue to evolve them. In this way the next generation of teachers, thinkers, joiners and supporters continue the origional teachings, mission and vision. They must properly prepare the following generations.

    “Traditions were established by ancestors in order for the following generations to understand how those ancestors lived and then evolve from there. Traditions must be distinguished from conventions, which mostly consist of repeating others’ behaviour without understanding.”

    Our purpose in life and studying Aikido is to Perfect our Character through responsibility, the Tenets of the Samurai: Justice, Courage Politeness, Benevolence, Honour, Sincerety and Loyalty.

    Mochizuki Sensei recalls a conversation of the dangers of winning and losing ( my words, competition on and off of the mats) and Ueshiba Sensei’s sharp reply: “Your whole way of thinking is mistaken! Of course, it is wrong to be weak, but that is not the whole story. Don’t you realize that we are no longer in an age where we can even talk about winning or losing? It is the age of love now, can’t you see that?”

    Sugiyama Masashi Sensei, one of Mochizuki Sensei’s senior students said,”You have to live a straight life in order to study Budo. If you get into Budo for the wrong reasons, you will not be happy and you will mislead others.”
    I would like to thank my teachers Augé and Sugiyama Sensei for their patience, teaching and allowing me to borrow exerts from their writings. Their mission and vision is to teach and evolve the teachings given to them by Mochizuki Sensei as well as develop themselves and assist their students in the same.

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