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Summary: Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World by Aaron De Smet and Jacqueline Brassey


Self-mastery is the path to success, write McKinsey experts Jacqueline Brassey, Aaron De Smet and Michiel Kruyt. Their “Deliberate Calm” program draws from advanced neuroscience and leadership development practices to teach leaders how to handle challenges and crises with focus, resolve and self-discipline. They tell leaders how to manage their internal emotional environment and their external circumstances by following a four-week self-governance program and exercising four main skills,“adaptability, learning agility, awareness and emotional self-regulation.” The information on learning agility is sparse, but they present the other three areas and their self-development program with clarity and expertise.


  • When pilot Chesley Sullenberger landed a commercial jet in the Hudson River, he exemplified “Deliberate Calm.”
  • Deliberate Calm calls on four skills: “adaptability, learning agility, awareness and emotional self-regulation.”
  • Adaptability – Thrive amid constant change in the “Adaptive Zone.”
  • Learning Agility – Boost your leadership possibilities and performance.
  • Awareness – Learn to understand yourself.
  • Emotional self-regulation – Recognize that improved ideas and emotions lead to improved realities.
  • The “Deliberate Calm Practice” is an inventive approach to mastering volatile challenges.
  • To learn to practice Deliberate Calm, follow a four-week program of self-scrutiny and personal improvement.

Book Summary: Deliberate Calm - How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World


When pilot Chesley Sullenberger landed a commercial jet in the Hudson River, he exemplified “Deliberate Calm.”

In 2009, when a bird strike knocked out his airplane’s engines, pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger didn’t hit the panic button. Nor did he follow the advice of concerned air traffic controllers who told him to try to return his damaged plane to the airport. Instead, Sullenberger decided to carry out an emergency landing in the nearby Hudson River. In the calmest and the most deliberate manner, he saved the lives of his passengers and crew.

“A recent meta-analysis of empirical studies found that adaptability and learning agility were the top predictors of individual leader performance and potential.”

Sullenberger exemplified Deliberate Calm. While you may not be an airline pilot, you will face unexpected events when you must put aside emotion and fear, and think and act with clearheaded logic and intentional calmness.

Deliberate Calm calls on four skills: “adaptability, learning agility, awareness and emotional self-regulation.”

With Deliberate Calm you will learn to maximize your awareness, pause under pressure and make vital choices with full intention. Being deliberate means being aware of your “external environment” – the world around you – and your “inner environment” – your thoughts and emotions. These two environments directly and indirectly affect you just as they involve one another.

Your heightened awareness of these separate environments permits you to think more objectively. You can take a pause or several pauses to reflect, even under pressure – in fact, especially under pressure. Then, with specific intent, you can choose how to respond to any situation and to address its challenges.

“It is in these situations that we most need to access…the executive-thinking part of our brains, but because our brains are not sure whether or not we are safe, we often get stuck in protection instead, reacting with knee-jerk, fear-based behaviors.”

People who cultivate the self-mastery to exercise Deliberate Calm can remain focused on the situation at hand. They are able to make smart decisions because their emotional reactions don’t dominate their responses in confusing or pressing circumstances.Such calmness and problem-solving abilities stem from a “personal self-mastery practice” that involves four specific skills: “adaptability, learning agility, awareness and emotional self-regulation.”

Adaptability – Thrive amid constant change in the “Adaptive Zone.”

Think of today’s challenging, confusing world as an Adaptive Zone. When you operate in this territory, you need the transformative capacity to free yourself from established routines in order to discover novel approaches, employ inventive methods, become more creative and collaborate more effectively with your colleagues.

“Everyone benefits from living with a sense of purpose. As part of the foundational layer of our ‘icebergs,’ our purpose in life creates a large piece of our identities and drives everything above it.”

Today’s leaders live in the omnipresent Adaptive Zone; they must constantly and effectively adjust to rapidly evolving events and circumstances. Unless you understand the need for adaptability, you may surrender to the natural tendency to fall back on conventional thinking and strategies, none of which are likely to help in turbulent times or to have a lasting, positive impact.

Learning Agility – Boost your leadership possibilities and performance.

An analysis of empirical studies reveals that learning agility is the most reliable predictor of a leader’s excellence and future improvement in leadership skills. Experts agree that when leaders adopt a mind-set that embraces learning, they can become positive, effective role models.

The difficult, high stress moments that demand the highest level of mental and emotional agility are also the moments that trigger the brain to freeze and fall back on established patterns, thoughts and strategies. Developing learning agility – being able to learn during stressful moments and because of them – increases your calmness in tough times and enables you to draw lessons even from the most problematic situations. Embracing Deliberate Calm fuels your learning agility.

Awareness – Learn to understand yourself.

Everyone feels pressure at times, but adults in the workplace must deal with it maturely. In order to cope, avoid clichéd thinking by opening your mind to more creative ideas and approaches. As you do, detach from irrelevant emotions that interfere with logical thinking. In these moments, strive to understand whatever negative circumstances you must confront. As you grapple with them, try to operate outside your standard comfort zone, which is generally limiting and deceiving.

“When we are detached from our feelings and thoughts…we can observe ourselves having an experience, and we can observe our feelings and thoughts.”

Your awareness goal is to double up and achieve “dual awareness,” being alert both to your external and internal “environments” and their effect on each other.

To understand fully what this special awareness involves, consider an iceberg. Usually, only 10% of an iceberg is visible above the waterline. That means 90% is under the surface, hidden from view. This 90% represents your private thinking, emotions, attitudes, self-perception and beliefs. Though these aspects of your personality are concealed, they drive your behavior.

To achieve your goals, and to live the “Deliberate Calm Promise,” make the effort to know and understand yourself below your “personal waterline.” Objectively consider what motivates you and your actions. Developing unbiased self-knowledge enables you to optimize your performance in every arena.

Emotional self-regulation – Recognize that improved ideas and emotions lead to improved realities.

Examine your thoughts and feelings, because they determine your reality. When you improve them, you will improve your reality.

“No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it.” (Albert Einstein)

The “Deliberate Calm Way” focuses on personal improvement you can achieve by optimizing your mind-set. Consider how you can strengthen your personal processes in the areas of these four mind-sets.

  1. “Growth mind-set” – People with a growth mind-set view challenges as opportunities. Build your growth mind-set as a platform for personal improvement.
  2. “Curious mind-set” – People with a curious mind-set ask questions, explore and discover. They approach everything with “fresh eyes.”
  3. “Creative mind-set” – People with a creative mind-set experiment and seek the “bigger” reasons for the events around them.
  4. “Agent mind-set” – People with an agent mind-set believe all positive outcomes are possible and are confident they can accomplish anything.

The “Deliberate Calm Practice” is an inventive approach to mastering volatile challenges.

In times of volatility, uncertainty and crucial decision-making proven practices can quickly become obsolete. Models that reliably led to success in the past may not suffice in the future.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

If you are ready for a brave new approach to handling challenges, the Deliberate Calm practice offers an inventive system in which you and your colleagues jointly commit to increased collaboration to achieve shared, ambitious goals. This approach emphasizes being creative, purposeful and genuine. It calls upon you to ask nonjudgmental, open-ended questions to clarify your challenges and define the obstacles in your path.

To learn to practice Deliberate Calm, follow a four-week program of self-scrutiny and personal improvement.

To learn to use the Deliberate Calm program as your personal strategy, follow the four-week “Deliberate Calm Protocol.” Each day, practice ways to increase your awareness of your internal and external environments and to help others do the same. Your guidance can help them reframe their problems as opportunities, expand their skills, and broaden their perspectives to build a more open mind-set and to maneuver through the Adaptive Zone.

“While Deliberate Calm is a lifelong practice and not something that you can complete within four weeks, by the end of this period you should see a marked difference in your ability to…remain significantly calmer…in the face of challenges and the unknown.”

As with all new approaches and methodologies, using Deliberate Calm requires considerable practice. Ask yourself some diagnostic questions: What behavioral change would you like to make? For example, do you have a self-defeating behavior that often undermines your daily life? When does it come up? What emotions accompany it? How would your life change if you could adopt a more positive mind-set and leave this behavior behind?

With that target and goal in mind, carry out these recommended Deliberate Calm activities for four weeks. This practice enables you to focus on how you respond emotionally to stressful moments and to make productive changes as you review how your behaviors during difficult times may have a negative impact on your life.

  • Week One – Your goal is to identify things that trigger your emotions and to consider how you respond to sudden emergencies. Identify the circumstances that set you off or put you into a self-protective – and usually self-defeating – state. Each day, identify four “trigger moments.” For each one, write exactly what took place, along with your feelings, thoughts and behaviors. For each evening of the first week, spend at least 10 minutes reflecting on these trigger moments and your responses to them. At the end of the week, briefly reflect again on your personal triggers and your typical reactions. Have you found ways to respond more productively, calmly and deliberately?
  • Week Two – Establish your standard awareness level. You can anticipate that your daily awareness levels will expand or retract depending on your circumstances. Don’t become discouraged if your awareness levels hit a temporary plateau or slide backward a bit. This is normal. As in Week One, pay close attention to your trigger moments and your responses to them. Your goal is to establish a reliable, discernable pattern in regard to your triggers and your reactions.
  • Week Three – Initiate Deliberate Calm practices, stepping away from safe, familiar routines that may no longer work and learning as each moment passes how to identify and govern your emotions. During Week Three, create a “morning intention-setting practice.” Deactivate your fear responses to stressors in order to steady yourself during difficult periods. Establish exactly how you want to “show up” mentally when the going gets difficult. Use three Deliberate Calm daily practices that will help you during stressful times. First, take deep breaths, exhaling longer than you inhale. Second, take a brief, invigorating walk for five to 10 minutes. And, third, when you speak, try to bring a “lower, warmer pitch to your voice.”
  • Week Four: Achieve significant transformation. Target a self-defeating behavior you need to change. Figure out the internal, “underlying limiting mind-set” that prompts it. Create a positive mind-set that supports your preferred, new alternative behavior. Practice using your fresh mind-set.

Fulfilling this protocol will help you attain valuable self-knowledge and develop a positive mind-set that will automatically kick in when you face stress.

“The best time to plant a tree was years ago. The second-best time is today.” (Chinese proverb)

Authors Jacqueline Brassey, Aaron De Smet and Michiel Kruyt taught their Deliberate Calm system to 1,450 executives and observed how these leaders managed stressful circumstances compared to a control group. The leaders who had learned Deliberate Calm performed 300% better under stress than the members of the control group. These trained leaders also scored 700% better on measures of well-being.

About the Authors

Jacqueline Brassey is a senior knowledge expert in McKinsey & Company’s People and Organizational Performance Practice. Aaron De Smet is a senior partner at McKinsey. Michiel Kruyt is a boardroom consultant and a McKinsey alum.


Here’s a brief review of the book “Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World” by Aaron De Smet and Jacqueline Brassey:

In “Deliberate Calm,” Aaron De Smet and Jacqueline Brassey offer a comprehensive guide for individuals seeking to cultivate a sense of calm and deliberateness in their personal and professional lives, particularly in today’s fast-paced and volatile world. The book is divided into three parts, each of which focuses on a different aspect of achieving deliberate calm.

Part One: The Path to Deliberate Calm

The first part of the book explores the concept of deliberate calm and its importance in today’s society. The authors argue that the traditional approach to success, which emphasizes speed, aggression, and competitiveness, is no longer effective in today’s rapidly changing world. Instead, they suggest that individuals should adopt a more mindful and deliberate approach, which they term “deliberate calm.” This approach involves cultivating a sense of inner calm, clarity, and focus, and using these qualities to make better decisions and take more effective action.

The authors also identify three key factors that can help individuals achieve deliberate calm: mindfulness, self-awareness, and intentionality. They provide practical tips and exercises for developing these factors, such as meditation, journaling, and setting clear goals.

Part Two: The Practice of Deliberate Calm

In the second part of the book, the authors delve deeper into the practices and habits that can help individuals achieve deliberate calm. They discuss the importance of building a daily routine that includes time for reflection, self-care, and mindfulness practices. They also emphasize the need to cultivate healthy relationships and build a supportive community, which can provide a sense of belonging and help individuals stay grounded in times of turbulence.

The authors also explore the role of emotions in achieving deliberate calm. They argue that emotions are not inherently good or bad, but rather they are a natural part of the human experience. They provide practical tips for recognizing and managing emotions, such as labeling them, acknowledging their presence, and using them as a source of information.

Part Three: Leading with Deliberate Calm

In the final part of the book, the authors turn their attention to leadership and how individuals can use deliberate calm to lead effectively in a volatile world. They argue that traditional leadership approaches, which emphasize command-and-control and top-down decision-making, are no longer effective in today’s complex and rapidly changing environment. Instead, they suggest that leaders should adopt a more collaborative and adaptive approach, which they term “deliberate calm leadership.”

The authors identify several key principles of deliberate calm leadership, including cultivating a sense of inner calm, embracing uncertainty, and empowering others. They provide practical tips and case studies for implementing these principles, such as holding regular town hall meetings, encouraging open communication, and creating a culture of experimentation and learning.


Overall, “Deliberate Calm” is a thoughtful and practical guide for individuals seeking to cultivate a sense of calm and deliberateness in their personal and professional lives. The book provides a comprehensive framework for achieving deliberate calm, along with practical tips and exercises for implementing the authors’ suggestions. The authors’ writing style is clear and accessible, making the book an enjoyable and informative read.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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