Marc is the CEO of ZBA Associates, an executive development and leadership consulting company – and he’s a Zen teacher and coach. He founded and was CEO of three highly successful companies and has an MBA from New York University. Prior to his business and coaching career, he was a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center for ten years, and director of Tassajara (Tassa-hara), Zen Mountain Center, the first Zen monastery in the Western world.
Marc helped develop the world-renowned Search Inside Yourself program within Google – a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence training for leaders which teaches the art of integrating mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and business savvy for creating great corporate cultures and a better world.
Marc’s most recent book is Finding Clarity: How Compassionate Accountability Builds Vibrant Relationships. His podcast is called “Zen Bones: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times.”
Having spent a decade steeped in the teachings of Zen, Mark highlights his experiences, from living the life of a monk to taking over as the director for Tassahara Zen Mountain Center. But, the shift from Zen life to the corporate world was not seamless. Despite successfully launching a publishing company, Mark shares his ‘favorite mistake' of avoiding difficult conversations that led to his departure from the company he built from scratch. Is it a mistake to refer to him as a “former monk”?
Questions and Topics:
- Using a better relationship to small mistakes as a way to prevent big catastrophes?
- What causes the fear of conflict?? What exactly are we afraid of?
- What advice would you give your younger self about that? Courage? Safety?
- Avoiding a repeat of that mistake at the next company?
- How do you choose which difficult conversations to address?
- The risk or danger of deciding to avoid a difficult conversation or not?
- R.D. Lang – “The Politics of Experience” book
- Buddhism and the view on mistakes?
- “Buddhists don’t sweat mistakes”??
Scroll down to find:
- Video version of the episode
- How to subscribe
- Full transcript
Find Marc on social media:
Click on an image for a larger view
Subscribe, Follow, Support, Rate, and Review!
Please follow, rate, and review via Apple Podcasts, Podchaser, or your favorite app — that helps others find this content, and you'll be sure to get future episodes as they are released weekly. You can also financially support the show through Spotify.
You can now sign up to get new episodes via email, to make sure you don't miss an episode.
This podcast is part of the Lean Communicators network.
Other Ways to Subscribe or Follow — Apps & Email
Experiences of Marc Lesser: From Zen Monastery to Executive Coaching
Marc Lesser, the CEO of ZBA Associates, doesn't tread on familiar terrains while explaining his journey to leadership and executive coaching. Unlike the traditional route of progressing through the corporate world, Mark's path began in a place of quiet reflection and introspection – the San Francisco Go Zen Center. Renowned for his success in bringing mindfulness and emotional intelligence into the workplace, Mark's intriguing career path offers unique insights.
The Early Zen Journey
For a decade, Lesser was an integral part of the San Francisco Go Zen Center, a renowned hub of Zen teaching. This tenure was marked by a significant milestone, assuming the responsibilities of the director for the Tassahara Zen Mountain Center, noted as the first Zen Monastery in the Western World.
During five of those ten years, Mark embraced the life of a monk. However, the monastery life in California was far from conventional. It consisted of diverse mixes of individuals, including men, women, and children who committed to living in harmony under an arduous schedule involving early mornings and ample meditation.
Mark's journey at the Zen Center presented him with a fresh perspective, allowing him to glean critical insights that would later form the foundation of his transition to the business world.
The Leadership Journey and Embracing Mistakes
After the Monastery, Mark went on to pursue an MBA from New York University. Soon after, he delved into entrepreneurship, starting a publishing company, Brush Dance, literally from his garage. Despite its success, Lesser recalls his ‘favorite mistake' at this venture – the avoidance of essential and challenging conversations that eventually led to his dismissal from the company he founded.
Though initially painful, this lesson was a turning point for Mark. The experience illuminated the danger of conflict avoidance, arguably playing a significant role in cultivating his present leadership and coaching style.
One of Lesser's remarkable contributions is the world-renowned program, ‘Search Inside Yourself.' Developed at Google, this mindfulness-based leadership training program is designed to foster emotional intelligence and create an ideal corporate culture. The program effectively teaches leaders to integrate mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and business capabilities to create positive work environments.
Insights From The Zen Master turned Business Leader
As an author, Lesser shares his learnings and wisdom in an array of books. His most recent title, “Finding Clarity: How Compassionate Accountability Builds Vibrant Relationships,” delves into the potential pitfalls of avoiding conflict. He also hosts a podcast, “Zen Bones: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times,” where he disseminates age-old wisdom in a contemporarily relevant manner.
Mark's biggest lesson echoes his primary teaching – conflict avoidance leads to complex troubles. Shying away from tough conversations can adversely affect both our professional and personal lives. Conversely, addressing such situations head-on can contribute positively to organizational growth and individual development.
Mark's unique journey from Zen monastery to the corporate world highlights that the path to leadership is not uniform but paved with diverse experiences. His transformation into a leading executive coach stands as a testament to how unconventional journeys can often culminate in extraordinary success.
Psychological Safety and Leadership Lessons
One of the critical aspects Lesser emphasizes in fostering effective leadership is psychological safety. A deeper dive into this concept brings to the forefront key competencies centered around self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and communication skills. For an individual to feel psychologically safe in an organization, it is a necessity to retrospectively access and manage one's reactions to threats or challenges, effectively embodying what Lesser refers to as body practice.
Elements of Psychological Safety
- Self-awareness and Self-regulation: A practice that necessitates the individual to be mindful, preventing reactions that are overbearing or under-reactive to situations. The natural reflexes of fight, flight, and freeze can be moderated through mindfulness and introspection, leading to a balanced response.
- Building Trust: It is integral to establish relationships where trust is the baseline. Fostering such relationships calls for openness, honesty, and congruity, ensuring colleagues feel safe to express themselves without fear of reprisal.
- Emotional Intelligence and Communication Skills: Interaction among team members needs to be carried out with tact, empathy, and understanding. Exhibiting emotional intelligence assists in aligning thoughts and emotions, facilitating genuine conversations that further consolidates trust.
Bringing Mindfulness into the Workspace
Bringing mindfulness into a business setting, especially at highly technical institutions like Google, might initially raise some eyebrows. It is here Lesser sees his role as a facilitator and role model, manifesting mindfulness in action and instilling trust among participants.
Workplaces like Google often promote a highly competitive and stressful environment. While these elements can foster innovation, they may also create an ambiance where employees feel inhibited to express their true self. However, workshops that engage mindfulness training have shown positive results, enabling employees to shed their ‘game faces’ and introduce their authentic selves at work.
These mindfulness programs did not merely introduce a notion of calmness, but instilled a sense of ‘being human’ in the workplace. It marked the critical realization that emotions, collaboration, and creativity are not detrimental but essential elements contributing to business success.
Balancing Precision and Probability in Leadership
Part of mindfulness teaching revolves around not evading difficulty, mistakes, or failures but developing a healthy relationship with these facets. Mark's work embodies these teachings, recognizing and promoting these as essential components of the human experience. Through his books, podcast, workshops, and webinars, Lesser delineates the path to leadership, contrasting norms, yet building robust and successful relationships.
Lesser’s teachings profess the importance of balance in the corporate world. Precision and flexibility, confidence and humility, all need to act in sync for effective leadership. It is a call to embrace the complexity of the human character, acknowledging that we all harbor emotions, have needs and preserve motivations, much contrary to the stereotypical ‘rational' and ‘analytical' labels ascribed to corporate leaders.
Automated Transcript (Likely Contains Mistakes)
Mark Graban: Hi, everybody. Welcome back to my favorite mistake. I'm Mark Graban. Our guest today is Marc Lesser. He is the CEO of ZBA Associates, an executive development and leadership consulting company, and he's a Zen teacher and coach.
Mark Graban: So Mark founded and was CEO of three highly successful companies. He has an MBA from New York University. Prior to his business and coaching career, mark was a resident of the San Francisco Go Zen Center for ten years, and he was the director of Tasahara Zen Mountain Center, the first Zen monastery in the Western world. So before I tell you a little bit more about Mark, first off, welcome to the podcast. How are you?
Marc Lesser: Great. I'm doing great. It's good to see you, Mark.
Mark Graban: Yeah. Thank you for being here. I think we have a lot of interesting topics to explore here today related to different aspects of your career. But let me tell everyone a little bit more about you first. So again, Mark blesser.
Mark Graban: He helped develop the world renowned program called Search Inside Yourself at Google. It's a mindfulness based emotional intelligence training for leaders which teaches the art of integrating mindfulness, emotional intelligence and business savvy to create great corporate cultures and a better world. Mark is the author of many books, including most recently Finding Clarity How Compassionate Accountability Builds Vibrant Relationships, and he's host of a podcast called Zen Bones Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times. So, Mark, normally we jump right into the Favorite Mistake question, but first I'd like to ask one question kind of about your background, if it's fair accurate to describe you as a former monk. And I think we can explore this more later, but can you sort of summarize a little bit about what that was?
Mark Graban: What that means? What that is?
Marc Lesser: Yeah. My one year leave of absence from Rutgers University when I was in my early 20s turned into ten years of living at the San Francisco Zen Center. My parents not thrilled about this. They would have characterized it as worse than a mistake, but in fact, they sent someone after me to rescue me from the cult. And of course, that person ended up becoming part of the Zen Center as well.
Marc Lesser: And to answer your question more specifically, yes, during five of those ten years I was a monk in that I was living in a monastery. But this was California. So people think of different images when they think of monasteries. This was men and women and children and families. And at the same time, it was a very arduous schedule that included 03:40, a.m.
Marc Lesser: Wake up bell every morning wow. And lots of meditation. So it's interesting that the combination of traditional schedule but very nontraditional makeup of who is living there.
Mark Graban: Well, I think we'll come back to that later on because I'm guessing. I don't know for sure. It doesn't sound like that was your favorite mistake. It's going to. So instead of guessing or presuming, let me, just ask it.
Mark Graban: As you know, Mark, with the different things that you've done, different aspects of your career, what would you say is your favorite mistake?
Marc Lesser: The one that comes up for me was after my ten years, I went to business school and I started a publishing company, that company called Brush Dance that we made greeting cards and calendars. It was a company that I started literally in my garage and grew it and grew it. And my favorite mistake, I would say, was avoiding having some important and difficult conversations, not avoiding conflict, which led to me being fired from that company that I stopped. Ouch. Ouch.
Marc Lesser: Yeah. And that was an enormous lesson. And interestingly enough now, Mark, it's something that I find myself teaching a lot. And in fact, this new book, a lot of this book is about avoiding conflict, is trouble.
Mark Graban: Yeah.
Marc Lesser: And that was a clear big mistake, was avoiding some of those conflicts and difficult conversations. And things got really wonky in my company, and I was rather blown away and surprised when my board wanted to meet with me and to tell me that it was time for me to leave. Wow.
Mark Graban: What was an example of one of those difficult conversations or topics or potential conflict points that you were avoiding?
Marc Lesser: Yeah, I would say, you know, it's interesting the line between on the one hand, we were going through some turbulent times, as businesses often do, and there was some disagreement around strategy, around some decisions, but I would say that some of my key employees were crossing the line about disagreeing with me. And then there was, I would say, a line of disrespect. And I think they then even took it further. Right. And I think they could see that I was not stepping up to having some of those hard conversations with them about their behavior.
Marc Lesser: And then I think they felt, I think, the freedom to then talk to some of my board members. It's interesting, there can be some pretty wonky political things that were happening behind the scenes there. Yeah, I think had I had the courage and the skill to just have some of those real direct conversations with people that were crossing lines, I mean, in truth, it was probably time for me to leave. But I think it could have happened very differently had I not avoided some of those hard conversations.
Mark Graban: And this was the first business that you started?
Marc Lesser: This was my first company, and with my second and third company, especially the company that as you alluded to, I started a company that was birthed inside of Google's headquarters. And it was there that I made a very conscious decision, promise or vow to myself to not avoid difficulty. Now, it doesn't mean that I have to have every difficult conversation, but to not avoid them is a very different thing. And it's interesting, as you were describing this podcast and me, I think maybe even before we got on. I thought one of the things that an exercise I do often in the workshops that I teach is I have everyone, I describe how I took some improv classes partly to help me feel more comfortable when I'm up in front of people.
Marc Lesser: And one of the first things that you do in improv is they teach you to raise your hands and with a big smile say, I failed. And I've done this with many, many hundreds, maybe thousands of Google engineers and other business leaders. And there is something about having a different relationship with failure, which is what I so appreciate about the work that you're doing here, Mark, on this podcast. Yeah.
Mark Graban: So tell me more about that exercise. I mean, is that a general statement of saying at something in the past I have failed, and what thoughts follow from that?
Marc Lesser: Yeah, it's lessening one's fear of failure, having a different relationship with failure. So often what I do, if I'm doing a workshop with a smaller group, I will then introduce an improv game that in which it's about things happening quickly and in which you will fail. And it's then noticing our usual response and reaction to failure is to tighten because we don't want to fail. So this game is to get more practice at failing and not tightening. And it's a little bit like sometimes what happens is after we do that, you spill your coffee by accident and instead of like, oh shit, I failed.
Marc Lesser: And I find myself in truth, throughout our day, whether it's in business or in life, there's lots of little failures and in some way I think it's practice for some of the bigger failures too. Of course we don't want to fail and we do everything we can, as we should, to be successful and not fail. Failures will happen and it's like so this game is about shifting our becoming a little bit more comfortable with relationship with failure.
Mark Graban: Yeah, I think that's really interesting. And I've tried to develop some of my own methods of either just acknowledging a small mistake or soothing myself or reminding myself it can be okay. And I think when we have a more positive, when we're able to have a more honest relationship with small mistakes, I think there's less denial, there's less cover up. If we address the small mistakes, in a lot of cases, we can prevent the big catastrophes. What are your thoughts on that?
Marc Lesser: No, definitely. Well, especially things like avoiding conflict. Right? So I think often we avoid and avoid and avoid because I think we humans habitually, we want things to be okay, we don't want things to be falling apart.
Mark Graban: Right.
Marc Lesser: For a lot of people, many of us are, I would say conflict, avoidant, don't like to face difficulty, don't like to face maybe other people's mistakes, other people not living up to their commitments, not being accountable. So yeah, that was one of the big lessons for me was that will get me into trouble, avoiding what look like smaller mistakes. It's funny, in the world of Zen, there's an expression that the life of a Zen teacher is one mistake after another. There's also Mark, an expression, a tiger catches a mouse with its full strength. So it's a little bit like what you were saying.
Marc Lesser: It's like not avoiding those things that look small, like giving everything as much as we can, our full attention.
Mark Graban: Yeah. So, I mean, thinking back to your story, or even as you're coaching people more generally, what are some of the factors that lead people to hold back? It's fear of the conflict itself or fear of what the conflict might lead to in terms of relationships or outcomes.
Marc Lesser: Yeah, I think all those things underneath it, I think, is becoming bringing awareness to that question, like, what is it? What is that fear? What's the worst possible outcome? That what might happen. Yeah, I think there's fear that, oh, the other person might be angry, they might be mad at me, they might not like this, but it's like, man, all of those things are especially in the realm of leadership.
Marc Lesser: We need to train ourselves to have a bit more skill and freedom, to be able to have those real conversations. And it's okay if someone might be angry with me. That's okay, that happens. People are going to be angry with me whether I have this conversation or not. Yeah.
Mark Graban: How much of it you're talking about freedom and skill. Let's say, if you're giving advice to your younger self or as you're giving advice to others. Now, how much of this decision to have the difficult conversation, to not avoid it? How much of that is a matter of, let's say, courage or safety versus skill of knowing how the best way to bring up a difficult subject? Or both.
Marc Lesser: Yeah. I tend to think in the work that I do, the coaching work that I do, I think there's a presence element to it. Right. It's having a body, being able to show up in a way where you're not spewing emotions, where you can actually be more present. And then there is a skill part of it having the tools and skills to be able to know that these conversations, that there's a content piece of it, there's an emotional piece of it, there's often an identity.
Marc Lesser: What are my identity issues that does this somehow involve this other person or my sense of competence? Competence is a big one in the world of work and leadership, of, am I questioning my own or this other person's competence? But again, underneath that, all I think is seeing our own habit, our habit energy and being able to move from habit and compulsion to more choice, seeing choice and skill, being able to skillfully have these difficult conversations.
Mark Graban: Yeah. So you talked earlier about this vow that you made to yourself to not avoid all difficult conversations? I mean, do you have kind of a thought process? I don't know if maybe in Google speak, is this an algorithm? Is it a sense of when to take some action and lean into what might be a difficult conversation?
Marc Lesser: Yeah, I think it starts by noticing. Right. I could remember. It's funny how one of the things I love about this work of whether we call it awareness or relationship building, we get to practice it in all parts of our lives. And I was thinking when you just asked me that question in my marriage, my wife would say something to me, and it might not be till two days later, like she said.
Marc Lesser: What I felt like part of it is training oneself to be aware and notice. I think it starts with in the work world, anytime there is what I think of as an ouch or some energy that comes up that you feel that you start. I mean, our bodies are amazing this way. So part of it, I think, is listening to our bodies and training ourselves to be aware of those, especially when we're tightening. When there's an ouch, I think it starts there, and then it's having the presence to say, oh, what is this about?
Marc Lesser: And is there a need to have a conversation about this? Or is this something? No, this is something. This is all me. I can let this go.
Marc Lesser: This is super interesting how the different ways this comes up in the work world.
Mark Graban: Well, it's not even work world. It can be in every neighborhood. I mean, I won't go into all the detail or anything. It's not like there's legal action or anything. It's not that bad.
Mark Graban: But let's say within a neighborhood homeowners association, you have a board that makes a decision about something that's going to impact the neighborhood. I made a choice to speak up and ask some questions and even challenge, like, why is this technology? Why is this necessary? I'm a problem solver, so I don't want to just hear the solution. I want to hear the problem.
Mark Graban: Maybe they're making a mistake. But I'll tell you, I don't regret asking questions. But I got some very direct feedback in a phone call with the board president who felt like I was questioning their competence when that wasn't my intent. But it just goes to show there's risk in avoiding it. Or maybe I'd say, okay, fine, it's a little bit of money.
Mark Graban: I should just put it out of my mind and move on. But I chose to lean into that. I guess I can control my action or my tone of voice. I can't control how someone else is responding to something.
Marc Lesser: Right. Yeah. I want to underscore what I think of as two core lessons here in this realm of what we're talking about. One is impact is not intention. The impact is someone does something or says something or even looks at us in a certain way and we feel tight or we feel ouch or we feel like maybe even feel like our competence is being questioned.
Marc Lesser: That's the impact, right? We don't know what the other person's intention was. In fact, I had a conversation yesterday with someone who told me that he had a lot of people over to his house for a gathering, and they got noisier and noisier and noisier, and he started feeling anxious in his own house. And he told me that he felt betrayed by these people who were not paying attention to how anxious he was feeling because of the noise level in his home. And I said, man, probably they were just all having a good time, right?
Marc Lesser: Like betrayed, that's a really strong word. I think you might be weaving a story there about their intention. So we humans, we do this almost unconsciously when we feel threatened or hurt in small, medium or large ways our tendency is to go to blame, our tendency is to go to story. So like in this way betrayed. This could be our next door neighbor could be playing loud music late at night and oh man, I feel so betrayed.
Marc Lesser: Like no, they're just having a party and we might need to go over and say hey, I've tried to go.
Mark Graban: To sleep and they might get upset. But I guess that's just part of the pros and cons that we weigh in this decision of do we let it go, do we tolerate it, do we say something? Do I need to say something? Versus choosing your battles, if you will. Violent language there, sorry but I wanted.
Marc Lesser: To mark say the other really interesting I think of rule of thumb in this realm is that we judge others by the impact their actions have on us. We judge ourselves by our intentions, right? We are all good people, we're all good people, but those others, we judge them by the impact that their actions have on us. Super interesting to unpack that well, and.
Mark Graban: You'Re making me think back to the neighborhood situation. I'll recognize I fell into a bit of a trap of saying well, I didn't intend to upset him, I didn't intend to say you're incompetent. But what landed was different and I think of a different scenario. I was more of a spectator to online in professional circles LinkedIn of somebody. There was a post that offended some women just in terms of the language that was used it could have been acknowledged, apologized for and corrected.
Mark Graban: But the people involved in the post kind of went on the attack and they said well our intent was not to offend. Now, as an observer to that, not being a direct participant I even tried to coach one of the people sort of involved in this kerfuffle is someone I know and I realized this is the advice I need to give myself. Like, intent doesn't matter. Nobody knows intent. What matters here is that some people were offended by a choice of words.
Mark Graban: Okay, I'm going to reflect on that and remind myself of that point.
Marc Lesser: And these things show up in so many different ways. I was leading a workshop, and I did a short guided meditation at the beginning of this workshop. And one of the things that I did was had people I brought them to a place of feeling safe. Like, what is it like to feel safe as something to practice in meditation? And afterwards, one of the participants was a young black man who told me, you know, I had trouble with your instructions about feeling safe.
Marc Lesser: I don't feel safe as a black man. It was really interesting. And I said, thank you for sharing your experience. We can never know another person's experience. And this is the first chapter in my book, is called Be Curious, Not Furious.
Marc Lesser: And sometimes I think we should all have that sewn into as a label in our clothing to remember, to be curious, especially in these things about other people's experience. It's amazing. The same thing can happen, the same thing can be said, and we experience it completely differently. Right.
Mark Graban: I think that's something I try to be better about there's. What's the right word? I think empathy. Empathy towards others, that their experiences and perspectives are different. So, again, I'm kind of bringing it back to this online kerfuffle of somebody saying, well, that language is not offensive.
Mark Graban: Or there was a similar post that some other people had complained about of like, that's not offensive. That's funny. That's a meme, that's a joke. Don't be offended. And again, I tried to give some feedback of, like I mean, I've learned this the rough way school of hard knocks sometimes of telling people how they should feel just isn't yeah.
Marc Lesser: Yeah. I often quote, there's a psychiatrist named R. D. Lang who wrote a book, this was long time ago book what was one of my favorite books when I was in college called The Politics of Experience. And it starts with, I cannot experience your experience, you cannot experience my experience.
Marc Lesser: Therefore we are invisible to each other. Now, this is a bit of a cynical viewpoint, but the message underneath it is that we really cannot experience other people's experience. And like, what you were just saying, this happens. Man the dialogue online because we don't have the usual clues of our presence. Things can get off the rails really easily with language and words and being offended again.
Marc Lesser: But I think underneath it is we have a different experience to language.
Mark Graban: And context and medium. And thinking back to this HOA situation, I think a lot of this would have gone differently if I had reached out to the board president, who's a neighbor. I've met him. We're not friends, but just say, hey, I have some questions. Can we talk, I think through a phone call, a similar set of questions through tone would have landed differently than just seeing words on a screen.
Mark Graban: Like, my engineer brain says, I'm being rational, I'm asking questions, I'm looking for answers, not thinking that's going to land differently when someone sees, wow, okay, that seemed kind of curt or aggressive or you didn't thank us for our efforts first. I mean, there was a lot missing in my attempt at a Facebook group.
Marc Lesser: Yeah, yeah. I sometimes use the example a a supervisor, a boss says to someone who works for know, can you have that report on my desk tomorrow morning? Now, if your relationship is good and that could be, oh, no problem, but if you've been late and there's some tension, those same exact words could be taken as, man, he must be really mad at me. That's a real challenge. Why is he talking to me that way?
Marc Lesser: But so much of it has to do with context, relationship, the level of trust, the level of curiosity. Yeah.
Mark Graban: I mean, it could be a question like, is it possible, if it's not too much of a burden, if you don't have other things to do, could you have it by tomorrow? Versus thou shalt or exactly.
Marc Lesser: Exactly.
Mark Graban: So, Mark, you said earlier, just double back to where you said two core lessons. One, impact is not intention. What's the second core lesson? I don't think we got to that.
Marc Lesser: The second one was that we judge others by the we judge others by the impact their actions have on us, and we judge ourselves by our intentions.
Mark Graban: That's right. Okay. All right. That's a great point. That was clear.
Mark Graban: Okay, so that second. Okay.
Marc Lesser: It's so interesting, right? Like, even in what you're describing about the homeowners association or the insanity in our politics from both sides, everyone we all want the same thing, right? We want to be happy, we want our children to be safe. We're all good, kind people, but then we immediately get into trouble with the way that we judge others. Yeah.
Mark Graban: So I wanted to ask you, Mark, around Buddhism and the little bit that I've read about Buddhism, there's often a lot of discussion about mistakes and kind of a particular Zen or Buddhist view. I've seen phrases Buddhists don't sweat mistakes, an emphasis on seeing mistakes as essential things that lead to learning and growth. How would you articulate, kind of this perspective on mistakes?
Marc Lesser: Well, since you're bringing in Buddhism, I think that one of the perspectives that Buddhism brings, which is somewhat radical, is that we actually live in two worlds simultaneously. Buddhist language, again, they might call it different thing, but there's the relative world and then there's maybe what's sometimes called the absolute world. Right. So in the relative world, the relative world is the ordinary world where a mistake is a mistake, and we do need to live in that world. Now, the absolute world is one kind of stepping back and seeing that in the absolute world, everything is just as it is.
Marc Lesser: And that mistake is like a tiny drop in a much larger ocean. So the absolute world is a kind of different kind of perspective taking, but it's not about ignoring the relative world. It's like we have to completely live in the relative world, but it introduces a larger perspective around time and space. Right. It's a kind of realization that the way that we think about time generally made up.
Marc Lesser: It was Einstein who famously said, past, present and future are very practical, but they're made up. They don't really exist. And also, we humans are amazing in that in some way. Yes, we're in this body, we're in this place, but we have these amazing imaginations and ability to be in many places at the same time in a certain way. So Buddhism introduces a radical kind of perspective taking.
Mark Graban: Now, did I make a mistake in sort of combining Buddhism and Zen? You're kind of reacting like yeah, you did, but no.
Marc Lesser: Zen is a particular school of Buddhism.
Mark Graban: Okay. That's why we hear Zen Buddhism.
Marc Lesser: Right. There's Tibetan Buddhism or there's many other and even within Zen there are various schools. Buddhism itself, the historical Buddha was around in about 500, 600 BC. Zen came into being about 1000 years later in China. In like 500, 600 Ad.
Marc Lesser: In China, Zen was birthed.
Mark Graban: Okay. All right, thank you. Thank you for that, Mark. So I was going to ask you kind of your transition then from the monastery to business school. What prompted that?
Mark Graban: Did anyone try to come rescue you from business school?
Marc Lesser: Different. That was a really hard transition. After, I loved my time being at the Zen Center, I think in part turning 30, being married and also having my son was born all during that time. And I felt like I needed to find out my place in the work world especially and what I was going to do for livelihood. And also I needed to kick myself out of the Zen Center in a certain way.
Marc Lesser: It had become a little small and a little comfortable, and I needed to enter the world of figuring out who I was and what I was going to do, especially in the world of livelihood and money. Yeah. And that was hard going. I went right from there, pretty much right into business school on Wall Street in New York University.
Mark Graban: Right.
Marc Lesser: And it was a kind of learning by fire, but it was powerful. And I really appreciated I appreciate it a lot more. Looking back at how hard that time.
Mark Graban: Was, I can only imagine if somebody went to business school and think of the different backgrounds and perspectives. And there are certain kind of common backgrounds. You'd meet somebody. So what did you do before business school? Someone might say consulting, investment banking, startups.
Mark Graban: And then there's somebody occasionally I think of people from business school that it stands out sometimes like, oh, that's a very unique, different background. I'm sure you had a lot of those moments where people did a double take, like, wait, you were doing what, Mark?
Marc Lesser: For sure. No. And there are some funny times. I remember during that time when I was in business school and I was looking for a part time job in New York City. I can remember my first resume, just very unskillfully, just said exactly what I had been doing.
Marc Lesser: I can remember being in and I was looking for a part time job, and I was in an office building, like on the 43rd floor of a New York City building. And I was in the waiting room, and people I could see a bunch of people were gathered around a desk looking at my resume. And I could hear one of them saying, there's a Zen monk here looking for a job. It was not easy. Did you get the job?
Marc Lesser: I didn't get that job. It's funny. The job that I did get was my resume kept shifting and changing. And at one point it became I was the head of human resources for a conference center in California called Tasahara. And I was in a job interview, and this woman looks at me and says, I know this place.
Marc Lesser: I've been to Tasahara, it's a Zen monastery. And she said, and I'm going to hire you because I kind of have a feeling about someone who's been in that particular institution organization. So it was a funny time.
Mark Graban: Well, again, our guest today is Marc Lesser. His most recent book is Finding Clarity how Compassionate Accountability Builds Vibrant Relationships. I want to ask you, Mark, one thing. You talk about it's a favorite subject and topic of mine, kind of alluded to it earlier, psychological safety. And you say there are three ingredients to finding that psychological safety at work and home.
Mark Graban: What are those?
Marc Lesser: Some of well, I think kind of alluded to this in something that we were talking about earlier is that I think it starts with presence. I think it starts with it's interesting, this whole realm of emotional intelligence. And this is where one of the things that I did a lot of teaching in and training in is what we call mindfulness based emotional intelligence. That emotional intelligence is a set of competencies. And so this is a core part of psychological safety, is the competencies around self awareness and self regulation, for example, and empathy and having those communication skills.
Marc Lesser: But I think it starts with a body practice, right? Training yourself in some way to not be overreacting or underreacting, right? Fight, flight and freeze our natural body reactions when we're threatened. So I think a core part of psychological safety is kind of that self awareness. Another core part is that building those relationships of trust.
Marc Lesser: And then there's just, I think, having the emotional. Intelligence, communication skills that we need to have real conversations to build that trust. And these things, I think, are all very much interrelated with each other.
Mark Graban: Yeah, well, thank you. That's good points. Good things to reflect on and think about, and I'll continue doing that as well. So I want to ask one question before we start wrapping up about business settings, workshops that you do, places like Google, engineers, highly technical, technical people. What types of reactions do you get when people show up to a workshop where you're talking about things like Mindfulness or Zen?
Marc Lesser: Well, this is where I think that my job is to be a role model as much as I can. So for me to come in, present, for me to meet them where they are, for me to create a safe and energetic space. One of the things that we used to hear, especially in these early days of teaching mindfulness trainings at Google, was it was an opportunity for people to take their game faces off. Right. Because Google and many, many workplaces are highly competitive, highly stressful, and those can be competition, and stress can be positive.
Marc Lesser: If you can feel like you can also be yourself, feel a sense of psychological safety where it's okay to make mistakes, as an example, where mistakes are seen as part of the process. Yeah. So I found that there was a tremendous amount of hunger for these mindfulness, which in some way I always thought was kind of a code word for being more human in the workplace, bringing in more humanity, which I would say for the past 100 years has been rooted out of the business world. There was always this assumption that emotions and humanity were not good for business. And I think this was a big AHA, not just at Google, but in companies all over the world, that these humans, we need to work together, we need collaboration, we need trust, we need psychological safety.
Marc Lesser: That all these things are essential for business success. They're not impediments to business success.
Mark Graban: Yeah. And as much as we might stereotype and I have two engineering degrees, and you'd say, okay, well, label me as, like, very analytical, quantitative, rational, but we're all fairly complicated. We all have emotions. Like you said, we may have learned to try to mask or dial back some of that because of what's, quote, unquote, appropriate or safe in a workplace.
Marc Lesser: Yeah, well, it's interesting how we need precision in the workplace and we need flexibility, we need confidence, and we need humility. A lot of what I think people really get from the work of Mindfulness, the work that I do is not avoiding pain, not avoiding difficulty, not avoiding mistakes. Again, all of the work that you're bringing into through this podcast, Mark, having a different healthy relationship with mistakes, with failures, with things that are difficult. This is a core part of the human experience.
Mark Graban: Yeah, well, thank you for what you're doing to highlight that and what you've shared with us today. Again, Marc Lesser has been our guest. The book is finding clarity. I noticed on your website, Marc, that it was endorsed by Professor Kristen Neff, who was a guest on this podcast back in episode 183, talking about self compassion. So I was happy to see that she's enjoyed your work.
Marc Lesser: Yeah, thank you very much, Mark. It's been my pleasure.
Mark Graban: Yeah, well, thank you for being here again, Marc Lesser. I'll put links in the show notes to his website. You can learn more about his work, workshops, different ways he could work with your organization. The book, the podcast, all of that will be in the show notes. So, again, thank you, Marc.
Mark Graban: This has been really nice. Thank you for being here.
Marc Lesser: Thank you.