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.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

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.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

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.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Re-Reading on the Road

Ryan Smith

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


The first time I read Tim O’Brien’sGoing 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…

View original post 408 more words

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.

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. 

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.