Marc Lesser: Finding Solid Ground in Uncertain Times (Ep. #14)

Published on
March 26, 2020
No items found.
Follow Our Podcast

Building Better Managers Podcast Episode #14: Finding Solid Ground in Uncertain Times

Recent events have changed business and personal life in a matter of weeks. The world has moved to practicing physical/social distancing, and working remotely. At BetterManager, we are trying to use our experience to support our clients, customers, and the world, so we decided to invite a very special guest, Marc Lesser, to talk about how to find solid ground in times of uncertainty.

In this episode:

Meet Marc Lesser

  • Bio & Background
  • Zen, Leadership & the ZBA

Staying Calm in Challenging Times

  • Bringing your whole self to whatever is happening.
  • The challenge: staying calm when it's time to stay calm, but sometimes it's time to be excited or passionate or forceful. How do we respond appropriately or effectively.
  • Practicing Mindfulness: "Instructions to the Head Cook" by Dōgen.

Storytelling and Unpredictability

  • How we use stories.
  • How our brains our wired to try to predict the future.

Finding Solid Ground in Uncertain Times

  • Being aware of our own biases.
  • Cultivating a bias for for connection and for relationship.
  • The Joyful Mind
  • The Grandmother Mind
  • The Great Mind

Building Trust

  • "If you're not cultivating trust, you're cultivating cynicism."
  • Building ongoing trust and, real, authentic connection and relationships.
  • This is where you can't fake it.

Control Issues

  • One of the great teachings of mindfulness or spiritual practices is that our own state of mind isn't controlled by the external circumstances.
  • The importance of not hiding anything, including our fear.
  • We might be feeling anxious, some loneliness, some concern for others, and it doesn't help to suppress or hide these feelings.

Placing our intentions to move towards more connectedness and a better world for all people.

Downloads & Resources

Follow Marc on LinkedIn.

Subscribe to our podcast on your favorite podcast platform!

Check out our blog articles on Leadership here.

About Marc Lesser

Marc Lesser is a speaker, facilitator, workshop leader, and executive coach. He is known for his engaging, experiential presentations that integrate mindfulness and emotional intelligence practices and training. He is the author of 4 books, including Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader: Lessons from Google and a Zen Monastery Kitchen, and CEO of ZBA Associates, an executive development and leadership consulting company.

Marc helped develop the world-renowned Search Inside Yourself (SIY) 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. He founded and was CEO of 3 companies, and has an MBA degree from New York University. Marc was a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years, and director of Tassajara, Zen Mountain Center, the first Zen monastery in the western world. He leads Mill Valley Zen, a weekly meditation group.

View the episode transcript

Wendy  0:24  
Greetings. So happy to have you here today. I am recording this podcast on March 25 2020. We are in the midst of a challenging time around the globe. The current Corona virus I must not even want to say it the corona virus has changed business and life in a matter of weeks. The world is trying to practice physical social distancing, and working remotely. At better manager we're thinking about how do we support our clients and customers and the world in general When I thought about that, I decided that I wanted to invite a very special guest, Marc Lessor, and we're going to talk today about finding ground amidst uncertainty. So let me tell you a little bit about my friend and colleague, Marc lessor. Marc lessor is a speaker, facilitator, workshop leader, Zen teacher and executive coach. Marc has led mindfulness and emotional intelligence programs at many of the world's leading businesses and organizations, including Google, SAP, Genentech, Kaiser Permanente, and as coached executives, executives and led training in fortune 500 companies, startups healthcare and government. Marc has helped develop the world renowned Search Inside Yourself program within Google a mindfulness based emotional intelligence training for Leo that teaches the art of integrating mindfulness, emotional intelligence and business savvy for creating great corporate cultures and a better world. Marc's books include seven practices of a mindful leader lessons from Google at a Zen monastery kitchen. Know yourself, forget yourself accomplishing more by doing less and ZBA Zen of Business Administration, they have all been published in 11 languages. So welcome, Marc, it's so good to have you here today.

Marc  2:34  
Thanks, Wendy. It's really good to be with you as always.

Wendy  2:38  
Yes, we have. I have loved that we we have known each other for 16-17 years since the early days at Google and I am I consider myself a student of yours and we've practiced many times together and when I think we need calmness in the world, and we need some voice of some reason, I Have you so I, I really appreciate you sharing your, your thoughts with us today.

Marc  3:05  
Well, thank you, I have to say, Just recently, someone, someone asked me if I could come and do a talk on, on the importance of staying calm in these challenging times. And my response was that staying calm is highly overrated. And that again, it's, you know something about how to bring your whole self to whatever is happening. And, and yes, when it's, when it's time to stay calm, we should stay calm, but sometimes it's time to be, you know, excited or passionate or forceful, or, you know, there's some, yeah, how do we respond? How do we respond appropriately or effectively. That's the challenge.

Wendy  4:02  
Yeah. One of the quotes that you had shared with me was don't do not see with ordinary eyes and do not think with ordinary mind. Yeah. Can you say more about that?

Marc  4:17  
Yeah, this is me, you know, conjuring up. A Zen teacher from the 13th century, this Zen teacher named Dugan, who was actually the, the founder of the brand of Zen that I've been practicing and and intimately involved with much of my life called Soto Zen. And and Dugan was a renowned teacher and and scholar. Again, you know, seven 800 years ago, and I, before all this coronavirus, stuff broke broke loose. I was I'm leading a month long training at the San Francisco Zen center with the topic of Zen and work. And much of my life has been this integration of Zen. Or maybe mindfulness practice and work practice. And, and people think that it's a new idea and I always smile at that. Going back to especially, there's a piece of writing that Duggan did called instructions to the head cook. And, and, and again, I think it's these were, you know, in some way very specific instructions for how someone running a you know, a monastery kitchen could integrate work practice and mindfulness practice, but as I'm rereading it, I'm I'm seeing that it could just as easily be been entitled, you know, How to integrate work practice with with mindfulness practice or how to respond during challenging times how to respond during times of change or what to do when something like the corona virus is, is causing you causing all of us to have to figure out the best way to to respond and how to find connectedness, how to find our centers, how to find ground in the midst of what feels groundless and just a few. A few practices from this essay are things like, pay attention to the details. be thorough, slow down, know what is needed and what is in the way. Encourage yourself with complete sincerity. I love this. Have you measured correctly or not. Do not as another person's functions are neglect your own. Those who had shortcomings yesterday can act correctly today, this is a pretty, that's a pretty good one who can know what is sacred and what is ordinary, but what is suited in a high place in a high place and what belongs in a low place in a low place, let go of comparing mind and then there's the the one that you just selected, which is do not see with ordinary eyes and do not think with ordinary mind. And, and I think that becomes particularly relevant when our conditions or conditions suddenly are not ordinary, right, we're in we're in and so in a way, it allows us to see with different from a different perspective and to see that That's always available that's always available to be able to. Yeah, to be looking through fresh eyes and to see, you know, this is

Yeah, we, you know, I think we humans are great storytellers. And, and also our brains are such that we can help it but we're always predicting the future and, and and and of course we always predict the future based on the past and and we always are trying to make sense of the world and and of course all those things we have to but those things, also limit us a lot and get in and get in the way of what actually is happening. of actually seeing How we are changing how people around us are changing this kind of up maybe appreciation of the, how magical and extraordinary everything is. And these So, this do not see with ordinary eyes and do not think with ordinary mind is I think a beautiful reminder beautiful teaching to, you know, to stop and, and and not and not be habitually predicting that the world will be as it all as it always has been. And that's one of the great lessons right right now, right? Suddenly the world is not as it has been, and we don't we really don't know what will happen. And this is always the case but But, so, but and that that's not me. To to frighten us or scare us, you know, the sense of right. So how do we find? How do we find ground within the ground less? How do we how do we, how do we dance in the, in this midst of lack of predictability? You know?

Reminds me a lot of it's, you know, it's why it's why I took improv classes was was to get a look, you know, even to get more in touch with my own level of discomfort and to feel and to be able to play with what is it like to find some joy and comfort in in literally in not knowing what will happen next?

Wendy  10:47  
Yeah. I find myself thinking a lot and and talking with my team to about, you know, what's our opportunity here? You know, because when things fail out of our control. You know, the one thing that we can control is perspective, as you say, like how we think about things and what's our opportunity to do things differently. So that keeps resonating in my head.

Marc  11:14  
Yeah. Well, you know, I think of the some of the conversations I've been having. And it's interesting how I feel like some of these conversations for me were happening right before all this virus broke loose, and then they kind of bled into it, which was I can remember in particular, speaking with an executive who, who a woman who said that she noticed she had a bias for action she had she always whenever, and it's interesting whenever she felt uncomfortable, whenever there was some space, what she did was act and, and it just, I suggested that she might Explore, what would it be like to have a bias for connection and a bias for relationship? And,

and I think,

I think for leaders and for all of us to notice what our own biases are, especially when we're feeling any sense of discomfort, any sense of stress, where do we tend toward and I think a lot of us, you know, tend toward, maybe some of us tend to action maybe some of us tend to withdrawal or or we tend to fear and worry. But there's something about cultivating a bias for for connection and for relationship. And I want to throw in here coming bring us back to this Dogan fellow Who, who, at the very end of this essay, this essay, that's it's called instructions to the head cook. He suggests having a bias toward cultivating three minds. And he said, and he says very clearly that the head cook should always work with three minds, which is kind of, I think, a really interesting concept in a way. Maybe it's simple and straightforward, but somewhat sophisticated, that this idea that you actually can bring a particular perspective into, into your work into your life. And, and the three minds that Duggan suggests are a joyful mind, grandmother mind, or, you know, of course, this is this is all being translated but it's like the mind of unconditional love. The mood of unconditional kind of connection and relationship. And then the last is something that he calls you know, great mind or wise mind which again, one way that I think about great mind is the mind that can cut through the the illusion of separateness. The mind that in that is intimately connected. And I think also maybe the mind that appreciates the reality of, of change and impermanence, right to to, right, it's sort of the, to this moving, moving from being on autopilot to being more in the, you know, to use they use the word mindfulness or mindful of impermanence and change.

Wendy  14:53  
Yeah, and those it those three minds like joyful mine, grandmother, mother, Find the unconditional love. And then this mind, I think of the third one wise mind comes, I think about focus, some people are really good at being able to stay focused, you know, and, and those of us, I had a call yesterday with 25 of my coaching team around the world, and that the connectedness kind of the grandmother mind. And in some people, the joyful mind was very, very clear. Like, let's, let's get up and dance a little bit like let's not take this, like, let's make sure when we check in with people, we're checking in first about how are you in empathy and compassion? And then how do you find some joy in that what I've noticed in in hearing from people that I've coached and all of our coaches is that there's such a range of how people are feeling between the fear and and then they it's going to be fine. It's nothing's really different. We've always worked remotely And so there's the experience across the globe is just so dynamic and different. And how do we how do we share some of these the the lesson of the minds to help people move forward?

Marc  16:14  
Mm hmm. Yeah. Yeah. And you know, I think it's interesting how this, this occasion is also a great leveler, right? We I think we all it's, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter whether you're the CEO or just starting starting out in an organization and it doesn't matter where, where you live or, you know, that there's something about we are all all in this together. We, I think we all feel a sense of, of not, not to knowing and, and the and then What is that? What does that arouse in us? What does that bring up? in us? It's funny even hearing, you know, there's a, I have to say, I more and more love the, the Zen, the Zen tradition because of its the flavor of the storytelling, the paradox and and the humor. I was I was at a, someone was lecturing the other day about kind of about non duality and and looking at different different non dual traditions and I and I was sitting there feeling really bored. And I'm thinking, this is why I like the the Zen tradition would never talk about all of these kind of cognitive intellectual ideas. It would just To tell a great story, or, or, you know, and, and, or come up with a phrase like, and I'm reminded of when I when I just said the phrase not knowing. In the Zen tradition, there is a beautiful expression that says not knowing is most intimate. And, and there is, I think, an intimacy that, that I feel and I think many of us feel that we, we all we're all connected in a sense by not knowing what's going to happen here. And, and, again, that's always true, you know, it's just more in our face, right, right now, you know, again, we, we, especially we business people, you know, we we feel like our job is to know, right Our job is to, and in some sense, right we, of course, we we do our best to predict The future, right to predict.

And we use all the data available to us to predict whether it's, you know, the revenue and profits and we predict, you know, are the human human capital that's going to be required and all of that. And of course, that's all. That's all important. And we and we, we need to do that. And but there's another element that that that I think tends to cover up we tend to feel like we can predict and control and, and we lose sight of that. Yeah. But in the, in the human realm, in the emotional realm. There it's another it's another story and there needs to be a sense of humility and listening and openness to letting things slip Things are gonna unfold in a way that we can't exactly predict and how do we find our, again? How do we find our ground? And our sense of comfort there? Yeah.

Wendy  20:13  
I, I've had the experience of like trying to find my ground every day, you know, you get up and you hear what's happened in the world today. And then you have to find your ground again. And then we have kind of the opportunities and the the blessings that come out of something like this. I've heard and contacted many old friends and colleagues that are just people are reaching out in a way that that in my, in my paradigm, we should do all the time, as you're saying, like, what well how are we behaviors that we should be able but I heard from a friend that I worked with 40 years ago, you know, just checking in to make sure that you're okay. We we talk maybe once a year, yeah,

Marc  21:02  
yeah, I got it. I got a text this morning from someone in India. Just making sure I'm okay. Yeah. And also, you know, my It's funny how my, my life has changed in that. You know, I usually have a daily meditation practice where I sit by myself in my office for 20 or 30 minutes. And now I'm sitting with a couple hundred people online and, and it's kind of kind of a beautiful thing. I have to say every once in a while I'll turn my camera off and just scroll through and look and see who's who all who talk is all here. And yeah, so funny. Funny that that have these things happen.

Wendy  21:53  
And it and it makes many practices and things more accessible to more people like this. That's a positive offshoot, you might normally have 25 people in a row or maybe 50. And now you could have hundreds. Yes,

Marc  22:07  
yeah. Yeah. No, I mean, I sense that the I don't think in person trainings and meetings and contact I think that will become even more relished and and at the same time we're learning we're getting quite the quite the education about what's possible to do online.

Wendy  22:37  
So as we as we people that are listening that are like, Okay, what do I do next? Do we have any kind of practical advice in the in the Zen story tradition that people can follow as they're like, Okay, I'm gonna take that piece away and and hold on to it.

Marc  22:57  
Well, you know, Just looking at those lessons from instructions to the head cook you know, be thorough, slow down. Encourage encourage yourself with complete sincerity. Encourage yourself with complete sincerity. I think there is something

Wendy  23:20  
What does that mean to you? Can you hurt yourself with complete sincerity?

Marc  23:24  
Yes, something that I I find myself teaching a lot in the in the corporate world and in any work world is that if you're not cultivating trust, you're cultivating cynicism. And that it's really easy to be cynical. It's really easy to let that that again, it's I was just tying it back to, you know, if, if in the past, you haven't seen people change the way That you want them to or you haven't, you know that, that, oh, it's always going to be like this, it's always you know, nothing, nothing is going to change. They're not going to listen to me they're not going to do what I think they should do cynicism sets in and it becomes pretty, it becomes pretty solid. And I see it a lot in I mean, corporate cultures of cynicism are are really common, right, this is the way it is here, people here, people here and you can fill in the blank any company, and it can be a small company. I mean, I can remember, you know, back when I I used to run a publishing company called brush dance. And I could remember someone saying, you know, at brush dance, we and I remember just it just really, like we like, we need to click like, let's let's change that language. Let's you know How about if we say in the past in the past, there used to be, you know, there was a sense that we were always putting out fires and not thinking not thinking forward enough. But now we're going to think in a way more forward thinking. And again, you could come up with any any of the things that that culturally can lead to a kind of a kind of a kind of cynicism that it really takes, I think ongoing, ongoing trust, building ongoing, real, authentic connection and relationship.  

This is where you can't fake it. You know, and I, I sometimes hear managers and leaders tell me that they can see that people on their team are actually faking it. They're not really they're not really they're not sincere. So there's there It's interesting. There's a, and I think we are so much more creative and smarter and better listeners, and more effective when there's a level of sincere sincerity. Now, you know, that doesn't mean we don't have doubts. And in fact, it means part of part of I think sincerity is that there's enough enough trust that we can express our point of view that we can have healthy conflict. Right. So cynicism is when we've given up right we can't, I can't, I can't. I'm never you know, no one ever listens to me is a is a classic is ever going to change. Nothing's ever going to change, right. They, you know, as, so there's a kind of risk taking and courage and I think in embedded in this sense of sincerity, So this expression to encourage yourself with complete sincerity so it's a it's kind of to take it on as a as a practice and now partly what that means is noticing, noticing the cynicism and it comes up for me right like I can be I can be cynical whether it's you know, in my primary relationships or certainly easy to be cynical about our government and and just to notice it and to look okay what what would what would a more How could I encourage myself with more a more sincere sense of what what would I like to see happen here? what's possible? What, what what is what what power do I have here in this situation?

Wendy  27:54  
What can I take some control over of things that I don't feel there's control in the world right now, but I have possibilities I can take care of.

Marc  28:03  
Yeah. And this is I think, you know, one of the great teachings of, of, I think all kind of mindfulness or spiritual practices is, is to that our own state of mind isn't controlled by the external circumstances. I'm not that we're, of course, we're going to be influenced by what's happening, but that we can bring, you know, we can bring joyful mind, grandmother mind and wise mind, even into dealing with a worldwide pandemic, and especially probably dealing with with difficult situations like this or, or, you know, I know a lot of companies right now are there's, there's some companies, some companies, it's probably a few are booming, but most are seeing real, real drop in In their business in their revenue. I've spoke with an executive at a large company yesterday who said, of course, all hiring has been frozen. You know, they were planning they were scaling way up, and that's all been put on hold and it's like, Okay, how do we, how do we work with what we have now? And this was actually, you know, there's a passage in in in doggins writing on the instructions to the head cook that you know, sometimes all you have is wild grasses to cook with. And and make the best of it. And sometimes you might have, you know, expensive cream, and other exquisite ingredients. Don't get too excited.

Wendy  29:47  
Yeah, that's a leveling kind of situation. Yeah. It struck me about the complete sincerity our our need as leaders and managers to To understand and acknowledge fear and things right now and and be with your people around that don't say, Okay, I was with a, a CTO of a company in a meeting two days after 911. And she refused to acknowledge that the world had kind of changed. And it was the most painful situation to be in a team like that. And so, leaders need to understand now that we need to empathize, be compassionate, acknowledge how people might be feeling and that that's all feelings right now. are okay. Yeah, we need to, we'll figure out that piece, you know,

Marc  30:42  
Well, Dugan address that as well in that in this essay, he goes around and interviews head cooks of various temples. And there's one dialogue that's in this essay where he says, he says to this head, cook, what is What is mindfulness practice? And the head cooked response. Nothing in the universe is hidden. Nothing in the universe is hidden. And I think that's exactly what I'm hearing you say is that, that practice, whether we call it mindfulness practice or human practice or leadership practice, it's not hiding anything, including our fear, including that we, you know, right now, we might be feeling anxious, we might be feeling, you know, some loneliness some concern and, and it's not. It doesn't, it doesn't help to suppress or hide the, you know, to, to be able, I think so much of leadership is and so much of human human being a full human is right. How do we bring how do we bring our Full our full humanity to whatever we're doing. And again, this is also kind of almost a definition of sincerity. Right? So it's like since sincerity means like, right sounds like without without hiding. Without compartmentalizing.

Wendy  32:20  
Well,  Marc one of one of the lessons as we talked about today as we as we close is the piece about connectedness. And for people I know when I thought I needed to connect with somebody that had some, some thoughts and wise notions, I reached out to you, and I hope we're all thinking of, like, how do we make the best of the how do we take this with sincerity and understand what the feelings are, and not just jump into action, but hold, hold both sides of that action and feelings and and use this as an opportunity to connect there's A lot of things that have gone around the lab terrible things, but a lot of good things around the internet about how we have an opportunity to have the world look a little different. And I know both of our intentions are always to move towards a more connectedness and a better world for people. So I'm so happy that you were here today and you could reach out and share, share yours in wisdom.

Marc  33:28  
Thank you. Thank you, Wendy for for reaching out and, and thank you, Dugan for your writing writing this essay, you know, 800 800 years ago and instructions for how to deal with difficult situations.

Wendy  33:45  
It certainly shows right that that some things don't change. We need to take a lot of lessons from the past and use them now. So, Marc, if people want to get out certainly you've got great books. How do they How do they find do how do they connect with you because you are you are a resource to the world right now.

Marc  34:04  
Well thank you and much of my life is now online and I can be found at MarcLesser.net and yeah and I'm my schedules there and I'm I think for now all of my in person events from you know, weekly meditation group to one day trainings are all being I'm just saying yes I'm doing it all I'm gonna do them they're all now going to be online until until we know further that we can do things face to face again or in person again.

Wendy  34:45  
Yeah, so well thank you and thank you all for listening in to this. And that with then let's live with intention and let's live with this sincerity and and can we will think And heard insincerity. Yeah. And we will all get through this together and hopefully even stronger. So take good care. Please send me a note. If you have any requests for things Wendy a better manager.us you'll, you'll see how to reach Marc again in the show notes and we want to be of service. So if there's anything that we can do, please let us know. Have a wonderful day and virtual hugs.

The future of work has arrived. It's time to thrive.