Becoming a Successful Leader.

Estimated time to read: 25 minutes

Marc Lesser is a business leader, executive coach, storyteller and visionary whose ability to deeply touch the lives of his audiences comes from a 30-year daily meditation practice and managing a Zen monastery.

Marc was co-founder and CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute and on the team that developed the “Search Inside Yourself” program within Google. He has led multi-day trainings at Google, SAP, Disney, Genentech, and Fortune 500 companies throughout the world.

Marc has an MBA degree from New York University and is the author of 4 books, including Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader: Lessons from Google and a Zen Monastery Kitchen, and Less: Accomplishing More By Doing Less.

In this episode, Marc Lesser joins us for the full-hour to discuss relationship between mindfulness, meditation and business. Also, we discuss:

  • From Dishwasher to Meditation Teacher.
  • 7-Practices Helpful to Becoming a Mindful Leader.
  • The Complexities of Meditation in a Business Environment.
  • Navigating the Compromises between Meditation & Money.
  • How Meditation Improves Employees, Increasing ROI.

Join us as we learn more of Marc Lesser’s journey and what he seeks to create in the future.

Leave a comment and get involved in discussion!

Podcast Transcript:

Christiaan: Welcome to the Project Mindfulness Podcast, we’ll take you on a journey across the globe and talk with other meditators about their practice, the lessons they’ve learned and what they want the world to know.

Good day and welcome to season two of the Project Mindfulness Podcast. This is episode number two of season two and I’m Christiaan Neeteson, your host, thank you for joining us. In this episode I have a talk with Marc Lesser. We talk about his current book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader, a book about the most important lessons Marc took away from being in a Zen monastery kitchen for 10 years and working as a CEO afterwards. His work involves collaborations with companies such as Facebook and Google. The episode talks about mindful leadership, the importance of habits and emotional intelligence. Before we dive into the episode, I want to announce the winners for our giveaway, congratulations, Dylan Whitehurst, Melissa McKinstry and Mica Shord for winning a signed copy of the Mind Illuminated by Culadasa. We will be in contact with you and the other prize winners of plane and the meditation albums to ship this incredible prize towards you. If you didn’t win anything, we will soon have another giveaway with incredible prices. Keep an ear out for that in the podcast. Thank you everyone for participating and enjoy the episode. Today on the podcast we welcome Marc Lesser. Marc Lesser is a speaker, facilitator, workshop leader and executive coach. He is the CEO of ZBA Associates, an executive development and leadership consulting company. Marc has led mindfulness and emotional intelligence programs at many of the world’s leading businesses and organizations including Google, SAP, Gene and Tech, and Kaiser Permanente and has coached executives and led trainings in fortune 500 companies, startups, healthcare and government. Marc founded and was CEO of three companies and has an MBA degree from New York University. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today, Marc.

Marc: It’s my pleasure to be here.

Christiaan: To learn more about your journey, leading up to where you are now, how and when did you encounter meditation and mindfulness in your life? 

Marc: Oh, I think I first learned about meditation when I was an undergraduate student at Rutgers University in New Jersey here in the States and started to get quitea curious and even passionate about wanting to know more about mindfulness, meditation, Zen, spiritual practice. And I took a one-year leave of absence and went to San Francisco and then when I was in San Francisco, I was part of a small community, kind of a program, that’s no longer around, called the Humanist Institute, a small meditation study community. But while I was there, I found out about the San Francisco Zen Center and I walked into the Zen center one day and, and it immediately felt like home. And my one-year leave of absence turned into 10 years of living at Zen center. And, yeah, so that’s, you know, that was my introduction to practice.

Christiaan: That’s incredible. And you, so you train 10 years at the Zen Center in any particular, like, thing or was it– Because I know that for instance, in Zen you have a Koan or you have the, just sitting and what was your main practice there?

Marc: Well, what’s interesting, that’s a great question. I would say that, of course I, you know, was steeped in the meditation practice and Soto Zen doesn’t emphasize Koan study, but there’s, but it does study, study of Koans and stories and relationship with a teacher, very important and being part of a community, very important. But one of the things that ended up very much surprising me and in some way being a core part of my practice was work. And that, you know, from, I found myself, I’m working in a Zen monastery kitchen when I was very young, I got asked to be on the kitchen crew. And then the following year I was, Tassajara and there’s a very rich tradition of being a bread baker and several books have come out of Tassajara. And a few years after that I was the assistant to the head cook and, and then I was the head cook, in a very, kind of well-developed work and practice tradition of, and it’s interesting how in the Zen tradition and in the Soto Zen tradition, there’s a well-known, kind of piece of writing by Dogan who was the founder of Zen in Japan in the 13th century, a piece that’s translated as, instructions to the head cook. So, super interesting, I think that from, you know, 7 or 800 years ago, there was this document about how, very detailed instructions about how to practice, how to integrate practice in this role of running a Zen monastery kitchen. And then, a couple of years after that I was asked to be the director of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and it was even kind of upped up to the, the ante up the challenge of leadership role and integrating leadership and Zen. And, I ended up deciding that this would be kind of the course of my life, of my work, career and practice. And I ended up going right from that role of being director of Tassajara to going to business school and getting an MBA degree. And, then I ended up starting a couple of different companies and much of my life has been this aspiration and integration of kind of practice, mindfulness practice in the world of work and in the business world.

Christiaan: Right. And the role of a head cook, that’s not you something, right? It’s a very important thing and actually in a, Zen temple or monastery.

Marc: Yeah, it’s called the 07:38 [inaudible].  And that piece of writing I’m referring to is called the Tenzo Kyōkun is translated as instructions to the head cook. And just as an example, one of the core teachings in that essay by Dogan says that the head cook should always be bringing three minds to the work of running the kitchen, joyful mind, grandmother mind and wise mind, right? So, the mind of, you know, joy of appreciating everything, the grandmother mind, again, this is a translation, but basically the mind of unconditional love and, and wise mind, you know, kind of the mind that is steeped in a sense of kind of impermanence and this, kind of intention, aspiration of seeing reality as much as we can and, that this was a core part of practice in the kitchen.

Christiaan: Right and one of the sayings from Zen is, chop wood, carry water, which emphasizes this applying of awareness in just daily activities. And that I imagine is something that really sparked this, bringing mindfulness into the workplace, this attitude of Zen towards work, which is almost, I wouldn’t say a holy act, but it is a very important act to just do what you got to do. You know, wash your bowl, do the dishes.

Marc: Well that’s another, you know, very, kind of famous a Zen story about the student that comes to the teacher, you know, arrives at the Zen Temple and says, you know, to the teacher, you know, teach me, I’m here, you know, I’m ready for the teaching and the teacher asks the student, have you had your breakfast? And, the student says yes and the teacher response, then go wash your bowl. And this is, this, I think very much sets the tone of, of Zen practice as that if you want to learn, that the way to learn is through doing, through activity. You know, it’s not about sitting in a lecture hall and having me tell you something, but it’s like learn from your experience, like have breakfast and, and notice what you can learn by the, the sensations, the act of your relationship with your bowl, your relationship with your mind as you’re washing your bowl and, you know, and I was 24 years old when I was the dishwasher my first summer at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. And, it was washing dishes by hand in the kitchen and there was this, I think the experience of kind of collaboration and learning and connection and love that I felt that as dishwasher, I felt that as baker, I felt that when I was on the kitchen crew, that there was something about the how, kind of intimate and magical and ordinary, right. That of working, working together, a caring for each other, and also this very high bar for attention, for care and for results. You know, that it was, you know, no messing around of producing really, beautiful, healthy, high quality, vegetarian meals for because Tassajara is, you know, it’s a traditional Zen practice place, Zen monastery in winter, but then it turns into a conference center in the summer and there are 70 or 80 overnight guests and there’s a reputation for the quality and the quality of the vegetarian meals. So, there was some, a good deal of expectation, pressure, even stress, right in the midst of this, kind of practice place and practice community. So, and I, it was really lovely, and I remember, you know, asking myself like, why isn’t everyone working in this way? And you know, all these studies that I was reading about the kind of stress and lack of engagement there was in the workplace, and I thought, maybe this is a place where I can contribute.

Christiaan: Yeah, that’s incredible. And you’ve gone to writing incredible book on mindful leadership called Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader, Lessons from Google and a Zen Monastery Kitchen. So, how did that book come about? How did you come to the seven practices?

Marc: Yeah, well, I, you know, after business school I ended up starting and running a publishing company for about 15 years. And I also did some other, started a couple of other startups, but I found myself doing some executive coaching at Google with the Google engineers. And then, in the midst of that, was when a Google engineer had the idea of creating a mindfulness program within Google called, Search Inside Yourself. And I got asked to be the, kind of, the initial part of a team of people who developed that program. And, then several years after that, this program became really, really popular within Google that we decided that we would create an organization to take this, these teachings, mindfulness and emotional intelligence teachings out outside of Google and started a nonprofit called the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. And, at the same time, we were looking for how to scale these trainings inside of a large company like Google and we’re training a group of about a dozen, Google engineers and a few other people to be mindfulness teachers inside of Google and to teach mindfulness. And, these seven practices kind of emerged within that context of, the question was, how, what do you need to know what are the core teachings and core values of being a mindfulness teacher and these seven practices, love the work, do the work, don’t be an expert, connect to your pain, connect to the pain of others, depend on others, and don’t be an expert. I’m sorry, the last one is, keep making it simpler. They emerged within the context of training these Google employees, and then they kind of broadened beyond that and that’s how the book emerged,

Christiaan: Right and Google and Zen monasteries, what do they have in common when it comes to leadership?

Marc: Yeah well, I like to call it the, you know, the dirty little secret of the business world is that it’s all people, all human beings, people working together with a common, a common intention, a common aspiration. And, I think it’s, you know, there’s a lot of commonality that I found with working in a Zen monastery kitchen with a group of people all trying to do their best to produce great meals. And, I think at Google I found myself working with groups of people on different teams, engineers and leadership, people working together, you know, trying to do their best, to implement particular visions and lots of the same challenges and lots of this same kind of opportunities. And I felt like, there was something in that Zen monastery environment that they were not quite aware of what the possibility was of mindfulness and emotional intelligence and bringing practice into Google was, kind of wonderful kind of challenge and opportunity that I had. And I still, I was just, I did a talk a few days ago at Google and pretty interesting to see the openness and curiosity in that large, you know, behemoth organization. But when you are there, it’s just a group of people who I think are trying to do their best.

Christiaan: Right, and from the side of the Zen Center and, you’re a teacher there, did they approve of this use, like sort of mixing of business and Zen? Is that something that they are behind?

Marc: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s interesting. I was just reviewing some notes, you know, I think I get brought in from time to time to work with the leadership of the San Francisco Zen Center who, again, you know, they, it’s interesting, it’s a practice place. It’s primarily a place around, meditation, mindfulness, you know, study and practice of Zen. And yet, there’s an organization, you know, the San Francisco Zen Center has a complex leadership structure where there are people managing the administrative side. There’s another group of people managing the kind of the spiritual and practice side and they very much have to be integrated and work together. And again, it’s people in teaching roles and leadership roles and so I think there is a good deal of interest and passion in this work that I’m doing and that many people are doing. I was just reviewing some notes, the Zen center is, San Francisco Zen center is involved in a project now of creating a, kind of a senior living facility, looking at, you know, the Zen center has been around for more than 50 years. And there’s a quite a few people who’ve been practicing there for a long time who find that they’re getting older and that there’s this need, not only in the Zen center, but you know, in this question of, aging and an aging population, and there’s some, there’s a project, around creating a senior living center, not just for the Zen center community, but for people anywhere who want to be part of, a kind of a Zen inspired or Buddhist inspired senior living center. And, I’m meeting with a group of people who are developing that to kind of, talk about, do, a kind of advice, explore some of these questions about, how do you integrate Zen into many different environments from a business environment? What does it look like when people are living together in community, out outside of a traditional Zen community?

Christiaan: Right and because the reason I asked the question is, in a lot of spiritual traditions and sort of say, you know, when it comes to spirituality, there’s this sometimes this idea of like, yeah, but you know, it’s not about money and you can’t make money. And there seems to be almost, like, I don’t know, it’s like there has to some sort of separation between making money or, you know, pursuing a sort of spiritual path. And for me, that never resonated because, well, for a time I did believe that it, you know, it was sort of, you have to give everything up in a way, which I still believe in a way, but you have to give everything up, you know, to find ,sort of that deepest inner you. But yeah.

Marc: Yeah, you know, there’s definitely tension there and there’s tension there and there’s paradox there. But I mean, that tension exists, you know, even within, you know, like, I talked a little bit about the Tassajaras and Mountain Center, which is a Zen monastery and then turns into a kind of a conference center. And, in some way, from a certain perspective, it looks a lot like a business, you know, that people pay money and there are, you know, there’s income statements and balance sheets, you know, with just like any other business and yet, there needs to be a sense of not looking at it like a business, but looking at it from a, what are we offering of practicing together? And the business aspect is there, but the core values and core tenants are around practice, are around generosity, are around mindfulness. And, at the same time, you know, there’s money involved, there’s leadership, and issues involved. And again, this is true, this tension I think, exists in any business and in any practice place. I think it can serve businesses well when they, if they could more and more realize that they’re primarily there to serve people, primarily are to solve problems. And it’s easy to get confused and think they’re primarily there to maximize wealth, their shareholder wealth. And, I think businesses that get too much on that kind of wealth production will generally find that it’s hard to create a good culture and it’s hard to be sustainable when that’s your, a kind of primary motivation. So, there’s, again, there’s many motivations, there’s tension, there’s paradox and something potent about the practice, letting it all go and the practice has kind of, as you were saying that this need for and I think this is why, you know, meditation practice is such a core practice embodying this sense of letting go, of needing to accomplish anything. And, you know, Shendro Suzuki, the, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, you know, often spoke to about the paradox of moving from attainment to non-attainment, which sounds so, you know, in contrast to how we normally think about business or leadership. And yet there’s something within that ,I think that is, a really valuable tension and really valuable paradox for any organization to better understand and embrace.

Christiaan: Right. I mean from the last thing that you said about attainment and non-attainment, I think this fits in well because for many people having a job and going to work means they come home and are tired of the workday, they’re drained and with an incredibly busy mind, maybe still at work. So, how do we do the work without struggling for it?

Marc: Yeah, well, again, it’s, I love the paradox around effort and effortlessness. So, I think, you know, one of the things I do, I do have a fair amount of executive coaching. I also do a fair amount of trainings and speaking inside of companies and I think what you just painted doesn’t have to be right. We don’t have to be exhausted and depleted, we can end the way, we cannot be exhausted and depleted is by bringing more, a sense of attention and intention, like to pay attention. What is our energy level? How are we best using our energy? What gives us energy? What does take away from our energy? How can we work with our– How are we working with our energy, with our state of mind? How can we, be, you know, give what we have to give, but at the same time, to find a sense of practice. And again, going back, even going back to Dogen’s instructions, how can we find and practice with joy and unconditional love and wisdom in whatever we’re doing.

Christiaan: Yeah. It’s funny for me because the practice when, like, I’ve been doing it for some time now, like a few years of Zen practice and, and reading about these texts and learning about, you know, the early Zen masters and more and more I noticed that I became sort of it a little bit of energy management. Like what you said, you start to manage like what am I, like dedicating my attention to, my focus to, how can I use that in a more efficient way? How can I maybe reduce it a little bit there so I will feel less strained here? And it seems like you become a manager of your own energy.

Marc: Yeah. Well, your energy and in a way your state of mind and your emotional life. Like, again, I think the, okay, noticing the gaps between, you know, how you want to be showing up and how you are showing up, noticing what people are, you find are, really give you energy when you’re around certain people when you’re doing certain tasks and other people and other tasks you’re feeling are, are really a struggle and really hard work and to be pay attention to what is that, what is it, what filters, what attitudes am I bringing that are influencing my energy, my state of mind, my feelings? And this is, to me this is the, this is the a on the ground practice, you know, we talk about, you know, it’s interesting how what I notice is it’s easy to feel like you’re a victim, right? That you were describing, right? You go home from a day of work and you’re depleted, and you have trouble being with your family and you have trouble concentrating. Well, yeah, that’s a great starting place for practice. Like, what’s that about? And what, instead of being a victim mentality, how is it that I’m doing that? How am I acting in such a way that I’m depleted, that I’m unhappy, that I can’t concentrate? What do I need? How can I shift that? What can I do to shift that?

Christiaan: Right? Yeah. And as you said, you worked on this Search Inside Yourself program for Google and why does Google embrace mindfulness and mindful leadership?

Marc: Oh, for many reasons. I think for one, you know, Google would say that it is a core part of their initiative around wellbeing, right? That they notice, you know, they do a lot of collection of information and they find that there is a good deal of people feeling stressed, people feeling depleted, people feeling like they, as you were describing that they are unable to leave their work and be with their friends or families in a healthy way. And they found that these practices, meditation, mindfulness, emotional intelligence, practices were quite successful, were quite impactful in helping people’s states of mind there, their emotional intelligence, bettering their wellbeing. I would say that, what I’ve noticed, not only at Google, but in other places, there is a tremendous need for people to collaborate, to work with greater listening, greater empathy, greater understanding, and that these practices help with that. And I would also say that, you know, people who are, in a better state of mind, feeling more centered, more sense of appreciation are generally more creative, are able to be better at whether it’s sales or product development or the various activities that make up successful businesses.

Christiaan: Right. And so, mindfulness basically can cultivate success in our work, in our careers?

Marc: Yeah, definitely. I think there’s, I know a German based company, SAP is one of a handful of companies that are doing a good deal of data collection and research. And I think they’ve come up with, I think it’s on their website now, some of the statistics about the ROI that they found in mindfulness and meditation programs. You know, in terms of, sales and product development and wellbeing and those kinds of numbers and data that they’ve collected.

Christiaan: Right, so it just works. Mindfulness is something that we can use to create success in our career and our personal life. But from what I get from you is that it’s a lot about priorities, right? It’s about making a priority out of mindfulness above some things that actually may feel more important.

Marc: Yeah, well I think it is about priorities and it’s also, I think, kind of seeing and feeling the power and relevance of practice, of having, you know, it has to be more than, maybe it starts with an idea. Maybe it starts with a hunch. Often again, it starts with pain. It starts with feeling depleted, feeling disconnected and looking for what are some of the ways that I can be more engaged, less depleted, more connected and these practices, this kind of, this practice of, you know, of listening and just paying more attention, of being, of shifting this shift. I think in some way, a core part of practice is shifting from this passive, kind of victim that I’m a victim of my situation to being a more, taking more, kind of a radical responsibility for my own state of mind, for my own feelings, for, you know, for my energy, all those things,

Christiaan: Right, to quote, I’m Steven Kovey about the circle of concern versus the circle of influence, our mind and our awareness is in the circle of influence then?

Marc: Yeah. No, his work is, was from 20, 30 years ago, still quite relevant. And of course, you know, I borrowed the number seven from him, right? He wrote The Seven Habits, I wrote The Seven Practices and, I think habits are really, really important, right? His concept of having really healthy habits. And, at the same time, I really think there’s something potent about practices, that practices have a bit more kind of intention and are things that are ongoing that will, you know, these practices that I talk about in my book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader are all meant to be kind of ongoing, kind of lifetime practices. We never, you know, we’ll never achieve something like, you know, don’t be an expert or, you know, depend on others or keep making it simpler.

Christiaan: And these seven practices, it’s important to daily put them in your life, right, to put them in your practice? When you take a moment in the morning, for instance, to meditate, to maybe contemplate them and throughout the day and how would your advice like these seven practices to take them up and really absorb them in your life? Because I sometimes hear from people in the community, you know, that they get very motivated to do something for a few days and then they lose that, and they get overwhelmed with life and they lose it again. And I feel that, you know, this habit building is so important. And how would your advice like, making it a habit to, to implement these seven steps?

Marc: Well in some way, I think the first and the seventh are good places to start. The first is to love the work right, is to lean into and feel how primary, how primal important, having a regular meditation practice is, having an integrated practice, a mindfulness practice of paying attention, of actually paying attention to one’s energy level and state of mind and feelings and taking this kind of responsibility. So, in a way, this is the first practice of, you know, love, the work, the work of developing self-awareness. It’s interesting, I was just reading this morning, one of my habits is reading the New York Times each morning and there is some study I just saw that said, 95% of people described themselves as highly self-aware and yet the actual, when people are tested for self-awareness, it’s much, much lower than that. But, then also the seventh practice of, keep making it simpler, which is to, you know, in a way to pick one thing, you know, to do, you know, maybe it’s just having a meditation practice of sitting for, you know, 10 minutes, 5 minutes, you know, taking a few breaths every day, but something that is consistent, something that’s doable or just one practice, like you know, paying attention to your energy level throughout the day and really noticing what is it that gives me energy, what is it that depletes my energy, so, keeping it simple I think is important as well.

Christiaan: Yeah, makes a lot of sense. I recently read the Culture Code from Daniel Coyle, which talks about successful groups like Pixar and Google and what makes them successful as a culture. And one of the skills he highlights is being vulnerable, which, you know, to me sounds exactly like don’t be an expert, that is so essential to being, to create a successful culture. And I’ve noticed in many workplaces, the opposite is actually done. A position of power is seen as some sort of authority that shouldn’t be questioned by the employees. So, how do we as leaders get to a place where we can be vulnerable with others without risking our position or our perceived influence?


Marc: Yeah. Again, it’s a bit paradoxical, right, the paradox between, kind of leadership success and finding your true sense of your own, kind of authority and power and empowering others and that the importance of vulnerable, of making yourself appropriately vulnerable, doesn’t mean that you’re giving up your authority. And in fact, there’s a lot more and more evidence that, transparency and vulnerability are correlated with leadership success and business success.

Christiaan: Yeah and I remember reading about Taoist leadership for instance, where they talked about, I think they quoted this part from the Tao Te Ching, where they talk about making yourself the lowest points so that all water returns to you. I think they use the analogy of water and how the river goes to the ocean because the ocean is lower than the rest. And, of course that’s like an analogy to say like if you lower yourself or, but I don’t connect that much with the word lower. I think it’s, as you said, it’s more being vulnerable at the right place. If you do that, then you will find that people are actually, they’re attracted to what you are doing and the way you approach things and, yeah.

Marc: I think, yeah, I think it’s primarily in some way a lot of it has to do with connection. And seeing, again, going back to my statement I made earlier, that, you know, the dirty little secret of the business world is it’s all human beings. I think, pretty much people get the importance of emotional intelligence in the business world, that there are wisdom, there’s real wisdom to our feelings and how much our feelings are connected and that there the need, the need for really healthy communication, the need to, this integration I think of ethics, of honesty, of transparency and the skills that it takes to have, to give good feedback, right, to deal with, difficulty, to deal with failure, to deal with working in a stressful, challenging situations and to, and as a leader, to be able to keep that connection, to keep the bar really high in terms of what we’re expecting of ourselves and each other’s, and to work in ways that are inspiring.

Christiaan: Right and can anyone become a leader or is it something that depends on character or emotional intelligence or talent?

Marc: Well, this word, leader, you know, I think on the one hand there is a role of a leader right in the business world and it is a very particular, has some particular challenges and opportunities, but, and, and I think there are many, many skills that can be learned. Mostly it’s, I think, team building and communication skills and how one expresses a shared vision and being able to connect and inspire and motivate people. But, I also think from another perspective, we’re all leaders in the sense that we all have influence, we’re all, whether we’re in a leadership role or not, maybe we were, maybe we will be, but we all are responsible, radically responsible for our own lives. And we all have probably a lot more influence than we tend to realize.

Christiaan: Right. And so, something like emotional intelligence, that’s not a fixed number. You can, it’s, you can work on that, is that correct?

Marc: Yeah, I think, and that this is a really interesting, relatively recent finding is that the connection between, being able to, well there’s the fact that, you know, that our brains are not fixed and always changing and that we can, you know, neuro-plasticity is a relatively new finding, right, that our brains are always changing and thus are our feelings and our ability to grow our self-awareness and, to better understand our motivation and to increase our empathy and our communication skills. These are all kind of, ongoing practices that we can develop and that, these are not things that we can just read about or study. We actually have to have some kind of a practice and some kind of a somatic or body practice. And this is I think why mindfulness practice and meditation practice have become so popular, why there’s so much interest in these, in the business world and in many worlds in that, there’s, I think more and more evidence that we can grow and develop our emotional intelligence, including our leadership capacities and that having this mindfulness practice and meditation practice are very valuable ways to do that.

Christiaan: Right. Hey, Marc, I really want to, I’m super interested about our guests, their habits and how they go through their daily routine. So, I would like to go through your daily routine of how you, what habits you have in the morning when you wake up and what are the ones that really get you ready for the day?

Marc: Yeah, I find, it’s interesting that I have a daily meditation practice, I sit for about 30 minutes every morning. I sit once a week with a group, I run a group here in Mill Valley called Mill Valley Zen, I sit with a group of people. I like to do a half day or a full day sitting, you know, once a month or once every other month and then I do a yearly, longer, like a five day or seven-day retreat. So, my sitting practice is important. I have a writing practice; I usually do a little bit of writing every day. Sometimes it’s more free and open writing. Sometimes it’s more directed if I’m working on a book project, I’m always studying something in the Buddhist or mindfulness tradition, sometimes in the leadership tradition, but, reading and studying. And that’s, I find I’m, I do a fair amount of teaching, so in some way, those practices for me of sitting, writing, studying, are really core. My exercise practice is pretty much every day, I’d say at least five days a week, I’m hiking in the hills here in Northern California, anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes at a time, I’m often doing it with someone. I’m kind of combining connecting with a friend or sometimes it’s a more of a businessy meeting, but usually not, it’s usually pretty relaxed. And I would say, that throughout the day I’m, I find that I’m kind of tracking those questions that we were talking about earlier, noticing, what is it that gives me energy? What is it that is depleting my energy? You know, and my, a lot of my life is, bringing these teachings into the world of work and it’s quite a beautiful thing that I get to listen to myself. You know, I actually get to learn from the things that I’m teaching others about taking, you know, taking responsibility about tracking energy or like, I’m like, oh, yeah, I need to be paying more attention to this, I need to be doing this more. I would also say that cultivating close connection and relationship, spending time for me with my family members, spending time with close friends and cultivating those relationships I think is a really, core part of my own practice as well.

Christiaan: And what are you studying right now, if I may ask?

Marc: You know, it’s interesting. Last night I was rereading a book by Yuval Noah Harari called Sapiens, with which I find is actually a really interesting kind of book about, kind of combining history and kind of raising great questions about, influence and what is reality. And I’m also rereading a book by Robert Wright called Why Buddhism is True, which I think is a good kind of inquiry into, kind of core Buddhist practices and how the relevance of Buddhist practice in today’s work world.

Christiaan: Right, it’s funny, we are also reading Why Buddhism is True right now in the community since a month or two. And it’s super interesting to hear about these, the evolutionary perspective on psychology and how Buddhism actually saw a lot of these things happening and we’re like, yeah, that’s what you need to work on.

Marc: Yeah, totally.

Christiaan: Coming back to the person that you were when you just started this journey of, you know, going into meditation and mindfulness and the person you are now, how do you feel it has changed your life?

Marc: Yeah. You know, my, I suppose my, I’m tempted to give you the Zen answer, which is no change, right, still the same person. And, that’s true in a lot of ways, you know, I can feel, yeah. I still, in fact, I still feel like, often I feel like I’m 20 years old starting out in this practice, and yet, you know, I look in the mirror and I’m not 20 years old and I also feel, I could say that I’m, you know, completely transformed, I’m completely another person. And, yeah, I feel tremendous gratitude for these teachings and teachers that I’ve had and, the many years that I got to spend a living in community and I love, now I feel this great honor to be able to go into places like Google or other companies or nonprofits and to help bring in these teachings and to help create a healthy kind of connection and community.

Christiaan: Right? Yeah, so a change is definitely happening in our working culture and a business mindset, so to say, your work is an incredible inspiration and example to pursue that change and use it effectively and successfully, a sort of testimony that mindfulness can and will change companies and the structures that sometimes hold us and hold these companies from achieving success in their business. How do you see the future of leadership in our companies and in our world, so to say?

Marc: Yeah, I mean, my hope is that more and more leaders will be drawn to this work and transformed by this work. And again, I think it’s, you know, to me, Zen practice and mindfulness practice is really about, how can we become more full, alive, conscious human beings, right? How can we become less ego-driven and more connected, more interested in healing and compassion? And I think that this is becoming more essential for leaders today, whether it’s issues around, you know, around bias and inequality and climate change, that we all need to be waking up in our various companies and cultures and whether it’s companies or government and I think essentially these practices are about helping us to wake up more as human beings.

Christiaan: Right. Well, thank you so much, Marc, for joining me on the podcast and sharing what you shared about these practices of a mindful leader and how to basically pick up this leadership in our own lives and create a change and cultivate success. Is there anything for our listeners that you would still want to like share as a giveaway or as an advice, if they want to start to well, cultivate leadership right now?

Marc: I seem to, there’s a few, I think of a couple of lines from a the poet David White who, 54:22 [inaudible], a poem of his, he says, “you must learn one thing, the world was made to be free in”.  And I think that leadership and being human being is ultimately about finding our real, the power in our, the freedom, freedom from our ego, freedom from our greed, hate and delusion, which have been very popular for thousands of years.

Christiaan: Right. Yeah, that is beautiful. Thank you so much Marc for sharing that advice and joining me on the podcast. 

Marc: Thank you Christiaan. And just want to let people know; you know that they can find me at marclesser.net. It’s and it’s M-A-R-C-L-E-S-S-E-R.net. 

Christiaan: Awesome. Thank you so much and have a great day. 

Marc: You too, thanks a lot.

Christiaan: If you enjoyed what Marc talked about, make sure to check out his website mentioned in the description of this episode. We’ve noticed there are people who cannot hear our podcast but still would like to be part of it and learn from it. We will start to transcribe every episode so that those who have a hard time hearing us can still be part of our podcast and read with us. Shout out to our donators, Amber, Jay, Chris, Justin, Joseph, Paul, Wendy, Patrina, Krish, Fizzy Elf, and Yuri. Thank you very much for supporting us. Remember to subscribe to our podcast. If you enjoyed this talk and give us a review on the platform you’re listening to, it helps us immensely. Next week I’ll be talking with Mark Romero, who is a sound therapist, and he will play something for us live on the episode. Thank you for listening and have a great day. 

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David Bowman
David's teaching style is direct, clear, and to the point. With over 8 years of experience in the field of meditation, his work is both accessible as well as pragmatic. Having worked in think tanks, financial institutes, rabbinical and graduate schools, David’s personal philosophy is deeply informed by his eclectic past.

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