Business leaders need to find inner peace if they’re going to create an inspiring and sustainable future but how can we develop the strength and foresight we need to lead with purpose when growth and profit are constantly driving our efforts? How can we link our actions with results amid increasing noise and complexity, how can we think strategically and expand our consciousness when technology keeps us hooked to our devices?
By introducing periods of retreat, leaders develop greater self-awareness and achieve the clarity, balance and purpose to do not just what is good for business but also, what is right for the world. The Art of Retreat provides simple practical advice for creating effective solo retreats from the occasional hour carved into the day to profoundly insightful weekends and more.
Drawing on a unique combination of business experience, science, philosophy and ancient wisdom, it offers deep reflections, practices and contemplations that will help leaders find peace, resolve and wisdom in an otherwise hectic life. Here’s my conversation with Fabrice.
This is Author Hour, I’m your host Benji Block and today, I am joined by my new friend, Fabrice, who has just authored a new book. The book is titled, The Art of Retreats: A Leader’s Journey Towards Clarity, Balance and Purpose. Fabrice, welcome to Author Hour.
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Thank you, Benji.
Benji Block: Yeah, for listeners who may be brand-new to some of your work and maybe unfamiliar with your background, can you provide some context for us?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Sure. Well, I grew up in the world of business so I was a business advisor for pretty much the first half of my career. I worked as a consultant, I ended up being a partner at McKenzie and I advised boards and CEOs on all stuff, really, to good business health, mergers, acquisitions, strategies, restructuring, culture, transformation, et cetera.
Then the second half of my career was much more focused on the leadership aspect of business. How to build great leadership teams, what makes a great CEO, how to develop a CEO, how to develop a leader and I progressively focused my professional activities on coaching and developing leaders and their teams.
Benji Block: That’s fantastic. With that work in mind, what prompted you to write this book and why right now?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Yeah, well, there’s a different way to answer that. The first answer that comes to me is, I was brought up as a scientific analytical guy. I trained as a mathematician, an engineer, did an MBA and so really, I looked at the world of business and leadership as a sort of problem solving and equations and rationality and there must be always a right answer to any problem that comes up.
Benji Block: Yeah.
Fabrice Desmarescaux: As I got older and I sort of turned back and looked at all the mistakes along the way, I thought, “Okay, maybe this is not the only approach.” It’s not a bad approach, I think problem solving is great but this is not the only answer to the challenges that life throws at us. I started exploring the part of us that is linked to emotions, spirituality, the heart and the soul if you want, Benji. That gave me a whole different dimension and that allowed me to bring a whole new topic of conversation with the leaders that I was advising.
I thought I always had that hunger for perhaps a more enlightened life, even in my early days in business but I never really found the time to explore it until later in my years and so, I thought it would be interesting for many leaders to continue doing what they’ve been doing so well, which is work with their brains and be very structured and analytical about business, but also, maybe sometimes open up to the heart and souls and the book is an invitation to do that.
Benji Block: I love that.
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Why now? Well, there’s never a good time to write a book even how much time it takes but we had this little thing called COVID and the pandemic, and I found myself in 2020 with a little bit more time on my hands than usual. I’ve lived a life of any business leader, right? Running around from meeting to meeting and jumping on planes, connected to my devices, and at some point in 2020, things started to slow down and I loved it. I thought, “Okay, if I’m given this extra time, what am I going to do with it?” I could sit on my couch and watch Netflix or I could write a book, and I chose the latter.
Silence, Solitude, Space and Spirit
Benji Block: Well, I think it’s a great choice and I’m excited to dive into some of the content here. Let me ask you one more just practical question on the book. When you think of the imagined reader, the ideal reader for this book, who do you want to pick this book up and read it?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Well, I intended the book to be read by business leaders. Maybe because of my gray hair, nowadays you know, I tend to work and advise the more senior leaders, right? CEOs of large corporations, business owners, management teams, the senior end of the pyramid if you will. That was the audience that I had in mind. I’ve spoken to a number of friends who are also in their 30s and 40s and they have found the book interesting. So it probably goes for a broader leadership audience of people who aspire to leadership positions, but my initial audience in what was senior leaders.
Benji Block: Everyone is going to have a slightly different perspective around retreats, I’m assuming senior leaders, they all have different things that come to mind when you bring up retreat, right? What are some of the reservations that maybe you hear, some common pushback around this idea?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Well, the pushback, number one is time. I’ve been organizing retreats for years and I take participants, mostly business leaders with me to very nice places and in nature and we spend time in conversations and meditations and walks in nature. But this takes time, right? You need to travel somewhere and spend three, four days in a quiet place. And so, the primary reservation that I hear is, “I would love to do it, Fabrice, but I really don’t have the time.” I think time is really the most precious resource we have and we are all very starved for time.
Benji Block: Yup. With that in mind, I wonder, is that where you were, because you alluded to something earlier, which is this change that you had over time and so, I did want to touch on that. How did you come to first love this idea of retreats and when did you began to see the power in it?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Yeah. Well you know, like most people, I’ve thrown myself into a professional life with delight and joys. I worked extremely hard, was traveling a lot, probably flying a hundred times a year and I loved it. But it’s a mono dimensional life, where we only focus on one thing which is career success.
When I reach my 40s, early 40s, I felt the sense of emptiness, right? If you looked at me from the outside, you would say, “Well, this guy has done pretty well for himself.” Decent professional success, I worked at McKinsey which is a very reputed consulting firm, I was doing financially well, et cetera, et cetera, but I was looking inside and saying, “For the sake of what?”
You could say, maybe this is a luxury that only people who have done well can afford because when you’re still scrambling to put food on the table, you don’t ask yourself these metaphysical questions. But for most people in the developed world who are a career professionals and in positions of leadership, we have that luxury so I started looking at myself and say, “Well, what are you doing? What do you want to do?” I couldn’t come up with answers and that’s when I thought, “I really need to stop this treadmill, because I can’t continue to be the little rat on his wheel.”
Benji Block: Yeah.
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Sure, I will continue doing well but tomorrow is going to be the same as today and I will just continue making a little bit more money, flying a little bit more around the world, advising a few more clients. But I couldn’t really make sense of that. So that’s when I thought, I need to take a little bit more time to look inside. I didn’t have the tools, I didn’t have the methodology, so that’s when I started my quest towards more spirituality and understanding myself more.
I don’t want to put spirituality at the forefront because this is not a book trying to convince you to embrace any form of spirituality or religion, but just connecting, connecting us to what really matters and in a way, answering the question, not “What do I want from life?” but “What does life want for me?” And that’s a critical shift.
When you stop looking at the world like that, then you start asking questions that you’ve never really thought about before and it’s fascinating but for that, I found that it is tremendously helpful to have a little bit of time and stillness, in silence, in solitude, if possible, in a nice space that inspires you. And the answers will come much more easily to you if you do that.
That’s the idea of retreat and that’s the path that I follow that I’ve been advising the clients I coach for now, probably 15 years, to follow that path. And it’s worked really well for them as well, so that’s the experience I’ve tried to capture in the book.
Benji Block: Yeah, I’m excited to dive into some of the specifics of the retreat and the key pillars. You do bring up a term that I wanted to talk a little bit about, which is you talk about contemplative leadership. When I say that, what would be maybe your definition of a contemplative leader?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Well, my definition of a contemplative leader is a person who is open to looking within. That’s all there is, right? Instead of being entirely focused on the outside world and achieving the external marks of success, a contemplative leader is also — it’s not an opposition, it’s not either/or. The contemplative leader is also looking within and searching for answers within.
Benji Block: Would you say it’s an evolution that you’re advocating for it because I would. This would just be my opinion, I would say that when I look at western society, we’re not rewarding everyone much for being contemplative.
Fabrice Desmarescaux: No, you’re absolutely right. We’re not taught how to do that in universities, right? You go to the best universities in the world and they will teach you the external problem solving, right? How to do finance, how to do marketing, how to do organization design.
Benji Block: How to do it faster?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: How to do it faster, better, cheaper and this is one dimension. It’s what I call the dimension of doing, the dimension of acting, right? That’s why we always associate leaders with people of action. I think there’s a completely different dimension or took another dimension, which is the being. When you open yourself to the dimension of being, instead of doing, then you enter what I call the contemplative gateway but for that, you need to cover this moments of stillness and silence. Hence, the idea of retreat.
Benji Block: Yup. You think it’s something that — I love this approach and you’ve said it a couple of times but it’s something that sort of can be integrated and added on in a sense. It’s not like you have to just start from scratch because you can actually celebrate some of what we’ve learned and then add this contemplative additional important piece.
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Yes. I think it’s important not to look at that as a polarization and to say you’re either one or the other. You’re either a committed business leader or you’re retreating to a monastery and live a life of silence and contemplation, right? What I’m really trying to do is to marry both worlds: the world of action with the world of contemplation, or the world of doing with the world of being.
I don’t want your listeners to get the idea that I advocate going to Tibet and spending a week in a monastery there with the llamas. This is just not practical for most of us, even though there’s many retreats that are organized in the United States and in Europe and in Asia, but these take time. So if you have the time fantastic, but frankly, most of my clients, most of the people that I work with cannot take four days like that and go to a place where they can sit in meditation and maybe the prospect of doing that is not even very appetizing.
Because very well, what do I do, right? I sit with my legs crossed for four days in silence. The approach that I am recommending is to say, “Well, why don’t you start small? Why don’t you take a couple of hours, disconnect your phone, turn off your laptop, go to maybe a coffee shop that you like, sit there with a notebook and see what comes up.” Or maybe bring a book if you don’t know what to do with yourself and you don’t want to write in a journal. Just be disconnected with yourself for a couple of hours.
Benji Block: That’s good.
Fabrice Desmarescaux: See what happens, right? That is basically the entry point, that’s what I call a retreat. So you see, I am setting the bar pretty low because I want it to be accessible to everyone and I want everyone to get a taste for what happens when you spend a little bit of time in silence and solitude and stillness.
Benji Block: Yeah, it is absolutely doable so we have no excuses coming out of listening to this conversation, right? We have to actually try it, which I love it. Okay, so you have touched on them but I do want you to clearly define for us, give us the four pillars that you have in the book of a retreat. Maybe just take us through a broad overview of the four, if you would.
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Yeah, the four pillars are what I call the four S’s: silence, solitude, space and spirit, so let me maybe take them one by one. Silence, silence doesn’t mean not talking or to be in a recording studio where there is absolutely no sounds. Silence means can we find a little bit of stillness by first disconnecting the devices, right? I mean we’re constantly bombarded with emails, Whatsapps, phone calls, notifications, social media posts, et cetera and these create constant noise that is preventing us from thinking clearly.
What I call silence is simply, you know, let’s disconnect. Let’s stop talking and let’s stop being. Let’s stop listening to the sounds around us, let’s start observing what is going on around us and just slow down. So that’s the first pillar. To that more effectively, I recommend doing that alone and that’s my second S, solitude. Solitude doesn’t mean loneliness. Solitude means simply to be on our own so that we have more opportunities to look within.
The third S is space. I find that we, many of us, have lost our connection to nature. We live in cities that are active 24 hours, seven days a week and we’re constantly on the run. We can shop at 3 AM, we can go to the gym at 11 PM, we can do all of these things but that is not necessarily the most inspiring space. So if there is a place, whether it’s a nice warm cozy coffee shop or a cabin in the woods, I find that it really helps us to open the gateway to contemplation. I always recommend find a place where the vibes resonate with you.
Benji Block: What’s that space for you?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Well, I have a few places. I have been lucky enough to have a house. I live in an urban jungle but I have my house, it is next to a park. Basically, I overlook trees all around my house, so that is really a bit of a privilege I am going to say. But otherwise, I love the water. Any body of water instantly calms me down, whether it’s a lake, whether it’s the sea and so sometimes, I just drive to the beach and spend a little bit of time walking on the beach, sitting, just doing nothing.
When we have the luxury, I would hop on a plane and maybe go to — you know, I love the west coast of France. The Atlantic coast, I mean there is so many places around us. We don’t need to travel very far to find a little bit of nature and inspiration. So for me, it’s trees and water I guess.
Benji Block: Yeah, nice. Okay and then what’s the fourth one?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: My fourth S is spirit and so here, I’m simply saying you need to just be open to the possibility of reconnecting with your spirit or with your soul. Don’t imagine that every problem can be solved by your brain alone. We are brought up in the modern business world to just be cold, analytical and rational but we have so much more than that.
We have bodies, we have hearts and if we learn to use all our senses attuned to our emotions, attuned to what our inclination wants us to do, it is what I call the spirit. Or the soul and again, we don’t need to be religious for that but we are so much more than a problem-solving machine. Our bodies are not just devices that are used to carry our brain from one meeting room to another.
We need to attune to our bodies and our emotion and stop hearing the signals, so that’s my fourth S.
Simplicity Is Key
Benji Block: All very, very good. Let me ask you this, are there some questions that you find helpful that you ask yourself when you’re in this contemplative space and maybe you’re in silence and solitude and space and spirit?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Yes, there are many questions and I have a list of questions that can guide the reader in my book. But you know, Benji, I would say the first that I do, and when I go on a retreat even a very short one, is just to slow down and take time to arrive. I sit by myself — there is a place for example, there’s a hotel near my office and the lobby of the hotel is always very quiet particularly nowadays that we have a fewer business travelers.
It is a very inspiring space I find. The ceilings are very high, there is a little bit of background noise but not too much, and so when I go there, for example, to do a two-hour retreat, I just take time to arrive and I sit there and check in with myself. There’s no particular question, I just want to see, “Okay, what is going on in my head? What is going on in my heart? What is going on in my body? How am I feeling today?”
Sometimes you start hearing the whispers of something that maybe you have overlooked in your constant business. There is a proverb that says, “Listen to the whispers and you won’t have to hear the screams.” I try to catch the whispers before they become screams and then sometimes I set an intention. I want to work on a specific issue. I have a client that has come to me and I want to spend a little bit of time looking at that situation from every possible angle and again, I will go what does my intellect tell me to do but also what does my heart tell me to do?
How do I feel it? What is the reaction to that I have to this client and what am I inclined to do? I don’t want to run you through a long list of questions but I find that it is important to just take time and just see what comes up rather than immediately jumping into another question and problem-solving mode.
Benji Block: Yeah, when we think of retreats, and I love that you have given some easy end roads, there is also the need for maybe a longer trip away or a retreat in a greater sense, right? One that would be a more significant step back. What do you recommend for something like that, maybe for someone who has never done that before and is trying it for the first time? Any tips or things we should be considering?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Yeah. Look, for me simplicity is always key. If you try to make it too complicated, if you set the bar too high and you say, “Oh, you know I am going to fly to Costa Rica and I am going to have this great retreat in the jungle overlooking the ocean,” you know this is so complicated that you are going to — you might just lose yourself in the organization. You’re going to arrive, you’ll be stressed and jet-lagged and the mosquitos are going to go after you and that is not much of a retreat.
I say, keep it simple. Is there a place nearby or even in your own home where maybe can you be alone in your house for a few hours or as a date? Then take that opportunity or, if you want and can afford it, check yourself into a hotel. Choose a nice hotel in your city or in nature and not too far away and spend an evening and the following morning but keep it simple. One of the things that everyone has told me happens when they start disconnecting is how much time opens up suddenly.
Because we’re not connected to the phone anymore. We are not sending messages anymore, we are not reading anymore and so suddenly, we have all the time in the world. And believe me, four hours will be a long time and you’ll have a lot of time to do, to think, to be with yourself. Some people just sleep because they are so sleep deprived in their normal day-to-day life that when they go on a retreat, the first days are spent completely sleeping and recovering from the tiredness and the stress of daily life, so keep it simple.
Benji Block: Yep, I love that, keep it simple. Well, we’re going to wrap up here but I do want to ask this, when someone finishes this book or maybe because of this book, Fabrice, they go on and they get some solitude and some space and they actually have a bit of retreat, what do you hope that they experience? What is your hope that the feeling that they’re going to get and from actually applying this book and its content?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Well, the idea is that by taking time to be in silence and solitude, in a nice space and reconnecting with one’s self is that we achieve more clarity, we achieve more balance and we reconnect with our purpose. The first half of the book is really the how-to do a retreat, which is what we’ve talked about, right? How long should they take, where do I go? Et cetera.
The second half of the book basically explores leadership themes and I guide the readers into deeper exploration of topics that are relevant to modern-day leaders, so readers can take any of the themes in there and go a little bit deeper. For example, is it the journey or is it the destination that matters, right? What does that mean? What is the journey we’re on or what is the destination we’re trying to reach and this could be, you know, you could spend two days.
You could spend two months on that topic, so I give a number of themes and hopefully, by the end of a retreat having explored one or several themes, the reader should be able to have achieved a greater sense of clarity about their lives, possibly. That’s my hope, a better sense of purpose, answering the question that I was mentioning earlier, what does life expect from me? Not, “What do I want from life?” And more balance simply by being able to reconnect with one’s self and be in this quiet space from time to time.
Benji Block: Great, that is so good. But besides checking out the book, which obviously we are going to tell people to go buy the book but, where can people stay connected to you and to the work that you’re doing?
Fabrice Desmarescaux: Well, I have a website, desmarescaux.com, so it spelled desmarescaux.com, that’s my last name. Here I post some reflections and some news as well and then otherwise, my LinkedIn profile, Fabrice Desmarescaux.
Benji Block: Perfect.
Fabrice Desmarescaux: That is the easiest way to stay in touch. I always love to hear from people who are interested in my work, so no one should hesitate to contact me.
Benji Block: Okay, great. Well, the book is called, The Art of Retreats: A Leader’s Journey Towards Clarity, Balance and Purpose. The book is on Amazon, go pick it up right now. It is going to be a great resource I know for so many. Fabrice, thank you so much for taking time and being here on Author Hour today.
Fabrice Desmarescaux: It’s a real pleasure Benji, thank you so much.