All Articles Leadership Management A Zen priest, an entrepreneur and an author walk into an interview

A Zen priest, an entrepreneur and an author walk into an interview

" I find the art of the apology and admitting mistakes is really a crucial part of leadership. I am wrong a lot."

7 min read


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iStockPhoto/Illustration by James daSilva

This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?” As he writes in his introduction to this series, “There has been some incredible wisdom and teaching shared on topics such as; the definition of leadership, how to lead, and what it takes to develop leaders. But, I have found little on what it is actually like once you get there.”

Marc Lesser was a resident of the San Francisco Zen Center for 10 years. He is the former director of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a retreat and practice center located near Monterey, Calif, a co-founder and the CEO of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a leadership program developed inside Google drawing from the disciplines of mindfulness, emotional intelligence and science. He was also the founder and CEO of Brush Dance, a publisher of greeting cards, calendars, and other gift items.

Lesser is also the author of three books. “Z.B.A. Zen of Business Administration”, drew me to Marc. As a longtime Zen practitioner myself, reading his account for how he connected his practice to his work was fascinating and immensely helpful. Zen practitioner or not, I would urge you to read that book. It might help you find a little space in the craziness of your business life.

Lesser also wrote “Know Yourself, Forget Yourself” and “Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less”. The latter is on my desk next in line to be read, and given that I am writing this two coffees in on Saturday, it’s probably a timely message. I hope you enjoy this interview with Marc, as it was a privilege for me to be a part of the conversation.

What keeps you up a night?

He took a pensive pause and then answered, “Being really clear about what our business model is.”

He added, “Externally, are we serving our customers/constituents in the best way we can?” He worries whether “is there alignment between what we believe we are doing, what our aspiration is, and how we are implementing it?”

He has a similar concern about internal alignment. “Alignment is this kind of constant dance of noticing where we are out of alignment and working to get us back into alignment.” He paused for a moment, and I could feel that he was being reflective. He then said, “There are many different ways to answer that question.” For example, “Dealing with constant change. Going back to the Brush Dance days, everything was working great and suddenly the landscape fundamentally changed. Amazon came on the scene and put half our customers out of business.”

Who do you think with?

“I’ve read a study that 40% of the population are external decision makers, 40% percent are internal decision makers, and 20% do both fairly evenly. I am definitely in the 20%.”

He talked about his team and how he is always in conversation with them. He said he uses a “really great network to get others’ perspectives to help me understand my own blindspots better.”

How do you deal with fear and doubt?

In his answer to this, you could hear the influence of his Zen practice.

“I have to be careful in that I’ve noticed I’ve developed some strategies for keeping doubt and fear away, and those strategies can serve me, and they can also be detriments to me. So, I try to tune into when those doubts and fears are there. To me, I look at them as gifts.”

I said to him, “So, suppressing them is not always a good thing, they can serve as signals.” He was quick and strong with his response. “Suppressing is almost always a bad strategy. Certainly putting them aside and moving forward or noticing them and stepping forward, that can be good.”

What do you do when you are wrong?

“I apologize. I find the art of the apology and admitting mistakes is really a crucial part of leadership. I am wrong a lot. I should track the number of times I’m wrong per hour.” He chuckled and went to say, “I am making a lot of decisions, I am making a lot of judgments, and I am doing my best to pay attention.”

How do you work on your own personal development?

He laughed and said the question made him think of one of the favorite cards that Brush Dance published. The card read, “My life is one learning opportunity after another. By the end of the week, I should be a genius.”

What things do you do to care for yourself.

He told a story of a Skype call where the two other people on the line appeared harried and started the conversation by saying, “Are you as busy as we are?” With a smile in his voice, he shared his response, “We don’t do busy, we do focused, intense, spaciousness.”

I asked him how someone creates spaciousness. He replied, “Having it as an aspiration and intention is a big part of it. Right in the midst of difficult conversations, or intensity, taking a moment to notice my breath, to stay with my body. To notice that oh, this other person who is sitting with me right now may be unhappy or stressed. But, they are a human just wanting to be happy.”

Getting back to the specifics of the question, he said, “For me, it was 30 years ago that I was the head cook at Tassajara. I think it was there that I got a real taste and immersion that work and spiritual or contemplative practice can be, are the same thing. That there is no gap between getting things done, and personal and spiritual development.”

How do you make time for the other important things in your life?

“The root of the word mindfulness is remember. So I think that is it, remember. “

What are some of the surprising burdens of leadership?

“The complexities of the human condition”, he laughed.  “I am just struck over and over again by how complicated we all are.” He went a bit deeper, “Our brains are narrative creating and story creating, and the challenge of staying really clear and working towards alignment is hard and humbling.”

What have you learned about connecting with people?

“I learned that if you are not building trust, that the default is cynicism.”

What do you wish your current self could tell your former self?

After a long pause, he said, “Maybe something like, don’t worry so much”, and then he chuckled.


Companies like Google see the value of introducing the practice of mindfulness to the organization and understand the importance of improving emotional intelligence. Today’s leaders must recognize that there is a growing expectation of true workplace wellbeing, an expectation that these disciplines support. So, however foreign they might seem, there is a good chance that they will play a vital role in future recruitment and retention efforts.

As you consider bringing these disciplines to your organization, Lesser offers a cautionary note. “I have to admit that I’m really skilled at teaching these practices; doing them (is) much harder.”


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Elliot Begoun is the Principal of The Intertwine Group. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief and Linked2Leadership. He serves as a thinking partner, providing clients with the clarity, focus, and tools needed to make good people and product decisions. He helps clients build lasting relationships with their customers, develop leaders who make others feel heard, cared for, valued and respected, and, most importantly, grow.

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