Calm is Contagious (#79)

Last week, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at my third Tugboat Institute Summit, promoting the Evergreen business movement of market-leading businesses looking to make a dent in the universe.

One of my favorite speakers at Tugboat is Commander Rorke T. Denver. Rorke has run every phase of training for the U.S. Navy SEALs and led special-forces missions all around the world. His lessons on leadership, such as last year’s takeaway on “playing without a safety net,” are incredibly insightful and valuable.

This year, while leading a segment on the “warrior mindset,” Rorke was asked about the biggest lesson he learned from his time in the Navy SEALs; the answer was surprising.

To graduate from SEAL basic training (BUD/S), something approximately only 25 percent of those who start will do, there is a final exercise that requires rehearsing a mission and then executing it on time. About midway through the mission, his group realized they could not complete it on time. In response, the class leader was frenetically running around screaming at people, which only served to make effective decisions impossible.

Having witnessed this erratic behavior, a Master Chief Petty Officer, the most senior enlisted member of the U.S. Navy, gave Rorke’s group an invaluable piece of advice that he’d learned from another Master Chief during the Vietnam War. The advice he gave was simple: “Calm is Contagious.” He explained that their team members would mimic or amplify their behavior, whether that be calm, chaos or panic.

There are definitely a few times in life when we need to fully engage our fight or flight response with an appropriate level of panic, adrenaline and even stress. However, when a leader of one of the most elite and deadly military units in the world counts his biggest learning as “Calm is Contagious,” it should give us pause to how we approach many of our everyday situations.

We all want to be around people who are calm and in control. But we also have an opportunity to be that person for our colleagues, our families and even ourselves. Our ability to calm ourselves and reduce stress fundamentally changes how we react and how we make decisions.

Given that others are likely to mimic or amplify your behavior, think closely about what you want that behavior to be.

To watch Rorke tell this story himself, check out this YouTube video.

Quote of the Week

“Pretend to be completely in control and people will assume that you are.”

Walter Isaacson

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  1. Jennifer Montana July 7, 2017 at 8:56 am

    Thanks Robert! An important reminder. I love the way your site has been evolving. It’s inspiring.

    Calm is a gift we give to ourselves and others in a world replete with the urgent and unimportant. And, in situations that truly require rapid, accurate responses, calm gives us the mental clarity needed to think and function at our best. It is not an override of instinct and/or deep knowledge and understanding, it allows us to engage the latter effectively with higher probabilities for successful outcomes.

    Jennifer Montana, executive director and founder

  2. Cassandra Scarbeck July 7, 2017 at 11:29 am

    Bob, this is truly a powerful virtue and holds such importance in the midst of far from optimal circumstances. People really do take their cues from their leader.

    I watched this play out in a different arena 5 years ago when I started my role as my 4 year old daughter’s health advocate after she was diagnosed with cancer. Inside I was terrified about what lay ahead for her with treatment, side effects, the what if’s and all the logistics and life changes that inherently would happen as a result of this bombshell… Things like having to pull her out of school to avoid getting exposed to potentially deadly germs, having to quit my job in order to be her full time caregiver and the financial hole we were instantly plunged into. On the outside, I projected a much different picture. I never let on to my daughter that her life was in peril or that I had no idea how we were going to get through the next 29 months of chemotherapy. Instead, I calmly explained in age appropriate terms what she needed to know when she needed to know it.

    I prepared her for the pain she would face just before the procedure always being honest but letting her know it would be over quickly. As a result, she faced each blood draw, chemo injection, spinal tap and surgery with amazing lack of apprehension. When I knew what changes would occur in her body as a result of the treatment, I prepared her for things like weight gain, face changes and hair loss. Rather than cry or worry, her response was, “Ok, cool!” When her hair started falling out, I began preparing her for a head shaving party with a dear friend of mine who had done the same for a high school student. She explained what she did and how they made it a fun experience. When the day came, I went inside my closet and cried my eyes out. But then I wiped my tears and came out and put a big smile on my face and said… you’re gonna be great, you are gonna ROCK your wigs, and when your hair comes back it’s going to be even more beautiful. The thing is… she believed me and smiled and giggled through the whole experience as her dad and brothers took turns giving her a mohawk before the last strip was taken off her beautiful bald head.

    Part of how she responded to all of this was no doubt naivete. But so much had to do with the cues she took from my outward response to every situation in front of us and the trust she had in me as her mother and advocate. Never once did I let her see fear or sadness overcome me. In contrast, I noticed some parents in the waiting room and in the clinic with panic, anxiety and anguish written all over their faces. When their kids had to come in for procedures, you could see them mimicking their parent’s emotions. They clung to their parents in fear and didn’t want to go back to their treatment room. Meanwhile, parents like me, who were calm and unapprehensive had children who were happily engaged with other children or volunteers making crafts, playing games or engaging in musical therapy. The smiled and joked with the nurses and doctors and walked out high -fiving the receptionists.

    Our kids were all having similar experiences in the same place, battling the same enemy at the same time, with the same team of warriors surrounding them. But, I couldn’t help notice the differences in behaviors of parents and children and how they were linked. Thanks for another great reminder of the impact our actions have on others. Our kids are watching. Our team is watching. Our staff is watching. Let’s all strive to keep calm and kick ass!!!


  3. Melinda Davis July 11, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    These words are so very true. It reminded me of a poem that has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager. If by Rudyard Kipling:

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

    If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man (I think this should be changed to leader), my son!

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