Let Pain Be Our Path to Connection

This is part 5 of an 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-4, check them out here.

Hang on. It’s about to get real. The fourth practice of a mindful leader provides us the space to look inward and stew in our own fear, vulnerability, aloneness, regret, and other emotions we tend to bury down deep.

The fourth practice is “Connect to Your Pain,” and Lesser tells us that “Letting in our pain connects us with our common humanity and with all of life, it strengthens us, and it improves our ability to listen and act.”

I wonder what he means by “letting in.” Letting in where? I may be able to recognize my pain and even name it. I may be able to write about it, draw a picture of it, or even talk about it, but does that mean I’m letting it in? I’m still working on that one.

I do know that as many of us, I find it incredibly easy to bury my pain. So easy, that it becomes a habit. Dale Carnegie might tell us to put it in a “Day-Tight Compartment.” I can experience something, stash it away somewhere in my psyche, and move on to the next event. The reality though is the permeability of our day-tight compartments. Like a river cutting through rock, our compartments do not hold tight forever. And the longer we go without connecting to our pain, the higher the danger of a 40-year flood.

So Lesser recommends we connect to our pain through a couple different strategies. One is meditation of course. And another is to create a timeline of our lives – both the highs and the lows. Then journal about each major event, leaning into the emotions we remember feeling at the time and emotions we feel about those events now with some distance. Perhaps writing is an avenue to “letting in” the pain. Talking or thinking about our emotions sometimes keeps them at a distance. It’s amost as if we are an observer. Journaling often allows a closer and more personal connection to the feeling.

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Whether it is through creating a timeline or meditation or any other way you develop, a key take-away from this practice is to lean into the pain or discomfort. Rather than pretending it is not there, accepting that denial is not an option will allow us to take better care of ourselves so we can take better care of others. Perhaps it starts with accepting the fact that we are not as good at hiding our pain as we think we are. We can’t hide it from ourselves. And if our intention is to be an authentic leader, then we can’t believe that hiding from our pain won’t hinder our ability to serve others.


This fourth practice wraps up Part 1 of Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. We’ve spent the last few weeks investigating ourselves and the impact our inner thoughts and actions have on our behavior as a leader. Next week, we move the work outward into the practices of connecting with those around us. In leading teams/classrooms and families it’s important to remember the mantra, “I before we.” If we did not spend the last three weeks looking inward we would not be fit to interact with others at the level they deserve.

Next week we dive into the fifth practice – Connect to the Pain of Others. Here’s a quick preview Lesser shares from the Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald… striking.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Thanks for reading, don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list if you have not already.

Don’t Be an Expert. Let’s Embrace the Paradox

This is part 4 of an 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-3, check them out here.

We left off the last two week talking about doing and loving the work. We learned that the “work” is cultivating our mindfulness and our context is leadership. Now as we jump into the third practice of a mindful leader, Marc Lesser challenges us to look even deeper into ourselves. This third practice speaks directly to our often insatiable appetite for striving and looking good in front of our peers.

The third practice of a mindful leader is: Don’t Be an Expert.

Don’t be an expert!? Isn’t that why I am a leader? Wasn’t I chosen for my current leadership position because I knew more than the other candidates for the job? Not very likely.

But, don’t those on my team now expect me to have answers when they come to me with questions? Don’t my kids want me to use my vast life experience to tell them what to do? Even less likely.

Lesser reminds us often that the mindful leader’s job is to think, listen, and hold space. Those are the things our team members and family members expect from us. They expect us to think with them when they are having a dilemma, listen with caring when they need to get something off their chest, and create space for presence and cooperation as we build shared cultures at work and at home. They don’t usually expect us to wow them with our brilliant solution to their problem.

It’s so hard to hold back though, isn’t it. Most of us have moved up in our careers because we were really good at certain aspects of our jobs and received regular praise for said performance. We received praise for “doing” something, usually not for our ability to think, listen, or hold space. We were praised for having the right answers.

And it’s so easy to get hooked on the dopamine hit when someone recognizes your intelligence. It’s not our fault though. We’ve been formally graded and judged since kindergarten – and even before that by our parents. Some of us excelled in that system and came out the other end addicted to pleasing. Others of us fought that system and came out ready to disengage and go our own ways.

But for our purposes here today, it’s the addiction to praise that interests me the most because it hits me right in the gut. I can look at missteps I’ve made as a leader and identify instances where I prioritized earning praise from my boss over coaching someone on my team. The irony lies in the fleeting nature of that praise versus the lasting impact on a damaged relationship with someone on my team. We can say the same about most addictions.

Lesser shares several practices in the chapter related to embracing a beginner’s mind in our work as leaders and I want to focus in on one in particular – Listen with Open Ears: Don’t Be a Relationship Expert. In all the different aspects of leadership, we can do the most lasting damage when we act like an expert in the aspect of our relationships with and between others.

Lesser urges us to recognize our filters and the stories we tell ourselves about other people and their actions. He quotes the opening lines of R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience, “I cannot experience your experience. You cannot experience my experience. Therefore we are invisible to each other.” That invisibility remains in effect until we start to listen. Lesser goes on to say, “Therefore, it is useful to practice being attentive and curious in order to increase our understanding of others. Usually, the more familiar we become with others, the more we assume we ‘know’ them. We risk believing we are ‘relationship experts.'”

So let’s work on recognizing when our mental chatter is telling us a story about someone or something we have experienced in the past. If we recognize it, then we can choose whether or not to listen to that internal voice. We can choose not to assume and see the person or situation with a beginner’s mind. Easier said than done. I fail at this almost daily, but I’m getting better at recognizing my failure and every now and then catch myself before responding. As we talked about last week, it all comes down to an intentional response. And when we can make the response with the passion and curiosity of a beginner, we will likely see our experiences and relationships with renewed joy and wonder.

Before we move on to the fourth practice, Connect to Your Pain, I want to invite you to join my mailing list. By doing so, each update to this blog will be mindfully delivered to you inbox as soon as it’s published.


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Here’s a preview from next week’s post:

Turning toward and connecting to my own pain has been essential in helping me discover what is most important, whether in leadership roles or in any part of my life. This is the benefit of the fourth practice, and I’ve found it true for me again and again.

Marc Lesser – Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader

Thanks…

Everything is Connected – It’s Time to Do the Work

This is part 3 of an 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1 or 2, check them out here.

Before we jump into the second principle – Do the Work – let’s remind ourselves what the work is. According to Lesser, the work is cultivating our own mindfulness. And we ended our look at the first principle – Love the Work – with his definition of what leaders do on a daily basis:

  1. Think – leaders use intelligence to plan, envision, problem solve, focus, and see from a multitude of perspectives.
  2. Listen – they care about others and collaborate with others to execute a shared vision, which means being open, vulnerable, and curious.
  3. Hold Space – they try to be fully present, clear, emotionally open, and credible; they influence the culture by creating positive norms around storytelling, flexibility, and accountability.

So how do we as leaders in the various settings and contexts we find ourselves cultivating our mindfulness through the actions of thinking, listening, and holding space? Lesser opens the chapter by highlighting two distinct ways we do this work: dedicated and integrated practice.

Let’s look at our dedicated practices first. What distinct routines or structures do we build into our lives which temporarily pull us away from others and allow us to do inner work? Lesser of course recommends Zen-based dedicated practices like sitting/walking meditation and journal writing. Personally, I do my best to have dedicated practice every morning. From 4:30-6:00 at least five days a week my morning routine includes a combination of sitting meditation, kettlebell swings, inversion, walking the dog in the dark, and occasionally a 3-5 min dip in my ice tank. I don’t do all those activities every day, but try to do a combination each day. The key is that this dedicated practice all takes place before anyone else is awake and allows me to embrace some silence before interacting with anyone else. Going back to thinking, listening, and holding space, it’s much harder to do any of that for anyone else throughout the day if we aren’t also doing all those things for ourselves.

Then examining our integrated practices, Lesser focuses in on our ability to respond.

The Zen tradition has a dialogue in which a student asks the teacher, “What is the teaching of an entire lifetime?” The teacher answers, “An appropriate response.”

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In our work as leaders is anything more important than the way we choose to respond to the numerous and unpredictable events that are either brought to us or we stumble upon? And in the context of leadership, an “appropriate response” is one where we hold space for thinking and listening.

Lesser reminds us then that the question we need to ask ourselves as leaders is, “Why don’t we respond appropriately all the time? What keeps us from being mindful? Here are his four common obstacles:

  1. We lack awareness of others or the situation
  2. We feel judgemental and self-critical
  3. We become afraid and react without thinking
  4. We fear change

These obstacles will always be with us. The Work is integrating and cultivating a practice of noticing when any of these four obstacles are influencing our responses. The events I’m presented with at work these days are heavy, but the numerousness of them is much less than when I was an assistant principal. As a K-12 campus leader you have numerous daily unpredictable events presented to you by students, parents, and teachers. And the seriousness of these events range from negligible to life-threatening. This ability to cultivate an intentional and mindful response is what separates leaders. It’s also how campuses and organizations build healthy cultures.

Those on our teams need to trust that we as leaders will respond with actions that are in congruence with our stated values. They also need to be able to predict how we would respond to a situation when we are not there so those on our teams have the confidence to act in our absence. When we fall victim to the four obstacles listed above, and we act in incongruence with our stated values, our leadership and the cultures we nurture suffer.

When I hold true to my dedicated morning practice time – which really starts the night before by going to sleep early – I notice my actions are better aligned with my values. I’m sure those around me can see it too. Everything is connected. Both dedicated and integrated practice are essential to Doing the Work.

Before we move on to the third practice, Don’t Be an Expert, I want to invite you to join my mailing list. By doing so, each update to this blog will be mindfully delivered to you inbox as soon as it’s published.

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One last thing to prepare us for next week. Here’s the quote with which Lesser opens his look at the third principle. Enjoy:

The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.

Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Book Recommendation – The Awakened Family

I’ve written before about transitions in parenting. And still, as my boys are turning a corner from kids to young adults, it’s been fascinating watching them develop their own interests and desires. All of a sudden they are making their own meals, decisions, and developing habits outside my direct control.

Their growth is so rapid that I worry sometimes that I’m not growing and adapting quickly enough to continue to meet their needs and give them space to contribute to the family as a whole.

As the boys grow and change, the entire family will turn a corner. All of a sudden we have four opinionated, confident, divergent, and independent people living together. It makes me wonder why we put labels on periods in our lives like “kid” and “young adult.” Will their ideas about our family carry less weight over the next ten years because their parents pay the bills? I’m not sure I want to live with two people for the next ten years who contribute to the family out of a sense of compliance. I don’t want to come home to “employees” either.

So that corner I mentioned will either be dangerously sharp with multiple switchbacks or intentionally smooth with a few bumps over the next decade. It’s coming either way.

I may be rambling, and that’s because I read an exceptional book recently that sparked much thought in how I want to be intentional and be sure I’m growing as a person as much as the boys are these next ten years. And even more important, that as a family we are growing into an ensemble rather than expecting the boys to conform to repeating our experiences and expectations.

I can’t recommend The Awakened Family by Dr. Shefali Tsabari enough for families with young people moving from single to double digits. It will make you think about the role you play in your children’s behavior. It’s humbling to read at times, but if you can remove your ego for a moment, it helps you realize the control you truly own. The punchline though is that the control lies only with your reactions. We can’t change our kids. We can change our own reactions to what they do or say, but that is the end of our locus of control. After reading this book, I believe understanding that limit will give the kids more space to evolve rather than spending their time trying to predict my reactions to their actions. It will be a work in practice.

Family life is beautiful and complex, and I would love to hear other ideas in the comments from folks on making that transition from living with truly dependent young children, to living with young people who need agency and partnership.

Thanks for reading.

Re-Reading on the Road

Wrote this several months ago, but forgot to post it. Hope you like it.


The first time I read Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato I was sitting on the roof-top terrace of the Rex Hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

It was dark, I was 22, sipping a gin and tonic, and listening to the common night-time sounds of an incredible city in Southeast Asia.

This time I’m 40, on a business trip, sitting in a hotel bar in Houston, TX. I’m still sipping on a gin and tonic and this time listening to the common sounds of hotel bars across North America.

It’s amazing though how taste, words, and sounds tie a life together. I’ve re-read several books lately from my younger days and can’t recommend it enough. Rather than chasing the latest writer, revisit the favorites of your youth.

  • The same story means something different to your 40-year-old self than your 20-year-old self. That realization has hit me over and over. It’s a completely different experience.
  • The re-reading takes your mind back to that time and place. Midway through the first chapter of Going After Cacciato, I was back in Vietnam, back on Semester at Sea. I could smell Southeast Asia. I felt the night heat, the enthusiasm of my 20s. Careful…it’s a slippery slope. Trust me.
  • It makes me wonder where I will be, what I will remember, when I read it again as a 60-year-old. Which character in the story will I identify with then?

It’s also important to read when we travel because the stories serve as quick passages to our earlier selves. These time capsules allow us to continually check in with ourselves. They allow us to take a step back from our current self and realize how we have grown and changed.

I read several Paul Theroux novels while traveling through Europe on my honeymoon and now when I pick up Saint Jack, I can taste the bread and wine Kelley and I enjoyed on the Col Du Tourmalet watching Tour De France riders suffer up that mountain.

While living in Sosua, DR for several months I read much of John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee saga and recently rereading A Deadly Shade of a Gold, I not only checked in with Trav, and Meyer, but checked in with myself and remembered my thoughts during that point in life and how it felt to run on that sandy beach each morning.

Time is finite, and as many of us do, I often fall into chasing the latest title or gadget to make sure I don’t miss something exceptional. That affliction though often results in lukewarm and generic experiences.

By our 40s shouldn’t we know what quality means to us? I think so. The hard part is owning it and recognizing that now we go deeper into that quality. Not putting total blinders on to newness, but rather becoming better versions of our 20-year-old selves.

Whether reading Going After Cacciato on the roof of the Rex Hotel in Vietnam or at a cheesy hotel bar in Houston, our goal is the same as the protagonist in that story – self-acceptance. So maybe it’s not total blinders to newness, but the filter to get past our defenses must be strong. Stand watch, just like Private First Class Paul Berlin.

Let the Reading Path Circle Back

I rediscovered Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance recently due to a triangulation of events. I turned 40 which is the age of the father in the story, at work I had to pick a T-shirt with my favorite book on the front, and finally, in the last few years, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about Zen Buddhism.

Firstly though, I felt I better re-read the book because even though I read it in my early 20s, if I was going to wear it on a shirt to work I better refresh in case anyone asked questions or made any references.

Secondly, I was reminded that there are books we need to re-read during each decade of our lives. The titles are different for each of us, but there are 5-10 that resonate to a point in our early years that we need to revisit them as we move through the decades. I remembered a convoluted story about a father and son on a motorcycle trip, some other character called a Phaedrus, and the narrator going on and on about “Quality.” But revisiting the story, it became a powerful dive into values and personal freedom. This “re-read” provided much more meaning than trying to keep up with the most recent “must-read.”

We may start with a couple books from our 20s, a few from our 30s, and so it goes.

I’m continuing with these:

What am I missing? What’s on your list? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Inch and Miles – Book Recommendation

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I was just out of high school when I read my first John Wooden book. His simple beginnings and the clarity he provides through his Pyramid of Success consistently stick with me more than any other definition of success.

“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable”

-Coach John Wooden

His work continues to circle back into my life at important times and the latest instance was last week teaching third graders at Anderson Mill Elementary. The campus has an apprenticeship program where various professionals come in to work with the class while their teachers collaborate on upcoming lessons and assessments. Over the last four years, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing Wooden’s message through his children’s book Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success.

When Lincoln and Harrison were born we read the poems to them each evening before bed and each block on the pyramid serves as an effective benchmark to refer to when we are working on skills, like self-control, determination, or cooperation.

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I can’t recommend this book enough as a foundational bedrock to help our kids discover that success isn’t having trophies or toys, but rather trying to be the best you can be!