Encountering the Tao of Leadership: An Exploration of John Heider's Life and Work

Feb 28, 2023
Encountering the Tao of Leadership: An Exploration of John Heider's Life and Work

A Good Group. A good group is better than a spectacular group. When leaders become superstars, the teacher outshines the teaching. Very few superstars are down-to-earth. Fame breeds fame, and before long they get carried away with themselves. Then they fly off center and crash. The wise leader settles for good work and then lets others have the floor. The leader does not take all the credit for what happens and has no need for fame. A moderate ego demonstrates wisdom.

ā€• John Heider, The Tao of Leadership: Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age


Deep in the forests of Big Sur, California, there is a place known as the Esalen Institute. Founded in 1962, this center for human development has attracted some of the most brilliant minds of our time. Thinkers like Aldous Huxley, B.F. Skinner, and Abraham Maslow have all made pilgrimages to this mecca of self-exploration. In the 1970s, a young man named John Heider would also find his way to Esalen. His journey would lead him to become one of the most influential figures in the world of psychology.


The Son of a Psychologist

John Heider was born in 1944 into a family of psychologists. His father, Fritz Heider, was a professor of psychology at Smith College. Fritz's work focused on social perception and cognition, and he was one of the first researchers to study gestalt phenomena. Gestalt is a German word that means "pattern" or "form." In gestalt psychology, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This means that when we see an object, we don't just see a collection of disconnected lines and colors. We see a unified whole. This integrative quality is what allows us to make sense of the world around us.

Fritz's work had a profound impact on his son John. As a child, John would often accompany his father to his laboratory and watch as he conducted experiments on human perception. These early experiences would shape John's thinking about psychology and lay the foundation for his future work in the field.

A Member of The Flying Circus

After graduating from college, John took a position as group leader at the Esalen Institute. It was here that he met Roshi Bernie Glassman, who would become his mentor. Roshi Bernie was a Zen Buddhist teacher and founder of The Peacemaker Order. He was also part of something called The Flying Circus – a group of people who traveled around the country leading trainings in authentic relating and encounter groups. (Encounter groups were popularized in the 1970s as a way for people to explore their personal issues in a safe and supportive environment.) The Flying Circus was notorious for pushing boundaries and pushing people out of their comfort zones. It was through Bernie that John first experienced firsthand the power of psychotherapy to transform lives.

In 1977, John published his first book, The Tao of Leadership. The book is based on an ancient Chinese text called The Tao Te Ching (pronounced "dow deejing"). The Tao Te Ching is a book of wisdom literature that has been used by sages and philosophers throughout history to help them live more authentic and fulfilling lives. In The Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes:

"Those who know do not speak/Those who speak do not know."

This idea – that true knowledge is best conveyed through silence – would become one of John's guiding principles both as an author and as a therapist.

John Heider spent the rest of his career teaching workshops and writing books about leadership, psychotherapy, and Gestalt theory. His work has inspired generations of psychologists and continues to touch lives all over the world today.


John Heider was an influential figure in the world of psychology whose work has inspired generations of group leaders after him. He faced many challenges throughout his life but he always came out on top because he had an unwavering commitment to helping other people grow emotionally stronger so they could face their challenges too...just like he did.

Photo credit: Dorothy N. Thomas (in the lodge at Esalen)

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