The workplace culture is an important factor in the success of any business. A positive and productive workplace culture can help to increase employee engagement, reduce turnover and make it easier to attract new talent. On the other hand, a negative workplace environment can lead to decreased morale and productivity, along with costly legal battles. It is thus vital for employers to be proactive in creating and fostering a culture which will promote positivity and productivity among their teams. This includes offering competitive compensation, fair policies and procedures, open communication, and a supportive work environment. By understanding their employees inner experience and developing strategies to foster a positive workplace culture, employers can ensure that their teams continue to feel motivated and inspired.

Meet Marc

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. His podcast Zen Bones: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times features cutting-edge interviews, supportive tools for creating more meaningful work, and potent mindfulness practices to develop yourself, influence your organization, and change the world. ​

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.

Timestamped Overview

  • [00:00:37] Accountability is about aligning values, aspirations, success, leadership, and trust with compassion.
  • [00:04:14] Building great cultures by creating purpose and meaning, utilizing trust, and building character and well-being.
  • [00:08:53] Businesses provide goods/services to serve people, allowing them to live.
  • [00:09:59] “Asking “How are we doing?” to create healthy workplaces and effective, difficult conversations requires self-awareness and a contemplative practice to avoid blame and defense.”
  • [00:15:50] Tendency to blame when threatened; reflex to blame without conscious thought; story of accidental email; skillful creating of safe space to remove blame; blame prevents connection and solutions.
  • [00:19:42] Teaching Google engineers self awareness through mindfulness and feedback to control emotions during times of tension.
  • [00:25:18] Ask teammates how to make team/relationship more effective and listen.
  • [00:27:48] Team building through conversation and improv activities.
  • [00:31:57] Listening and self-awareness are essential leadership skills.

Guest Resources

If you are interested in learning more about Marc’s resources be sure to check out the following links:


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The following is an AI generated transcript which should be used for reference purposes only. It has not been verified or edited to reflect what was actually said in the podcast episode. 


Scott McCarthy [00:00:00]:

You Mark sir, welcome to the show. So good to have you here today.

Marc Lesser [00:00:09]:

Scott it’s great to great to be here, appreciate it.

Scott McCarthy [00:00:11]:

So we are on talking about compassionate accountability and the first thing I want to talk about and I guess ask you about this is like where do we come up with compassionate accountability? Because all often people think about accountability and compassion isn’t necessarily the next word they think to associate with accountability. So can you kind of clarify that for us today?

Marc Lesser [00:00:37]:

Yeah, well, totally. That was the original title for my book, which morphed into finding clarity, but partly because the publisher was very clear that people don’t like accountability. And normally, if you ask for word association, what would come would be lack of or the image of that kind of dreaded performance review. Is the other image that people have around accountability just something the word feels cold and harsh. But in the study and writing that I’ve done about accountability, I’ve really come to appreciate it. Essentially it means it’s about not avoiding conflict. The word alignment might almost be a better word than accountability or some combination of clarity, alignment and accountability because it’s about aligning in ourselves with what our values and aspirations are, with what we’re actually doing and then in relationship accountability is primarily about alignment aligning around what success looks like, what effective leadership looks like and how we want to be working together and then the compassion piece adds the element which I found is really essential, which is around care and trust. Compassion means to feel the feelings of other people and to want the best for them, to want people to heal. So I’ve actually found it’s a yes, it is paradoxical or contrarian to put those two words together, but it’s real. I think in the world of work, we got to get stuff done, we got to perform, we got to have measurements, and we are actually more collaborative. We perform better when we care about the other people that we’re working with. And it seems obvious, but it seems like this is a relatively new AHA in the work world, is that having a culture of trust and care and collaboration actually matter when it comes to high performing places.

Scott McCarthy [00:03:08]:

No, I completely agree with you. 100% often say that trust is the cornerstone of leadership. And here at the podcast, we talk about peak performance. Obviously, it’s part of the name of the show, but we talk about it across three domains. I think we can really hit across all three domains on this topic. And those three domains are leading Yourself, leading your team. I e the individuals within the team and then leading the organization. So I’d like to kind of go through each one of those and how we might apply this style to each one of those domains. And you’ve really hit the lot leading your organization there. So I guess we’ll just work our way backwards because you kind of led us down that road anyway. So how might we be able to change that culture and use these principles so that we change that culture so we get away from those cultures where I’m not your friend, I’m not your butt. I’m just here to do the job, collect my paycheck and go home at the end of the day.

Marc Lesser [00:04:14]:

Yeah, well, I think I really like that framing of the individual, the team and the organization. And I use that framing a lot. And I think in this area of accountability and compassion, accountability, they’re very much intertwined. I think it requires building great cultures. In part, it’s having a clear and a mission and vision that everyone can get behind and to be clearly stating and bringing in that sense of purpose and meaning to what we’re doing. Almost every company is about helping people in some way. I once did a talk for a whole group of insurance agents and I started my talk with saying, what business do you think you’re in? And they were all I could tell the energy was low and they were a bit bored and stale about being insurance agents. But I said, man, you guys are in the trust business. I love my insurance agent and I have to trust that he’s out to do the best for me. And that’s the business I think you’re in. And that kind of really woke them up. And I’m doing a lot of work right now for a socially responsible bank, which has been really fun. They have the mission of changing capitalism, changing the way that we think about money. And again, almost every business has that ability. So that to me is a good starting point, is to bring in that purpose and meaning. But then I think it’s also I’ve realized that business and leadership are actually terrific cauldrons for growing character and for growing human beings. This is one maybe that overlaps all three of those areas, but from an organizational point of view is to hold that as a value, right? To walk the talk of having a culture where people care about each other enough so that we realize and we can agree on that we’re here to build character. We’re here to build well being. It was you know, I used to present a lot of statistics in in workshops and one one that really stood out for me was I think it was like under 5% of leaders in the United States view their workplace as a leader, as a place that where they can build their own well being. And I thought that was really pathetic. I know it’s aspirational and I know not everyone thinks this and feels this, but I think there is the possibility of the overlap of culture and character building and well being building. So those two things I think are good ways into your first question about how to create better. Yeah. The organization piece meaning and what I think of as that shift or that understanding about that business is good for building humans.

Scott McCarthy [00:07:54]:

It’s funny me the story you just told about the insurance agents, because it reminds me of one of my stories, and that is I was giving a lecture to business students, and it’s well known that I still serve, as we discussed before we hit record that, and I still serve the Kenyan army. So I asked them, I said, when you boil it down, what do I do in the military? And I’m like, well, when you boil it down, it’s basically we save lives. What is it that you guys do in business? And they all like, make profits. And typical answers you would expect from business students. I said, no, you guys save lives. They’re kind of puzzled luck. Right. And make a long story short, but I went through effectively, like, what a business does, ie. Makes money. What do they do? They pay their people. What do people do with their money? They put ruse over their head and food on their plates. Therefore, if they didn’t have those things, I. E. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, they would not survive.

Marc Lesser [00:08:53]:

Yeah. And tire companies, if you’re selling tires, you want tires that are safe and that are keeping people safe. If you’re in the whatever business, almost every business, there may be some exceptions, but almost every business in some way is serving people. It’s providing goods or services that people need. And I also like your story, your metaphor about that you’re allowing people to live. Bottom line.

Scott McCarthy [00:09:30]:

That’s great. So let’s talk about bringing into the teams, into the individuals within our teams, because, as you said, obviously there’s a lot of overlap. Right. We can’t just look at these domains. Siloed very difficult to do, especially when we’re talking something along those lines. So how do we get our teams bought into this and think about their well being and be more compassionate and trust each other? How do we actually go about achieving that?

Marc Lesser [00:09:59]:

Yeah. There’s a sub chapter in my book called The Four Most Important Words, and those words are how are we doing? It seems so obvious, but it’s amazing how whenever, you know, we we humans are very, very tender beings, and we go very, very easily to blame or defend. Blame or defend. We’ve evolved. We’ve evolved. I think it’s part of our evolutionary process. I used to work with a Google scientist who was fond of saying that we humans are descendants of the nervous apes. The apes who were chill and cool and calm. They all died. The ones that survived were the ones that were adept at scanning for threats. And that’s what we do. And it’s about staying alive and passing on our genes. And that plays out every day, every moment in the workplace. And it plays out as we are easily hurt and we’re easily blaming. So if something has gone wrong or someone feels we feel some heat, we’re either blaming or we’re defending. We have various flavors and versions of that. In order to create healthy workplaces, we need to be having these open skillful conversations about how’s it going. One, I think how’s it going in terms of meeting our objectives, our goals, our numbers, all of those obvious, sort of obvious, but not done as often as you would think in the business place. And then the other, the how are we doing in terms of how are we doing with each other? How does it feel working together? What do we need to do differently so that we can build again, that that trust word. How can we build more trust, how can we build more clarity? Being able so much of it is not avoiding discomfort and not avoiding the difficulties. A lot goes wrong when people stop really talking to each other, stop being curious about each other and get into that habit of that blame or defend stance. And this is actually, I think Scott a really good segue into the personal, because you can’t have a how are we doing? Conversation unless you have a pretty high degree of self awareness, a high degree of because even just asking that question, if you bring blame or defensiveness with that question, people will feel it, and that conversation is not going to go well. And this is not so easy to do right? Especially when there’s conflict, disagreement, any lack of alignment. And to me those things are all, they can all be positive. Conflict, disagreement, lack of alignment, that’s going to happen. That is going to happen in the work world or in any of our relationships. And so to be able to have those more skillful, effective, difficult conversations is hugely important. But in order to do that, my bias is that you kind of need to have some kind of a practice in order to develop your body, to have a body that is safe, to have a body that is not communicating blame and defense. And this is where, whether it’s any kind of mindfulness practice or meditation practice, or contemplative practice, but it takes practice, I think it takes practice to develop ourselves, to train ourselves, to be able to more skillfully have those compassionate accountability conversations and relationships.

Scott McCarthy [00:14:27]:

I really like the part you talk about what I refer to as not playing the blame game. That really resonates with me because I always find when we go into playing the blame game, nothing gets resolved. We don’t get any forward progress. And I was just meeting with a few of my team members, I think it was yesterday, actually, and we’re just discussing something that not necessarily went the right way, but was it a big deal? Not really. You know what I mean? But obviously it was something that could have improved and I could see I could feel as they were talking to me about after they looked into it and let me know what had happened and all this stuff, they’re being really defensive, and I was like, Guys, time out. There’s no knives out right now. Right? I’m not looking to cut anyone up here. All I wanted to know was kind of get that warm and fuzzy, that some assumptions that I had made when I was made aware of this particular situation were either valid or false. Where are we on a couple of questions? And how are we moving forward with making this better for the future? Right. But I wasn’t looking. I was like, I’m not looking like, there’s no knives here. Let’s just have a conversation. And you could just feel the room just go.

Marc Lesser [00:15:50]:

Yeah. Well, it’s interesting, both parts of that, Scott. One is that I think that we humans tend to if we feel threatened in some way, we go right to blame without even knowing it. It’s almost below consciousness. Right. I sometimes tell a story. I can remember my wife asked me to recommend she was looking for a designer, and I was working with two different designers, and I wrote her a note outlining the strengths and weaknesses of these two designers, and I, by accident, pushed send and sent it to both of the designers instead of my wife. And immediately, I was angry with my wife. I could feel like, oh, if she hadn’t asked. And then I had to laugh at myself, like, no, this had you know, this had nothing to do with her. You know, this was just my my error, you know? And I had I got into a little bit of hot water with both designers having outlined their weaknesses as well as their strengths. But it’s interesting to see, to feel, and experience how we do that in subtle and not so subtle ways. And then I really liked how you very skillfully gently met that and created a safe space where people could relax, loosen that blame, that fear, and then, yeah, we’re so much better at we’re just smarter when we’re not being defensive or blaming. There’s many more ways to connect and work with each other and look for and as you’re saying, let’s just find solutions. Like, Blake, blame is such a bore. Blame really gets in the way it does.

Scott McCarthy [00:17:53]:

It definitely gets in the way of progress, and it definitely gets in the way of what we’re trying to achieve. Out of this podcast I e. You know, hitting peak performance, like, when when you’re looking just to blame, it kind of goes against everything which you’ve discussed so far. Trust goes out the window because you can’t trust anybody. You’re wondering if your peers are throwing you under the bus when they’re in with the boss. You’re wondering if your boss is just looking at ways just to kind of nitpick you apart. You can’t trial anything, because you know what I mean? Trial something, experiment because you don’t want to come across as a failure and then all of sudden A, you get blamed for wasting time, resources, whatever. But I want to go back mark, you said something a little while ago that piqued my interest as we went down this not rabbit hole but this topic of blame. But rather you talked about self awareness for a second and how important and self awareness as a leader really dives into this whole compassion accountability. And I’d love for you to kind of unpack that a bit more along the lines of one, I think it’s crucial for us to be self aware of our level of self awareness. How might we achieve that? And two, how do we go about being a self aware so that we’re not doing all these negative things but rather, as you said, instilling that place of psychological safety where people can feel a bit more relaxed, can open up, can hold each other accountable in a meaningful way, vice a negative way.

Marc Lesser [00:19:42]:

Yeah. I’ve spent many, many days teaching mindfulness based emotional intelligence to Google engineers and emotional intelligence model. At the very base of it is self awareness as core as the core competency to all of the other emotional intelligence competencies like self management and motivation and empathy and communication skills. And what’s interesting is that there’s a lot of complexity and depth to what has come to be sort of a throwaway term, right? Self aware. Oh yes, self awareness. Everyone thinks they have self awareness but I once brought in Daniel Goldman as a guest who made emotional intelligence really popular. And one of the things that we talked about is why in his original book from many years ago didn’t he talk about meditation and mindfulness, which there’s been now a lot of recent research that it’s hard to build self awareness without some kind of body practice. That self awareness is not just an intellectual pursuit, not just cognitive. There is a cognitive element to it, but there’s a body element to it. There’s how there’s there’s an, you know, our emotions, our emotions, you know, live live in our body. And it’s interesting Daniel Goldman said he didn’t bring in mindfulness and emotional he didn’t bring in mindfulness and meditation because at the time the world wasn’t ready for it. But the world is now more and more ready. But the other way I would respond, Scott, to your question about self awareness is getting feedback especially I found I used to do, when I was CEO of my last company, used to do once or twice a year anonymous surveys with all the employees and that survey included rating. There were nine different questions in that survey about how the CEO me was doing and those were immensely difficult and eye opening to see how I was perceived. I’m often saying to leaders that I work with, if you think you’re a good listener, but everyone around you says you’re not a good listener, you’re not a good listener. So self awareness can be tricky, right? Self awareness is not in a vacuum. Self awareness means that we need to be paying attention to how we are perceived by others and, and even tying it back to what we were just talking about, this blame and defense. And a lot of it is bringing awareness to how we our own fight and flight response and to be able to find some space in ourselves from that. This is, I think, a core part of self awareness is not being caught by fight and flight, not being caught by difficult emotions, especially when there’s conflict, especially when there’s difficulty. To be able to keep calm, to keep a level head in the fight, in the times when things are tense and hard.

Scott McCarthy [00:23:19]:

Yeah. Wow, that’s an awesome response. And I really enjoyed the it’s not just a cognitive thing, but it’s also a physical thing. I actually never even looked at it or thought about it in that way. And the survey got to be ready for that one.

Marc Lesser [00:23:41]:

Yeah, I remember the first time I did one of these surveys and I saw the results, I thought, all right, I’m just going to fire them all.

Scott McCarthy [00:23:50]:

It’s interesting because right now we’re into annual report season. For us, we do it from April, our year runs from beginning of April to the end of March. So now I’m writing up last year’s, last year’s reports from my team members, my directs, and reviewing their directs and so on and so forth. And obviously some of them, they’ve been with me for more than a year now, so they know this is coming. But as I finish the debrief, I’m like, all right, so what do you have for me? And most of them immediately go, what do you mean, what do I have for you? And I go, Give me my report back. How am I showing up to you as your boss, as your supervisor, as your leader? What constructive criticism do you have for me? Where am I showing up and where am I falling short? I remember the first time I thought about doing this and it took a lot of guts, honestly, because you got to be ready for the response. You can’t put a question like that out. And same thing with anonymous survey. As much as it is anonymous, you still know there’s an individual behind that response, right? Someone who’s part of your team, someone who’s part of your company, and you have to be ready for that response. So don’t ask the question if you’re not ready to hear what they have to say. So it takes a lot of guts and it’s great.

Marc Lesser [00:25:18]:

Yeah. One of my favorite exercises to do with teams is to get everyone in pairs and so that there’s pair. So make sure that each person on the team gets to sit facing the other person and each person look at the other person and say, please tell me what can I do to help make this team more effective? And then just listen and just write down what each person on the team says to you quite directly what you can do to me. It makes it safer. It’s a safe and productive and positive way to give that kind of feedback. What can I do to help make this relationship more effective? What can I do to help make this team more effective? And if you’re having those conversations on an ongoing, no need to wait till the annual performance review to ask those questions. Those should be in our just regularly, like just how’s it going? Right? It’s a little bit like the how are we doing questions. So that’s great that you can have those conversations, but it takes a safe enough environment, a trusting enough environment to get real answers to those kinds of questions. Often it’s not a good thing when someone responds fine, everything’s fine. There must be something that could be better or different that I could be doing.

Scott McCarthy [00:26:54]:

As the old saying goes, if you ask your spouse how they’re doing, they reply with fine. You know that it’s not fine.

Marc Lesser [00:27:03]:


Scott McCarthy [00:27:03]:

You make a great segue. So I was talking to you before we hit record. I do run a mastermind community here called the Leader Growth Mastermind. And one of the benefits is they’re actually they have access to this live stream as we’re recording right now. And we got a question direct from one of our members, Heather. So Heather and it’s great because it’s literally segue continuing on your topic. And she wants to know about team building exercises, which you were just discussing. And should they be bit more work focused or should they go more on the generic side where they’re kind of a bit more fun to build that trust, enable that type of culture, spree decorus, so on and so forth.

Marc Lesser [00:27:48]:

I used to have a weekly staff meeting and one of the things that I think and teach about meetings is that pretty much every meeting is an opportunity to do team building, even if the focus is on problem solving or decision making or reporting. I like to do and I generally like to start every meeting with a little bit of team building. And that might be turn to the person next to you and have a short conversation about and it might be what you like to do on Sunday afternoons or what’s your favorite book. There’s something about breaking that wall of we’re not just our roles in business, that we’re people. So something to break down that barrier and bring in the human element. And to me, what I’ve noticed is then we can transition into let’s get down to business. And it goes so much better once you’ve a little bit of heart, a little bit of connection, a little bit of safety goes a long way. For many years, I took improv classes, improv. And I did it because I used to be so nervous about the idea of talking in front of people without a script. And it really did help me to take those classes. And I end up in team building, doing a lot of sort of game playing, bringing in some of those improv games of trying things, doing things that are physical. I find there’s such hunger for people wanting to play in this very serious business world of bringing in a variety of even just simple improv games that are a way of playing with each other.

Scott McCarthy [00:29:53]:

That’s a neat connection. I used to improv when I was in high school and I just kind of love the flow of it and the spontaneity of it and so on and so forth, which people who know me quite well now would probably go spontaneous. That’s not Scott. But I liked your point about really about more focusing on the non work side, because, to me, when we focus on the non work side, this is how we build deeper connection, because we’re not looking at Joe The. Account manager, and Jane, the customer service rep, but rather Joe and Jane. And what gets them going, what are their interests, what are their passions, who their family are, what their family looks like, what they enjoy doing in their spare time. And I always find that when we have these conversations about these things.

Marc Lesser [00:30:52]:


Scott McCarthy [00:30:52]:

End up having a much deeper connection with them and getting to know them.

Marc Lesser [00:31:01]:

Totally. I think to break that dichotomy about work, non work, because it’s the work of building character, it’s the work of growing humans.

Scott McCarthy [00:31:20]:

To kind of wrap all that up. As I said, I think that development and that connection at that deeper level, that individual level, is just so crucially important. Mark, this has been a great conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed it. No doubt the audience is getting a lot out of it. As we wrap up here, though, I do got a couple of last questions for you. The first being question asked all the guests here at the Peak Performance Leadership Podcast. And that is according to you, Mark Lesser, what makes a great leader?

Marc Lesser [00:31:57]:

Listening. And self awareness is the starting point. And listening means listening outside of our own stories and narratives and really listening, really connecting. It’s one of the, I think, most underappreciated skills of a leader.

Scott McCarthy [00:32:23]:

Should have expected an answer, much like that final question of the show. How can people find you, follow you, be part of your journey? It’s all about you now.

Marc Lesser [00:32:32]:

Yeah, I have a new book out, finding Clarity and people can find me. Markleser Marclesser Net, and the book is available any place where books are sold online, in bookstores and all that stuff. And compassionate. It’s all about compassionate accountability.

Scott McCarthy [00:32:55]:

Awesome. And for you. To listeners always. It’s easy. Just go to lead. two five 6256 links are in the show. Notes for you. Mark, my friend, thank you for taking some time at your busy schedule talking to me, but more importantly having this conversation for the audience today.

Marc Lesser [00:33:12]:

Thanks, Scott, and enjoy your time with your family.