From Strategic to Tactical Calm

From Strategic to Tactical Calm

Originally published on and reproduced with permission.

The Single Most Important Skill of our Time


Take a look at the softness and peace in Federer’s face as he dismantles Nadal in the Australian Open with a blistering forehand. This is tactical calm.

We are distracted by meditation, mindfulness and various brain-training apps. These are helpful to build Strategic Calm. If you meditate purposefully and daily for a decade you will be a better version of yourself. The reality is that few of us do this. However, we can all be much better at tactical calm. It is simple, easily practiced and very gratifying.

What if you could master tactical calm in any situation that gives you grief? Would it be worth some purposeful practice?

The evidence, the methods and the tools are plain as day. Most of us “know” it really well. We are terrible at “practice”. Smart and talented people are leaving life, joy, money, deals, and relationships on the table. While they “know” about calm, they have never perfected the “practice” of tactical calm in key situations.

Failure looks like…

A senior colleague demonstrated this gap with disastrous consequences. Here was a seasoned professional who had absorbed, negotiated and dealt with years of tough situations. In his day to day work – even in conflict – he was skilful at staying calm and rational.

To his and our horror he froze at the start of a critical presentation to a large number of powerful and influential people. It was shocking. He bounded on stage, looked out at the audience – and froze. Surprise flashed into fear with teeth bared. His body went stiff. Nothing came from the movements of his mouth. Stage fright was a terrible experience for him. It was awful for the audience with career damaging consequences.

This is a critical situation where tactical should have been practised and mastered.

The very same situation strikes in traffic, bad news, teenage misbehaviour and conflict. Tactical calm is the doorway to impulse control (see Master your Anger).

The clear purpose of Tactical Calm

Tactical calm solves the failure of awareness, agility and decisiveness in the multiple minor challenges that confront us every day:

  • the space to give a warm and confident greeting
  • the freedom to give someone
  • the gift of your full attention
  • the preparation to hit the perfect shot
  • the nudge from frustration to creative solutions
  • the insight to pause and review an e-mail from different perspectives
  • the transition from anxious worry to calm deliberate action

The context is an accelerating pace of life, reduced relaxation (relaxation scores in our database dropped 30% in the last six years), uncertainty, and disruptive consequences. We are wired, tired and fired to be stupid.

The question is: “how fast can I get to my optimal biology for this situation?”

Most of us take a deep breath. This link explains why it is terrible practice. Never do or recommend it.

Tactical Calm secures adaptive biological changes

  1. Reduce heart rate and blood pressure
  2. Reduce inflammation and muscle tension
  3. Slow and extend the exhalation to relax the diaphragm (increase CO2)
  4. Trigger heart rate variability (see explanation)
  5. Activate the upper Vagus Nerve and Vagal Tone (Vagal Break)
  6. Reduce adrenaline and cortisol
  7. Increase testosterone and oxytocin
  8. Deactivate the amygdala along with fear, anger and sadness
  9. Reactivate the prefrontal cortex, insula and anterior cingulate cortex
  10. We know with clarity that we can do this in pretty much any situation with purposeful practice

What to do

Here is my tactical calm practice:

  1. Ask the question: “What is my state?” Often!
  2. Lengthen my spine and relax my face
  3. Exhale slow and easy through the nose for 6 seconds
  4. Pause until my mind drops into the body
  5. Inhale gently through the nose for 4 seconds
  6. Remember what matters and feel the love
  7. Repeat breathing cycle of 6 seconds out and 4 seconds in
  8. Engage fully with the situation at hand

Recently, I found myself feeling anxious in a large formal presentation during my introduction. At that moment, my Apple Watch Breathe App kicked in. During the introduction, I focused on breath and tracking pulse. I had time for three slow breath cycles. My pulse dropped from 78 to 56 beats per minute. I got up to do my thing.

Thanks Apple Watch.

Where is your Federer forehand opportunity and how will you apply your tactical calm practice?

The Professional’s Pain

Originally published on and reproduced with permission.

How to create a good and productive life

Professionals face the sharp edge of acceleration – productivity, technology and connection with meaningful work.  At the same time, they seek Eudaimonia (a good life). The pace has become overwhelming. How does one solve this paradox?

After 28 years working for Professional firms, here are some perspectives and solutions.


1. You are the elite operators of business

The 21st century professional is an elite business expert. Stacked with skills, driven by relentless targets and thrust into truly risky engagements, professional life has become tough. You can no longer rely on genes and intellect. You must master your biology (body, emotion and mind) and continually refine your skill to expert levels and beyond.

This takes training, coaching, courage and relentless discipline. You must professionalise your life, your family and your practice. There is no way back. Think. Act. Improve.


2. To accelerate you have to impose discipline and rhythm

As all elite performers discover, there is a required routine of life mastery. The key factors of high level fitness, daily contemplation, excellent sleep and smart nutrition must be built into your day. By the way, you have to stop the dumb stuff. For practical suggestions:

3. Learn from the elite operators of our time

Admiral Bill McRaven, Navy Seal and commander for 30 years has an inspirational speech at the University of Texas Commencement address. It’s worth a brief watch. Make your Bed is his book. Get curious about how people like Roger Federer keep going.

If you want to build this into your operating practice, your team and your leadership read Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The leadership lessons are very powerful and the applications to professional engagements transformative.


4. Reflect on singularity. The answer is innovation

As cities and organisations accelerate and grow in a super-linear (exponential) way, we are reaching finite time singularity. In a nutshell, that means things are going so fast, the only way to avoid collapse is innovation. The cycles of innovation are compressing. This is the pain you feel. It is a sense that the improvements you make are absorbed in a flash. To explore this idea and the consequences for sustainability read Scale by Geoffrey West.

On one hand, professional firms have become their own worst enemies. On the other, it is the place to be for meaningful work, excellence and a fulfilling career. You are the elite. The science and practice are well worked out. Show bounce, courage, connection and creativity.

The professional’s pain is the crucible of success.

How to Master your Anger

How to Master your Anger

Originally published on and reproduced with permission.

Anger mastery transforms your life and our world

While treating a music industry executive for dangerously high blood pressure, I noticed that in the mornings it was high and in the afternoons almost normal. This man loved his job and was otherwise very healthy. One afternoon after a normal reading, he told me about his road rage that morning. The next recording I took was dangerously high. Simply remembering, he spiked his blood pressure high enough to consider hospitalisation. With simple practices to drive calmly and considerately, his blood pressure resolved completely.

Whether in executive health, leadership coaching or team development, inappropriate outbursts of anger and its relatives destroy health, careers and teams. Those who learn to master anger skilfully progress. Those who don’t, suffer endless carnage.

At a global level, anger fuels our wars, genocide, political impasses and terrorism. If there were an emotional cancer, it would be anger.

Anger is a natural, primary emotion. From an evolutionary perspective, anger motivates an organism to attack another. The effect on us is profound:

  • Physiology: heart rate and blood pressure jump, adrenaline surges, cortisol activates
  • Physical: blood rushes to jaw, fists and chest muscles (fighting systems)
  • Emotional: caution, calm, joy, bonding and care evaporates
  • Cognitive: the mind tunnel-visions to exaggerate the target and minimise alternatives
  • Spiritual: we are reduced to the biology of our worst selves. Regret and shame follow

Anger, of course, has benefits. It is a territorial protection system. If our territory – land, mate, family or self – is threatened, anger equips us to defend what we love. In nature, anger is periodically deployed in threat or ritual fighting. It is generally brief and violent, followed by rest and reconciliation.

In social species such as higher primates, elephants and dolphin it is largely ritualised. Unchecked, anger becomes a serious disadvantage to survival and leadership. Reconciliation, grooming, bonding, consolation, perspective-taking and targeted helping become increasingly adaptive. And so it is with humans…. with two added twists.

Thanks to memory, we have learned to sustain anger long past its useful signal leading to avoidance, hate and revenge. The physiology, feeling and thoughts of anger churn away destroying our immune system, damaging our hearts and brains. It wrecks a good life.

With the churn and turbulence of our time, many of us do not enjoy the connection, bonding, touch and consistent care (love) to counter the effects of anger. We know that children who grow up in violent and abusive families face massively increased risks later in life. As adults, we rarely allow ourselves the closeness, touch and gentle caring that our closest relatives live by.

Where anger wreaks havoc

  • Angry outbursts at someone who does not meet your expectations
  • Persistent, low grade frustration with colleagues or loved ones
  • Chronic impatience and frustration in queues, with slow communicators, etc.
  • Hatred and revenge against someone that is held over weeks or months
  • Rage on the road, airline check-ins or poor customer service
  • Violent outbursts or abuse at home and with loved ones

For example, when John does not complete an assigned job for Jill:

  1. Jill: “He is an idiot! I simply cannot work with him”
  2. John: “She is such a bully. I hate her and hope she breaks a leg”
  3. Result: distress, illness, contempt, performance failure, toxic leadership and war…..


Credit: ROB ELLIOTT/AFP/Getty Images

In these situations, we allow our amygdala and primitive brain to execute behaviour. The more sleep deprived, hungry, distressed or alone we feel the more this part of the brain is primed for action. While research challenges the idea that we have free will, here is an opportunity where we can choose between constructive and destructive actions.

There is, in my view, no more important cause in our modern lives than to be more skilful in our interactions. Anger is not skilful. We do not function, feel, decide or act properly when angry. Whether your goal is wellbeing, a good life, success, leadership, teaming, parenting or creating social good, mastering anger is primary.


How to  master your anger

Wake up and dial into the experience

Start by noting and reflecting – preferably in writing or with another person – the experience. Define the trigger, see clearly how you behaved, describe how you felt, and explore if you could have done better. This is situation awareness. Situation awareness exercises the advanced part of our brain. The insula, anterior cingulate cortex, ventromedial pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and dorsolateral PFC get exercised. As you increase the amount of activity in these circuits, they get stronger. The amygdala deactivate and shrink. You are becoming a better version of yourself.

Target a simple but important situation for practice

With an upcoming event in mind, take time to prepare. Visualise, in advance, the two alternatives. First, what will happen if you let anger erupt. Second, how could the situation evolve if you could stay calm and skilful. Resolve not to react if triggered but rather to take a few moments to exhale slowly and notice how you are feeling and what you are thinking. Consider how the other person is feeling. This is level one impulse control and it might be enough. In the car or the queue, you relax and move on towards a better day.

Critical situations – parenting, managing and leading

Skilful conversation is required. This is challenging and requires deliberate practice. If it triggered a feeling of anger, it is important. Stay calm and considerate of the other, own your anger and explain what triggered you. Give the other person a chance to share their side. Explore what you can do together to resolve the situation.

Consider the solution as built from 3 parts. First, is your view. Second, is the other’s view. Third is a creative solution neither can see until you come together – the third way. The more consistently you can execute this skilful conversation, the more you will bring creative solutions into your life, your family and your team.

For example, when John does not complete an assigned job for Jill:

  1. Jill: “We need this completed. You have let me down and I am feeling angry”
  2. John: “Sorry Jill, my kid is sick. I know it is important and will do it before I leave today”
  3. Jill: “I understand, I will be here to help sign off at 5.30pm”
  4. Result: resolution, reconciliation, performance and increased trust

Once you master angry confrontations, extend the skill to complex business, political and social issues.


Anger is a real emotion. It signals something important to you is being challenged. Own the anger and use the energy to focus on skilful behaviour. Use your human brain and PFC. Don’t let the snake brain take over. Connect. Seek the third way. Reconcile. If necessary, apologise sincerely and resolve to be more skilful next time. Start immediately. Help your children master their anger. The ultimate conquerer of anger is love.

Resilient Leadership in a Nutshell

Resilient Leadership in a Nutshell

Originally published on and reproduced with permission.

Insight, mastery, connection and influence

Resilience searches are booming and many definitions exist. We believe it is a learned ability to demonstrate bounce, courage, connection and creativity. This set of skills is closely interrelated. Bounce requires courage, connection and creativity. Equally, creativity requires bounce, courage and connection. While interrelated, cultivating resilient leadership is a journey that requires insight, dedication and deliberate practice. It takes time.

To help leaders navigate the journey we use a developmental model that captures this complexity in a simple spiral:

  1. When operating at the top end of the spiral leaders are energised, skilful and effective. People and teams deliver
  2. When leaders collapse down the spiral they are compromised and flailing. People and teams struggle
  3. Insight is the base competence allowing leaders to recognise their state, vulnerabilities and strengths
  4. Mastery is the capacity to bounce fast, stay calm, maintain wellbeing, engage emotion, apply the mind, and access Flow
  5. Connection is the ability to read others accurately and recognise their experience, feeling and thoughts
  6. Influence is the ability to work skilfully with others to support, enable and inspire effective work and lives.

Biology underpins resilient leadership

Biology (physiology and neuroscience) provides us with a detailed understanding of the mechanisms that define levels of resilience. We know what happens when we spiral downward and what defines expertise. We can clearly define the set of skills that allow for bounce, courage, connection and creativity. Each one of these skills can be learned and mastered with deliberate practice. Expertise can be measured with biofeedback, success and 360 reviews.

In our complex and accelerated workplace, surviving and thriving will depend upon these skills. Proven in elite sport, performing arts and combat, this training is now available for leaders and professionals. It already presents in safety, wellbeing, emotional intelligence, and cognitive training. Resilience simply binds these part-solutions into an integrated model and method.

Think a little and practice a lot

Our key message for leaders is overcome the cognitive trap. Some think that sitting in a workshop and learning the ideas will solve the challenge. It won’t!

Resilient leadership demands deliberate, purposeful practice. Cultivate expertise in the specific, challenging situations you face as a leader. We must draw on our genes, experience and motivations, and engage in repetitive practice. Seek the guidance of skilled coaches, mentors and experts. There are many paths to expertise. Some will be mastered with ease and others will test you. Learn to play to your strengths. Team with those who can complement you.

Plan, schedule and execute your practice. Be patient. Enjoy the wins. Discipline delivers freedom.

The future of leadership training

The future of leadership training

  1. The problem

HBR October 2016 article “Why Leadership Training Fails” by Beer, Finnstrom and Scrhrader poses a radical rethink on training. Organisations spent US$356 billion on training in 2015 with questionable returns. The implications are uncomfortable. We take it seriously. To serve our clients we have to work at this.

In a nutshell, training does not stick. People revert to what they have done in the past. The organisational context – the system – pushes them back. Their conclusion is:

  1. Senior executives must attend to organisational design – system change, and
  2. Link training to unit-by-unit, strategic initiatives that demand new behaviour

This research should send cold shivers down many spines. Intuitively, we know it is right. Yet the solution is complex and difficult work. Leaders and training professionals will duck for cover. The current approach to leadership training simply requires us to match an identified need with a suitable course. Once complete the “box is ticked” and we can move on with confidence.

We are kidding ourselves, wasting money and confusing people.

  1. Solutions start at the top

The CEO and executive team define the strategic goals of each business unit AND the new behaviours required. Business unit leaders have to own this, modelling these new behaviours themselves AND demanding these behaviours from others.

Imagine the resistance – passive and active – at the executive table? We think; “much easier to send difficult people to training to be fixed.”

We have only begun. New behaviours will be clunky, awkward and slow. Business, despite the endless clamour for change, transformation or creativity, rarely considers how to cultivate expertise in these new behaviours.

  1. Enter the science of expert performance

Let’s imagine we want to take an elite squash player and teach them to play top-level tennis. We start by moving them from squash to tennis court (system change). Next they have to learn the rules and process. Then on to the basic elements of a game – serving, volley, backhand, forehand, etc. Imagine how many times a grand slam champion has practiced a cross-court backhand? And this is before they get into a real game. Putting all of these “behaviours” into a game plan to win…? We are tired just thinking about it.

How easy it is under pressure for this athlete to revert to a squash behaviour?

Welcome to the world of deliberate practice – specific goals, focused repetition, expert coaching and feedback. Much of this practice is done way outside of the comfort zone. So demanding is the cultivation of new behaviours that these experts have elaborate support systems to ensure that they can survive the process.

Can this work in an organisation?

  1. What is required of us?
  • Fix the obvious

Organisational life is neither rational nor sustainable. In short, people are sleep deprived, unfit, anxious, overloaded, frustrated and cynical. If we are serious about leadership, transformation and success, there is low hanging fruit to gather. Courage is needed to create an organisational environment that demands people be at their best. We have to treat our people – leaders included – more like we would athletes or our children.

  • Leaders must step up

Great leadership is transformative. Bad leadership can destroy a business unit. There is too much variability. Some leaders are hopelessly overloaded, some just cruising on past success. Few leadership teams are deliberate in defining the exact behaviours required. As above, leaders must explicitly model the resilience, empathy, focus and creativity required of their teams. Leadership must be measured on how well their people demonstrate these behaviours.

  • Get serious about skill

The acceleration in the science and practice of elite performance has transformed sport and art. The 10,000-hour rule of specific, purposeful, deliberate and demanding practice has yet to hit the business world. We relegate training to a workshop or two over the year. What if we spent 10 years practicing to perfection a good coaching conversation; a team meeting; or client pitch? Methodological, long-term pursuit of excellence in the key behaviours  will define whether your business thrives or fades.

  • Support the heck out of people

Elite performers need proper support. Consider the All Blacks whose leadership is split three ways. Coaching of specific skills in each position, player wellbeing to secure optimal vitality and player logistics to get everyone to the right place in the right state. This may be the fastest growing job opportunity in the next 20 years. Successful organisations will need teams of experts to extract – through coaching in deliberate practice – the best from people.

  • Patience

Transformation takes time – strategy, structure, leadership focus, support systems and measurement. In short, we must move from the workshop to a multi-year adaptive programme that engages every leader and person in the team in the behaviour of excellence. It is not for everyone. It is inescapable for those organisations seeking greatness.

  • Relentless curiosity

Lot to study, practice, learn and adjust to. There are so many ways. We are at the beginning of the journey to master our wellbeing, our emotions and our minds.