During our senior executive retreats, we did an exercise in which we provided feedback to our team members about their admirable traits. On more than one occasion, others commented that they appreciated my ability to remain calm.

Apparently, in contrast to some of the other team members, I was pretty unflappable.


We live in a world of accelerating change, financial shortfalls, and looming competition. A leader that is calm in distressing situations is definitely an asset.

Lack of Calm

The absence of calm is manifested as:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Exasperation
  • Panic
  • Hysteria

It is unsettling to see a leader move away from calm towards fear or hysteria. The failure to remain calm causes poor decisions, counterproductive pronouncements, and ill-advised actions.

Source of Calm

Every executive team should have a balance of styles, and strengths and weaknesses. We all have our unique personalities. Some will be more oriented to details, while others more creative. Some will be obsessive and meticulous, while others more laid back. Some will be emotional and expressive, while others more contained and reticent.

I have observed that many physician executives tilt more toward being the calm, steady team member. That partly reflects the type of people who choose medicine as a career. It is also a trait developed from years of intense focus.

And, clerkships and residency rotations in high stress environments (ICU, ER, surgery, obstetrics) demand composure. So, physicians adopt a process of addressing patient problems deliberately, while remaining calm.

Serenity Demonstrated

As a second year family medicine resident, I cared for a young child with a respiratory illness. As his respiratory distress escalated, the nursing staff and the patient's mother became increasingly worried, and visibly agitated. We requested the assistance of anesthesia.

The anesthesiologist arrived, and assessed the situation. In spite of the panic in the room, he maintained an aura of serenity.

He spoke to the child's mother in a subdued voice, “Your son's breathing difficulty has progressed. I know this is scary and that you're worried. But everything is going to be fine. I am going to insert a tube to help him breath and he will feel much better.”

The mom's fear began to subside. The staff”s anxiety visibly diminished. Those kinds of events happen every day in healthcare settings.

Given the benefits of your composure, it should be nurtured. That calm can help to balance an executive team, especially when it struggles to solve difficult problems.

calm water

Nurture Calm

You can nurture your tendency toward calm. Learning and applying mindfulness practices can help. I found two books by Mark Epstein particularly helpful in this regard:

I spent several years participating in the Landmark Forum and Landmark Advanced Courses. The take away for me from the study of that way of thinking is that:

  • Humans are meaning-making machines
  • The attached meaning can lead to unmet expectations and upset
  • It is possible to learn to separate what happens from the meaning we attach to what happens

Let me provide an example.

You're driving to work and a vehicle cuts you off. You immediately become angry because you must slam on your brakes, and miss the next green light (unmet expectation). Your anger and upset escalate because you feel you have been threatened or disrespected by the other driver (meaning being created). You imagine that you're seen as too old, or too young, or your car is too slow or outdated (again, more meaning).

You seethe, and arrive at work flustered. You snap at your assistant. You cannot settle down and concentrate on your work duties for an hour or two.

Distinguish Meaning from What Happened

Applying the separation of what happened (you were cut off in traffic) from the story or meaning might look like this: “The driver of the other car did not intend to cut me off. The cause of the near-miss was that the driver was distracted because:

  • he just left his doctor after being informed he had cancer, or
  • his mother just died and he was coming from the hospital, or
  • his daughter was just admitted to a mental health unit, or
  • he was just fired.”

None of the stories in either scenario is necessarily true. They can all be conjured up in our minds instantly, depending on whether our meaning-making tendencies are based on victimization, or on understanding and generosity.

If you apply the reshaping of your stories regularly, you get to the point where you no longer need to actually create a story. It becomes second nature to think “there is probably a good reason why that just happened, and it is not going to anger or panic me.”

So, the next time this happens to you, follow this process:

  1. Consider what happened (just the facts, not the judgement),
  2. Identify the resulting anger or upset,
  3. Consider why the anger or upset resulted – what meaning did you attach to what happened that caused the upset?
  4. Generate an alternate meaning or possible cause for what happened,
  5. Experience the dissipation of upset, and the feeling of compassion and understanding,
  6. Repeat the process for each new upset until those steps occur automatically, in an instant.

Then, enjoy the Calm.

Have you witnessed panic in a leader? How about an example of incredible calm in a colleague or friend?