When things get rocky, practice deliberate calm

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of a podcast in which Jacqueline Brassey and Aaron De Smet participated, joined by Roberta Fusaro and Lucia Rahilly. The podcast is sponsored by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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In unusually difficult situations, a counterintuitive response to stress is what many leaders should aim for, say Jacqueline Brassey, McKinsey senior knowledge expert, and McKinsey senior partner Aaron De Smet as they talk about their new book, Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World (HarperCollins, November 2022), on The McKinsey Podcast with host and executive editor Roberta Fusaro.The following transcript has been edited for clarity.The McKinsey Podcast is hosted by Roberta Fusaro and Lucia Rahilly.* * *Roberta Fusaro: Over ten years ago, McKinsey senior partner Aaron De Smet was working so hard and traveling so much that he lost sight of dire circumstances at home.Aaron De Smet: It took me a while to realize that my wife at the time had a severe addiction. And my family was not OK.Roberta Fusaro: To deal with the crisis, he reacted in a way that was familiar to him.Aaron De Smet: My reaction to problems that I feel passionate about is to tackle them head-on, to fix them, to control.

Roberta Fusaro: But trying to wield control over the situation didn’t help.

Aaron De Smet: The answer I came up with, I will say, did not help my family. I had to learn to truly change some pretty fundamental things about myself. Eventually, I had to learn to become a single father to two fairly traumatized girls who grew up in a very difficult situation where I initially did not show up in a way that was helpful to them.

Roberta Fusaro: Aaron’s self-reflection motivated him to write the book Deliberate Calm with Michiel Kruyt and Jacqui Brassey, McKinsey senior knowledge expert. This book aims to help leaders resist knee-jerk reactions to unanticipated events, which are happening more and more.

What is deliberate calm?

Roberta Fusaro: This is a special episode of The McKinsey Podcast, where we help you make sense of our world’s toughest business challenges. I’m your host for today, Roberta Fusaro. Here’s Jacqui.

Jacqui Brassey: Deliberate calm is a set of skills that helps leaders make the best decisions in the moment, even when it’s tough.

Aaron De Smet: We’re constantly faced with new levels of uncertainty, volatility. Change is now the norm. I grew up in a world where the way we think about how to handle a crisis is outdated. This book helps leaders understand how to change their relationship with change, how to change their relationship with uncertainty, and not to shy away from it. But it also provides a better tool kit for dealing with uncertainty on an ongoing basis.

At the crossroads of crises

Roberta Fusaro: Aaron’s thoughts on crisis management were influenced by Harvard professor Dutch Leonard, who says it’s important to understand that not all crises are created equal.

Aaron De Smet: He mentioned that there’s a difference between what he called a routine emergency and a crisis of uncertainty.

A routine emergency could be a building that’s on fire. And firefighters are in a very difficult situation with respect to the nature of the fire and lives at stake. However, if it is a fairly routine fire, the firefighters have likely trained for an event like this.

Roberta Fusaro: But in a crisis of uncertainty, Aaron says, you can’t fall back on what you know.

Aaron De Smet: I often want to react based on what I’ve already learned, not what I need to learn. Or I just shut down and freak out.

If you are in an uncertain situation, the most important thing you can do is calm down. Take a breath. Take stock. “Is the thing I’m about to do the right thing to do?” And in many cases, the answer is no. If you were in a truly uncertain environment, if you’re in new territory, the thing you would normally do might not be the right thing.

Roberta Fusaro: And if resisting the temptation to react as usual is hard, this is where you can be . . .

Aaron De Smet: . . . very cognizant of a mindset that is reactive to protecting the status quo, where I just fall back on what I know, versus a learning mindset where I have to say, “This is an opportunity for me to learn something and evolve and adapt.”

Roberta Fusaro: Jacqui Brassey agrees. She says that to evolve or adapt, people have to start from a place of awareness.

Jacqui Brassey: It’s helpful to know that there is a process going on in our brain and body and that there is science behind it. We have a protocol in the book that we describe: very simple steps, where for four weeks you can start observing the moments that you feel triggered by a stressful situation.

We have a couple of structured questions to help you understand what is actually going on: What goes on in your brain? What are your thoughts? What goes on in your body? What do you feel?

It’s also important that we learn to connect with our body because the brain is not just above the brain stem and disconnected from the rest of the body. It’s holistic.

Roberta Fusaro: Once you get good at objectively understanding your feelings, then you can notice what you’re doing in response to your emotions.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Jacqueline Brassey is a senior knowledge expert in McKinsey’s Luxembourg office, and Aaron De Smet is a senior partner in the New Jersey office. Roberta Fusaro is an editorial director in the Waltham, Massachusetts, office, and Lucia Rahilly is a global editorial director and deputy publisher of McKinsey Global Publishing and is based in the New York office.



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