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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70/20/10 & 70/20/10

Over the last few years, I’ve been sharing a 70/20/10 mentality around professional learning. The idea is well-known throughout the training & development industry and hypothesizes that 70% of employee learning occurs through on-the-job experience, 20% comes from direct conversations with co-workers, and only 10% comes from formal learning workshops.

Just recently I had the opportunity to hear an additional take on the 70/20/10 concept that looks at who should hold decision-making control of professional learning. Who knows best where our areas of need lie and who should be deciding how we spend the precious moments we dedicate toward our journey as life-long learners?

At an organization I had the privilege to visit recently, individual employees are expected to drive 70% of their own learning, their leaders determine 20%, and the remaining 10% is the mundane compliance-type training we all get to sit through. The organization provides a vast array of professional learning experiences for its staff, however, 70% of the responsibility for self-awareness and decision making is owned by the individual, not her leader. Goals and expectations of performance are set together, but the individual charts the path and seeks help where they feel it’s needed.

I’m incorporating more of both 70/20/10 frameworks into my decision making as a leader of leaders in my large suburban public school district.

Adopting this mindset requires resetting expectations for both the learner and the teacher, the team member and the team leader. Clarity in where agency lies will be key in navigating from an environment which creates passive learners who are waiting to be told what to do, to an environment where learners are trusted to be self-aware and trusted to take action.

And it’s more than moving more trust toward the learner. It’s recognizing that her decisions are better. Even if I don’t agree with the path, if she and I agree on the outcome then I should not be charting the path. 

“But what about the new or struggling team member who does not yet have the experience to know what they don’t know?” you might ask. Don’t we as leaders need to prescribe a list of technical skills for the novice to learn or a catalog of workshops to attend over the next year?

Just remember that if we are honest with ourselves as leaders about how adults really learn at work, then as the leader we have roughly 20% decision making power regarding time and direction and roughly 15% power regarding the overall impact on someone else’s learning. Think about how you learn. Sure, you may give someone else credit for molding your thoughts and helping your grow – I certainly do. But, it was your decision to listen to that person and embrace their philosophy. Growth is not driven by compliance.

If we are dictating 70% of their time, then I’ll argue our teams may be learning surface-level technical content, but are not engaging in the level of learning necessary to make lasting adaptive improvement. Give even your newest team members the respect to own their learning.

So, how do we allocate our 20% as leaders to help our staff members make the best decision with their 70%? My plan is to make sure the readings, workshops, and learning experiences I require of my team focus on self-awareness, understanding one another, and how their work contributes to the success of our students. 

I’m working through this idea as I write so I’m sure my thinking on this will continue to evolve. What are your thoughts? I would love to start a dialogue around this idea. Share your thoughts in the comments. 

3 Things I’ve Learned Sharing My User Manual This Summer

In my last post, I shared the idea of creating a personal user manual with your coworkers. Hitendra Wadwha introduced me to this idea at a recent workshop and since I came back and started sharing the idea with my coworkers, it has resonated more than anything I’ve shared over the last five years. And, I often find myself at workshops and share a lot.

The idea of sharing your quirks, beliefs, habits, areas of improvement, and preferred communication methods caught on so much that I then provided semi-weekly sessions throughout Round Rock ISD. From campuses at every level to departments at the administration office, I had the opportunity to share the idea that just being upfront with each other will allow us to give each other grace, get on with the work, and reduce anxiety.

Those experiences taught me a few things:

  1. Choose to be Open and Positive  – Share your struggles and be real. Authenticity is so rare. When I get up in front of a group of long-time colleagues – or strangers as was the case recently with the Texas School Public Relations Association – and tell them I struggle with building deep 1-1 connections, I can physically feel an emotional shift in their connection with me. And at that point I know I’ve captured the room. I know my message will stick. Be real and you will resonate. You are now a leader.
  2. It’s About Sharing – Many folks I’ve worked with have written their manual, but aren’t comfortable sharing it. If that’s you, take out whatever you are uncomfortable with and share the rest with your team. This process is useful as a diary entry, but the power comes in sharing it with those you spend your time with every day. Take baby steps in your vulnerability.
  3. Get Credit for Your Work – If we don’t let others know how we are trying to improve, they are not likely to notice. It is incredibly hard to change someone’s perception of us. But, it’s easier if we tell them how we are trying to improve. So, I’m sharing with my team that I am working this year to be better prepared for my 1-1 meetings. I want to make sure I have done my homework and am crafting more effective listening skills. If my team did not know I had that focus this year then they may start as wondering why I was all of a sudden asking more pointed questions or trying to help them dig deeper on their own goals. And at the same time, selfishly I want them to notice when I get better. Nothing wrong with a pat on the back.

I’m excited to see the idea catching on as I truly believe that reducing our anxiety at work will have a direct effect on improving instruction in classrooms throughout Round Rock ISD. Let me know in the comments if you have any specific questions.

Thanks for the time.

The Clarity of a Personal User Manual

I was introduced to the idea of a professional User Manual in a workshop recently and it’s becoming a valuable addition to my work. The idea of creating and sharing your User Manual is to let those you work with on a daily basis know how to you tick – similar to stereo instructions. Adam Bryant popularized the idea a few years ago and highlighted the idea that a blueprint or user manual has been used by many successful leaders.

It’s an opportunity to provide clarity to those around regarding your values, as well as blind spots you may have, preferred communication protocols, and also briefly share your own influences. And it’s really only valuable if you actually share it, so here it is:


Cultivating a beginner’s mind is a daily personal aspiration and I expect those on my teams to embrace curiosity and a Unity of Purpose mindset. We need to seek every opportunity to work with other teams in the organization and worry more about outcomes for students and teachers than who gets the credit.

Others tell me I tend to not show too many emotions and have been told that I am hard to read. So please just ask me if you are unsure as to how I feel about your work. I’m working on getting better at delivering clear feedback and will accept any and all assistance.

I trust those on my teams to make decisions and create solutions with the experience of students and teachers as the driving factors. That trust means I don’t need to sign-off on every decision or be cc’d on emails and if I pop into one of your meetings or presentations, I’m there to give feedback and just listen so please don’t interrupt the flow and introduce me. If I feel the need to chime in I will.

Make sure I know the big ideas/goals around your projects. I believe in the mantra, “Dream big, start small, move fast,” and will continuously push my teams to question their ideas, projects, and programs.

If you make a mistake, let me know early and we will figure it out. If something does not go as planned, let me know about it before I hear about it from someone else.

I have two young boys and do my best to be present with my family or present with myself outside the workday. If for some reason I email you outside of work hours – and I rarely will – do not feel like you need to respond until the next workday. If for some rare reason I need to get in touch right then, I’ll text or call. Please follow this same system with your teams.

If you need to get in touch with me I prefer either in-person, call my cell (512) 632-5062, chat/text, email – in that order. I rarely use my office phone line. I’m pretty good at staying current with my email, but if you need a response in the next 24 hours, please say that in the message or subject. I often batch respond and may “snooze” your email for up to 24 hours if you don’t communicate a need for a quick response.

The one area of your work in which I expect to be heavily involved is in hiring. Inviting someone to join our team is the most important decision any of us make as leaders. I expect to be involved in decision-making processes around hiring/interviewing.

Finally, a couple recent books that may help you understand how I think regarding work are:

An Everyone CultureRadical CandorPrinciples

I’m also pretty transparent about my thinking on my blog at ryansmith.blog.


Writing and sharing your own is highly encouraged – even if you don’t necessarily lead a team. The more we know about each other’s inclinations and influences, the better our work will become and we can spend less time making assumptions and putting on fronts.

I would love to hear your thoughts and stories about the use of User Manuals or Personal Blueprints. Please share them in the comments or with me on Twitter.

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.