Our Constant Struggle to Make It Simpler

This is part 8 of my 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-7, check them out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

We’ve come a long way and have made it to the seventh and final post in our look at Marc Lesser’s Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. This practice focuses on our ability to take a step back, remember our priority, and test some assumptions. Welcome to the seventh practice – Keep Making It Simpler.

It’s easier to take the complex road in our work as leaders. Keep adding tools, resources, ideas to our toolboxes and we want to play with them. We go to conferences or workshops and want to implement something new. Or we are striving to impress our own bosses and the people on our teams suffer the consequences.

Many of us work in industries driven by goals and plans. Key Performance Indicators, Campus/District Improvement, goals of more types than we can remember often shape our decision-making more than we like. And as leaders, we must remember that our goals shape the behavior of those on our teams. We can’t pretend we operate in a vacuum. Everything is connected and too often these goals and plans add unnecessary complexity or inject unintended consequences.

The complex path is easy but it’s also shallow, and it allows us to spread out accountability. It also provides us as leaders additional cover if the results do not pan out the way you were hoping. But, that is playing not to lose rather than to win. This often plays out by over-intervening. We add layer upon layer of programs so at the end of the day we can say, “we did everything we could,” or, “we covered everything.” We rarely are asked if by doing/covering everything, we made the system too complex and did nothing well.

So it’s the simple path that is hard, but lasting. It’s the simple path that provides our teams the space to do their best work and become mindful leaders themselves.

How then, do we protect our teams from the barrage of noise looking to invade their work, the anxiety that comes from a perception that they must do everything, and the fear that can permeate a culture driven by an annual performance measure?

Lesser takes us back to where we started so many weeks ago. We help our teams make things simpler by making things simpler ourselves. He suggests a meditative practice of “letting go.” The ideas he tells us to let go of are the exact things others in our lives are telling us to pay attention to, so there is an inherent societal conflict in making things simpler. Simple is rarely praised or rewarded. The practice outlined in the picture below does not tell us to permanently let go of our to-do lists and our expectations of others, but rather to lean into the feeling of how we would see our work without these burdens.

Another aspect of Keep Making it Simpler suggested by Lesser is responding to the expectation of others that, “we are all so busy.”

Does anyone else struggle with how to respond to colleagues who assume we are feeling as busy as they are? I’m never sure how to respond. I have as much to do as anyone else, but at the same time do everything I can to never feel busy. When I find myself feeling busy, that’s an internal message I’m doing something wrong – not a badge of honor. Yet, when someone asks me if, or assumes I’m busy, then I feel social pressure to make a heavy sigh, hitch up by belt, and say something like, “oh yea,” or “sure am.” But, am I doing something wrong or is my work less important if I’m not busy? I don’t think so. Some internal work to do there for sure.

Luckily Lesser shares my aversion to promoting busyness, “To me, busyness means becoming caught up in that complexity and losing sight of what’s important. Busyness equates to mindless rushing. For me, the antidote to busyness is remembering to be mindful and to practice being focused, engaged, and spacious.” Here’s what he means by focused, engaged, and spacious:

My final suggestion on this last practice of a mindful leader is to make seasonal assessments of where we can cut back. Cut back on programs, goals, initiatives, projects that aren’t moving, and anything else we can. This is easier said than done and also something I struggle with, but complexity relentlessly works its way into our lives everyday. And if we don’t stop at least four times a year and see where we can clean out and wash away some of the noise, we will drown as a leader. The easiest way to make things simpler is to do less. If you have thoughts on how to effectively work against the creep of complexity, please share them in the comments.


So there we have it. Over the last two months we dove deep into each of these practices of a mindful leader:

I hope you enjoyed the discussion and would love ideas on other books to take a closer look at in the comments. My key learning from spending a day with Marc Lesser back in September and his book is the value of making an appropriate and intentional response. Our ability to respond to any situation as a mindful leader is essential to provide the space for our teams and families to flourish.

And the way we cultivate our ability to make the mindful response is through practices such as these. The good news is that as a leader or family member we have countless opportunities to work on ourselves by practicing our thinking, listening, and ability to provide space.

Thanks for joining us on the journey. Did you miss a stop? Check out the whole series here.

Mindful Leaders Seek, Attract, and Accept the Help of Others

This is part 7 of an 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-6, check them out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

Dependence. It’s hard to even write that word. If I was going to categorize my default mode and identify an ethos that has probably been detrimental to relationships and is incredibly difficult to chip away at it would be – independence. I probably read too much Thoreau during my formative years or spent too much time alone running along the Pacific Crest Trail growing up in Big Bear. However it happened, I struggle the most with the sixth Practice of Being a Mindful Leader – Depend on Others.

We are fooling ourselves of course if we think we can be an effective leader without depending on others. The main part of being a leader is influencing others to do something. By definition, we depend on others to carry out the work. Yet, it’s so easy to think we can do it all ourselves.

Like most emotional struggles, Lesser reminds us that this inability to ask for help or even provide a space for others to give help comes down to our own fear.

Page 150

That sacrifice of richness for shallowness that Lesser refers to is an acceptable trade-off if we are being intentional about it. However, I’m afraid I often don’t recognize what I’m missing because of falling into the comfortable routine of individualism and independence.

Lesser defines, “Depend on Others,” in this context of leadership as follows:

When it comes time to lead and work with a group, we use and build upon all the practices introduced so far and apply them in order to work well together. This requires a high level of self-awareness and self-confidence, as well as humility, empathy,a nd openness, or approaching situations with beginner’s mind. In many ways, I would say that mindful leadership is really the art of depending on others.

Page 145

So why is it so hard? Just like each practice we’ve discussed the last few weeks, the act of depending on others comes down to our ability as a leader to make an appropriate response. Being mindful as a leader means we pause before we react and look for alignment with our intention prior to taking action.

I’m often asked, “Need any help with that?” or something related. Yet, without even thinking about it, my immediate habitual response is, “No, I’ve got it,” or “No, I’m good but will let you know if I do.” It’s similar to when someone asks us how we are doing? The habitual response is something superficial. Not only am I hoarding opportunities to perform valuable work, but I am again keeping others at a distance when our work as leaders is to bring them in. And then I’m falsely justifying it to myself by saying that I don’t want to add to anyone else’s workload.

A first step in working on this practice may be noticing that habitual response of turning down help. We can engage those on our teams or families in holding us accountable. And a second and more proactive approach could be looking at your upcoming projects or decision points and actively engaging the help of others before they even ask.

I’ve facilitated several workshops recently using Immunity to Change mapping to help my audience better understand why they struggle to ask other people in their lives for help. A key element of Immunity to Change is understanding your “Big Assumptions” and then testing them out in real life to see if those assumptions are accurate. The crippling and likely false assumptions we make around depending on others hold us back as leaders and keep us and those on our teams from better connecting with us and each other.

Alright, we are heading into the final week of our look at this book and Lesser saved my favorite principle for last. And not only is it my favorite, but it’s the principle I believe is the most valuable and difficult practice a leader can cultivate in our current world of family and work. The seventh and final practice of a mindful leader is…

Keep Making It Simpler

See you next week.

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.

Page 116

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.”

Page 67, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader

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

Love the Work, One Routine at a Time

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

Practice 1: Love the Work

I initially discounted the value and importance of Love the Work. When Lesser asked us which of the practices we would make a priority for our thoughts throughout the day, it was not high on my list.

But then he asked us to identify three people we believe truly love their work and the values they held which make them stand out in our minds. This exercise was harder than it sounds, but pulling apart the values of love we see in others helped to identify our own. It’s much easier to talk about others than ourselves of course.

When Lesser is talking about Loving the Work he frames the discussion this way:

While there are many kinds and definitions of love, I’d like to focus on four qualities or practices that make up love. In Buddhism, these teachings are known as the four immeasurables, since it is said that, as you practice them, each of these elements and the four together will continue to grow beyond what can be measured.”

These four qualities are:

  • Loving kindness – The practice of caring for others
  • Compassion – Feeling another’s pain, understanding others, and desiring to help others
  • Joy – A deep sense of happiness that is not dependent on conditions
  • Equanimity – The practice of letting go of self-concern, of cultivating acceptance and composure

The values I shared about my three people revolved around the joy and equanimity I saw in their everyday work. They seemed to find find happiness in the growth of others and relished in even some of the most basic and repetitive tasks.

Those basic and repetitive tasks make up our lives. Whether those tasks take place at work or home, for the most part they are pretty predictable. And it is in these routine tasks where we find the space for what Lesser is referring to as “The Work” – cultivating mindfulness.

During the workday I routinely make decisions, coach my team, and attend meetings. Occasionally I get to speak in front of large audiences and create new systems, but those tasks are not the norm. At home I mow the lawn, walk the dog, and help my partner lead the day-to-day processes of a busy family of four (ie. get my sons to brush their teeth, take them to practice, and pay bills.) Occasionally we take a vacation or attend an awesome concert, but we can’t rely on those rare big ticket events to find the love.

If the work is cultivating mindfulness and that is the work we should love, then what are we doing when we are cultivating mindfulness. We are not speaking in front of a thousand people, going on vacation, or jumping in a mosh pit at a Green Day concert. It’s when we are at home or at our places of work doing the day-to-day, choosing to love the routine, choosing to love the reality because that is where we can grow into the leaders our families and teams deserve.

It’s not easy to embrace and fully engage with the routine. We think that other people’s lives are more exciting than our own because for the most part we only see their social media posts. Nobody posts pictures of the routine tasks. We may still be telling ourselves stories about some other life out there we might be living.

But, one does not cultivate mindfulness by posting a staged Instagram shot from one’s weekend in Sedona or reminiscing about our past. We become mindful leaders by leaning into and learning to love the routine because we trust it will bring more of the four immeasurables mentioned above to our lives and the lives of those around us. Mindfulness is the secret lining we find when we are fully present – no matter the activity.

I’ll end this post with Lesser’s definition of leadership as it will set us up nicely for next week’s post. But before we end, please take a moment to sign up for my email list so you get part 3 of this 8-part series in your inbox as soon as it’s published next week.

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Finally, Lesser breaks down leadership in this particular context into essentially three things:

  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.

Let’s spend some time thinking about these three actions over the next week as we move into the second practice of a mindful leader in part 3 of this series – Do the Work.

Thoughts to share? Jump into the comments below.

See you next week.

Less Seeking More Finding: My Day At The Zen Center With Marc Lesser

I had the privilege to attend a day-long workshop recently with Marc Lesser sharing ideas from his latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. Lesser is a Zen teacher, former CEO of multiple companies and co-founder of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute – based on a program he helped develop to better train employees at Google in emotional intelligence.

The small and eclectic group gathered at the Austin Zen Center to talk through the seven practices:


  1. Love the Work
  2. Do the Work
  3. Don’t Be an Expert
  4. Connect to Your Pain
  5. Connect to the Pain of Others
  6. Depend on Others
  7. Keep Making in Simpler

As with most valuable frameworks, it allows us to think through each idea as more than just the role we play in a particular setting. These seven practices in particular also highlight a focus on doing less, looking inward, and integration. The idea that we can be someone at work and someone else outside of work is an unsustainable practice and Lesser reminds us of this non-duality throughout his book and the workshop.


So, over the next seven weeks I am going to dive deeper into the learning experience and publish a post each Thursday morning focusing on one of the practices. Think about picking up a copy of your own and sharing your thoughts each week in the comments.

Lesser opened our workshop by paring us up and asking each other two questions:

  1. Why are you here?
  2. Why are you really here?

Two simple questions, but a quick and effective way to bring an audience into a state of presence.

I’ll share that I answered the first question by saying I was there to become a better leader of my team at work. But, then the answer to the second question revealed that I was “really” there because like so many others I’m sometimes caught in a loop of seeking. There is always something new to learn or try and it’s easy to get lost in thinking something better is waiting around the corner.

Endless seeking clouds our ability to find. Near the end of the workshop, Lesser reminded us of Siddhartha’s advice to his boyhood friend, Govinda, in Hesse’s classic story.

What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.”

I’ve been to more leadership workshops than I can count throughout my career. And I usually leave them excited to try something new or am reminded about something I should be doing. Lesser and his 7 Practices left me feeling differently – in a good way. And I’m looking forward to sharing those feelings with all of you over the next seven weeks.

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