What makes a leader? How can we create cultures where productivity, trust and collaboration are effortless? What really matters in work and life?
These are the questions many of us ask ourselves. These are also the questions Marc Lesser has been asking on his journey from running a Zen monastery kitchen to running a publishing company, to co-creating Google’s program on emotional intelligence “Search Inside Yourself.” Along this journey, Marc saw first-hand the benefits of mindfulness practice in creating cultures that are naturally joyful and collaborative. He wondered why mindfulness practice isn’t integrated into leadership development, because what matters more than ever is both high quality results and high growth people. Corporations today have the potential to dramatically impact our planet for the better or for the worse and we need leaders who are mindful of this impact.
In fact, many forward-thinking organizations like SAP, AETNA, LinkedIn, Genentech, Kaiser Permanente and others are exploring the benefits of mindfulness for developing their leaders, engaging their employees and transforming cultures. At a leader level, my executive coaching clients that achieve the highest sustained growth are those that incorporate mindfulness in their learning.
Marc Lesser has taught his proven 7-step method to leaders at Google, Genentech, SAP, Facebook and dozens of other Fortune 500 companies for over 20 years, and has distilled a lifetime of mindfulness and business experience into his book. Marc and I sat down to talk about “Seven Practices of A Mindful Leader” and below are the highlights of our discussion.
Henna Inam: What is a pivotal experience that inspired you to write this book?
Marc Lesser: I have always been fascinated with the relationship of mindfulness, work, and leadership. This really started when I was the head cook in a Zen monastery kitchen, at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California. All kitchens are high-pressure environments, yet here our goal wasn’t simply to produce gourmet-quality meals, but to cultivate a supportive, selfless, caring work environment. That marriage of mindfulness and productivity, of community and meeting goals, is what I’ve pondered and pursued ever since.
As for the seven practices in this book, my good friend Norman Fischer first named them when he was spontaneously addressing a group of Google engineers. He was listing seven qualities that are important to develop when training to teach mindfulness. I immediately recognized the power and possibility of these practices, and I knew they applied to much more than teacher training. They described the kind of workplace culture I wanted to create, and they described how I want to live my life. The more I spoke and thought about these practices, the more I knew I needed to write this book.
Inam: You have 10 minutes with a hard-charging and busy CEO. What would you share with them to help them get interested in exploring mindfulness for themselves?
Lesser: Mindfulness practice is critical as a support to your ability to focus your attention as well as expand your awareness and widen your perspective. It’s not simply stress relief. Mindfulness improves your decision-making and creativity, since it helps you recognize problems and find solutions even in the midst of chaos and deadlines. Just as importantly for leaders, mindfulness is necessary to manage effectively and create supportive teams. I always consider true success twofold: in the character and compassion of the people and in the quality and results of the work.
Inam: Briefly describe the seven practices of a mindful leader.
Lesser: The seven practices are very simple to understand, even if they can be challenging to follow and embody in practice:
Love the work refers to the “work” of being mindful, of developing your awareness and helping others.
Do the work means developing a regular meditation or mindfulness practice.
Don’t be an expert means approaching life and problems with an open mind, or letting go of being right.
Connect to your pain means paying attention to and learning from your own experience, especially when something hurts.
Connect to the pain of others means listening openly to others and not pushing away whatever is difficult.
Depend on others means fostering your connection to others and building caring communities.
Keep making it simpler is my favorite. In every moment, the best way to find clarity is to ask, what is most important right now? Do that.
Inam: In your book you talk about the “billion dollar mistake” in teaching people emotional intelligence. What are ways to grow emotional intelligence in yourself and your team that actually work?
Lesser: The billion dollar mistake refers to Daniel Goleman, who noticed that many corporate emotional intelligence programs failed because their instruction lacked the component of practice. People read books and listened to lectures without actually doing the work to develop mindfulness and emotional intelligence. That’s the key. That’s where “do the work” comes in. Our emotions are physiological responses, and thus the power of mindfulness and meditation trainings is their ability to work at the level of our bodies and our attention. Mindfulness practices come in all shapes and sizes, and all can be successful when done regularly. When that happens, people reap the benefits of developing their emotional intelligence and increasing their capacities for self-awareness, self-management, and communication.
Inam: You talk in your book about your experiences in the contemplative world and the business world. What can be done to bring these worlds together in today’s workplaces?
Lesser: I call this the “dirty little secret” of the business world – it’s all human beings. The world of business and work is undergoing a major transformation. The need for collaboration, for people working together, solving problems together, creating new products and services together, has never been more essential. Working together requires connection and understanding – which are core qualities of emotional intelligence. The contemplative world offers practices that are easily translated into the workplace.
Work and getting things done in a rapidly changing world is challenging. Being a healthy, caring, connected human being is challenging. What appear as two worlds—the world of work and the world of well-being and mindfulness—are really one world. We don’t leave ourselves behind when we go to the office, but sometimes we act like we do. I believe the business world and the contemplative world are both primarily about growing, supporting, and developing people.
Inam: How would an organization go about creating a culture of mindfulness?
Lesser: Use the “seven practices”! Developing a culture of mindfulness means that, at all levels of an organization, people emphasize transparency and deep listening. In part, that means focusing on oneself: developing self-awareness and a flexible mind, so that mind and heart stay open in the midst of stress, challenges, and difficulty. It also means focusing on others: promoting healthy collaboration, or focusing on solutions to problems while fostering a supportive, caring community in which everyone’s welfare matters. To me, that’s what is most important.
Now friends we come full circle. What makes a leader? Who is the leader you’re inspired to be? Are you willing to try mindfulness practice to more deeply discover what matters to you in your work and life? I will be writing more on this topic, interviewing experts and change agents so hit follow above to learn and engage in this conversation.
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.