Being out of control of something we want to control and fix is a recipe for disaster. When we try to control things, we often react in ways that are ultimately not helpful and can be self-destructive.
Much of Aaron De Smet’s(@AaronDeSmet) work focuses on helping large distributed organizations to achieve growth, innovation, productivity, and organizational agility. Aaron co-authored Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World. He has been consulting for many years at McKinsey and in prior years at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He is also an expert on organizational design, corporate culture, and leadership development.
Aaron De Smet(@AaronDeSmet) counsels leadership teams as they transform their organizations to improve performance, organizational health, speed, and agility. He holds a P.H.D. from Columbia University, where he studied organizational psychology and business. His expertise spans several industries, including agriculture, biotechnology, chemicals, and transformational change.
“The world has become so interconnected that one small thing somewhere can have surprising effects in ways we hadn’t imagined”
– Aaron De Smet
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Mark Divine 0:00
Hi, this is Mark Divine, and you’re listening to the Mark Divine show. Thanks so much for joining me today I’m super stoked to have you here. On the show, I explore what it means to be fearless through the lens of the world’s most inspirational, compassionate, and resilient leaders. I speak to amazing people from all walks of life, martial arts, grandmasters, and Stoic philosophers, and leading consultants from remarkable firms like McKinsey, such as my guest today, Aaron De Smet. Aaron is the author of Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World. He has been consulting for many years at McKinsey, prior to that at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He was a graduate of Columbia University with his Ph.D. Really amazing guy. I’m super stoked to have a conversation about leadership, about social change, about what’s happening in the workforce, and whatever else comes up. And thanks so much for joining me here on the Mark Divine show. Super stoked to have you.
Aaron De Smet 0:50
Thank you, Mark. Glad to be here.
Mark Divine 0:52
Well, I appreciate what you’re doing. It’s the vast world of this genre of organizational behavior, leadership development, social psychology, you know personal psychology, how that plays into human behavior and groups and teams. And it’s, it’s massive, how much content and pedagogy there is, or andragogy, there is around this, these topics. So let’s go back a little bit in time, like what got you interested in leadership and in these subjects that led to your eight-year tour at Columbia University and then into consulting.
Aaron De Smet 1:22
I got my undergraduate degree out in Oregon, where I grew up. And I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. And I ended up with a double major in business and psychology. And the psychology part was the passion and the business part was what I was going to do for a living. And I didn’t want to go into counseling, or abnormal psychology, I was fascinated at how abnormal normal people behave.
Mark Divine 1:46
Aaron De Smet 1:47
So I got totally hooked on all those weird social psychological experiments that you wouldn’t ethically be able to do anymore. You know, the Zimbardo prison experiments. The Milgram experiments like those things, I just was fascinated like, normal people do crazy stuff, if you put them in the right environment. I am fascinated by this. I actually started deep in doing research back then I remember I went and actually had lunch with Phil Zimbardo, the guy who who did the Stanford Prison experiments. And he fascinated me and I really got into the work of Kurt Lewin, who did just a lot of seminal work around social psychology, but also change behavior, change.
Mark Divine 2:27
That three stage change model, right freeze, unfreeze re freeze, something like that.
Aaron De Smet 2:31
Mark Divine 2:32
Yeah, I remember Lewin’s model.
Aaron De Smet 2:33
One of his many. And I saw that one of his protegees was still teaching at Columbia. I was like, man, if I could learn from that guy. That would be amazing. So I went to Columbia University, and Morton Deutsch was led, at the time, their center for international conflict resolution, and he was a disciple of Kurt Lewin. And it turns out many of the other professors there were also in their own right gurus. And I just loved it. I loved the topics I loved how do you help ordinary people become great leaders and rise to the moment when challenges are great, and opportunities are great. And I just got sucked into group dynamics and social psychology and how people think and act, particularly in organizations and teams when you’re trying to work together to do something hard, or do something great. It just fascinated me, it still does. It’s still one of my passions.
Mark Divine 3:25
When you went to Columbia, you, what are you looking for, at the end of that? Were you thinking I’m going to be an academic and just doing this research all the time? Or were you?
Aaron De Smet 3:33
I had no idea. I actually did all the things. I was like, I don’t know what I want to do. So I started teaching. So while I was there, I was teaching a graduate course. While I was there, I was doing a ton of research and writing, and I published in non academic as well as academic journals, I got a publication in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which in my field was like, that’s one of the best journals. So I was like, I got a pub in JAP, that’s awesome. And I was doing consulting on the side. And I’d love to the consulting work to that was very practical and applied and didn’t care about all my theories and nerdy bookworm stuff. They just wanted to help answer their problems.
And I thought, man, is there any way I could do all of these things? And I actually realized that if I crafted my consulting career in the right way, I could do all of them. Or I could have an academic career and still consult on the side. So then the question, then I’m like, Well, if I can do all of them, which one do I want to spend more of my time doing? And I realized I wanted to spend more of my time doing the practical applied thing. So that was really, if I had to pick that was the one that got me most excited.
Mark Divine 4:35
I mean, the practitioner-scholar ends up I think, shedding more light on truth of the situation, right? Because you’re getting down in the weeds and you’re really testing theories, and there’s a lot of just pure academic stuff. I found, anyways, just a little bit, often just one bubble off reality.
Aaron De Smet 4:54
Mark Divine 4:55
You know what I mean?
Unknown Speaker 4:56
Yep. I felt the same way.
Mark Divine 4:58
So was there anything that that you felt, you know, because when you do a doctoral work, at least this is what I’ve been told, you know, you’re meant to like, move the dial on knowledge, right? introduce something new, you know, extend a theory or create something new. What would you say was like your contribution or like, what new came out of Aaron’s work?
Aaron De Smet 5:19
Okay, I’ll share my from my dissertation. I had this hypothesis, this theory that, because humans are cognitively limited, we only have so many cognitive resources. So this is coming from social cognition theory, that those those cognitive resources need to be harnessed very, in a very focused and targeted way. And the thought I had was self awareness, which is generally a very good thing. For leaders. If you were too overwhelmed with a task with a problem to solve, perhaps too much self awareness would interfere with your ability to actually solve a problem on a team. There’s ample evidence that being self aware in the moment actually consumes quite a lot of resources cognitively, like you have to think about, oh, I need to think about myself and my strengths and my weaknesses and how I’m showing up and how I’m affecting other people. And while that’s very important, it’s also cognitively taxing, if you will. And so my theory was that there will be some situations, where being highly self aware will actually lead to underperformance, and I very carefully mapped out the situations where it should particularly help and where it would hurt. And my finding was, it always helps. I did not can, I actually refuted my own hypothesis. Self awareness, when you are working with other people on a team self awareness always helps no matter how cognitively taxing it might be. It is a net add to the situation, self awareness is a good thing.
Mark Divine 6:53
I think that’s really interesting I get it is semantics really can trip us up, because helps to really define what we’re talking about with self awareness. My work with Navy SEALs, I could say, okay, self awareness has several aspects to it. One is what you referring to is thinking about your thinking, which is, which is rational kind of left brain cognition, whereas emits like me training a sniper who’s on the gun who’s radically focused on a target, and he has to be, you know, just like putting enormous amount of energy focused outward. And then there’s contextual awareness, which is much more right brain and broad base receptive awareness. And so we can train that as well. And that’s more like the spotter, who stands behind the sniper who’s looking, he’s using a soft gaze, he’s allowing information to command he’s not thinking he’s receiving information. And that takes a lot less of a cognitive load, lot less of energy, but you’re you’re absorbing a lot of information, and you’re just scanning for patterns in the fields. Because we’re all about mental development, self awareness, we train these two capacities simultaneously, we call that simultaneous mind, you know, this makes you an extraordinarily effective leader, because you can be radically focused on the right decision, the right action to target while remaining aware of what’s going on, even in relation to your teammates.
Aaron De Smet 8:06
I mentioned to you before, when we were talking that that we have a new book out. And one of the concepts in the book is dual awareness. And it’s exactly this simultaneous mind.
Mark Divine 8:16
It’s the same thing.
Aaron De Smet 8:16
It’s exactly the same thing. And when we talk about self awareness, we mean not just the metacognition of not understanding what I’m thinking and how I’m thinking about it. Also understanding how there might be potentially subconscious emotions that are sitting there that are guiding me or biasing me that I can actually bring to awareness and actually be more choice full about how it affects how I behave, and what I look for being self knowledgeable, bringing the knowledge of myself into my awareness of Oh, that’s a common pitfall I fall into in these situations. I know when I go into meetings like this, this kind of thing often pushes my buttons, and I react badly, knowing that how am I going to respond differently all bringing all that and then that situational awareness of, okay, I know what my intention is, I know what I want to do. What is the situation asking of me. And there may be things that I never imagined that would say, Wait, there’s an unexpected opportunity here for me to do something that I hadn’t planned to do. But that would actually be a very good thing to do. And so doing those at the same time, and connecting the awareness of my situation and the awareness of myself, and what I’m trying to do is sort of the magic piece of leadership that it’s hard to do in any case, it’s especially hard to do when there’s a high degree of uncertainty and the stakes are high.
Mark Divine 9:35
That’s right. Yeah. And you’re hyper aroused, which pretty much everyone is when there’s a lot of uncertainty, but everyone had also is because of the way our culture has evolved with the fast pace and…
Aaron De Smet 9:45
Mark Divine 9:46
Triggers on social media and all that all the things that we take to be the tiger which aren’t the tiger. That’s great. I want to come back to your book Deliberate Calm in a bit, but let’s talk a little bit about some of the work you do at McKinsey. Now. Talk about probably a pretty high performance fast paced environment. You know, I was at Anderson for a while before Andersen went away not Accenture but the original Anderson. What people find surprising about me is I was a CPA, an MBA before I joined the SEALs, so I went to NYU Stern for my MBA was a certified public accountant at Coopers and Lybrand, remember them?
Aaron De Smet 10:20
I worked for Coopers and Lybrand.
Mark Divine 10:22
Did you really?
Aaron De Smet 10:22
Yeah, in the 90s, I was in my Ph.D. program. But I started dabbling in consulting. And I was doing my own little side gig for a while and I’m like, I think I want to work for like a real place somewhere. And I actually started with Coopers and Lybrand, right before they merged with Price Waterhouse.
Mark Divine 10:38
Aaron De Smet 10:39
I was with Coopers and Lybrand for like a blink of an eye. And then I was with PwC, all the way from when PwC formed in 98, I think all the way through to 2003, when I joined McKinsey.
Mark Divine 10:50
Awesome companies. So I have a little bit of experience with those environments. And McKinsey, of course, is the granddaddy. Right, what a great firm, great reputation. And I love that they do combine, like what you’re talking about earlier this for support scholarly work with the practitioner work of the consultant. So what were some of the really interesting projects and insights that you’ve gleaned working at both from a leadership position at McKinsey as a senior partner, but also maybe in some in terms of the work that you’re doing with clients that are on the leading edge of organizational change, and also social change?
Aaron De Smet 11:26
One of the things I love about my job, and it is it’s a very demanding job, but it also gives me an incredible amount of flexibility. If I can perform and deliver within the parameters of our of our values, and our ethics and our professional standards, and deliver high performance, I get this incredible opportunity to do almost anything I can dream up, which is just great.
Mark Divine 11:46
They have no problem with you writing this book and doing these podcasts.
Aaron De Smet 11:49
Nope, they’ve supported the book, some colleagues of mine and I who are like minded, have created a sort of organizational science, Behavioral Science Unit that basically is a mini think tank that does research on these topics. As long as we’re delivering performance and impact for our clients, we get just a tremendous amount of flexibility, which I love. It allows me to do research and write and explore. And a lot of that is I do in the context with clients, and say, Hey, I’ve never tried this exactly this way before, but I think this would work. Let’s try it. And once you’ve delivered for clients, and they trust you that they’re often willing to go on and do some courageous things. And it’s just been incredible. Some of the things we’ve been able to do to turn businesses around to turn teams around to see, you know, one of the things I get excited about is this idea that we can help companies make more money and be more profitable, while also helping leaders be better people that are humans. And it’s a win win for everybody they can be contribute better to society and to the communities in which they operate, they can be more inspiring and supportive to their employees, and still do so in a way that that makes good sense as a business.
Mark Divine 13:05
There’s two kind of major themes that are affecting business and culture. And one is, you know, this area of operating in a VUCA environment, right, which is near and dear to kind of what you wrote or why you wrote your book, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous term that we’re very familiar with in the SEALls. But now, it’s pretty common in the business world. And then closely related is the more recent experience with COVID. And the lock downs and the great resignation. And the difficulty now that both sides of the employers are having attracting and retaining high quality talent. And then on the employee side, just a lot of change in terms of how people view work. What’s important. Job for jobs sake and money from money sake, because it’s lost its appeal and you know, wanting to work for companies that really have a strong why and social impact. I mean, all this has happened so quickly. What are the biggest challenges that leaders face and what are like some of the things that you’re seeing that are leading to success, or to better results, as opposed to, you know, trying to do things the same way and expecting different results?
Aaron De Smet 14:12
I have a strong belief that what we saw in COVID, that seems to have changed, everything didn’t actually change everything. It just accelerated changes that were already underway. I think there were a bunch of changes that were right under the surface, and we’re going to happen soon anyway. Let me go back in history a little bit and put this in some historical perspective. If you go back far enough pre industrial revolution, what you find is, you know, work was very different. There wasn’t like a nine to five mining. Most people worked in agriculture in the fields or they worked in artisanal shops. There was not much of a middle class people, or even upper class or were really just scraping to get by. And then we have this industrial revolution, which is, you know, happened in the 1600s and In 1700s, where we start to be able to start to automate things, and we start to be able to have machinery, and we start to be able to have steam engines, and we start to be able to say, Oh, we can work differently, and it’s much more productive.
And there are some tremendous benefits of that, right, which is creating a middle class creating wealth, creating a better lifestyle and standard of living. On the other hand, it also changed the nature of work. It said, Oh, we as people move from the fields to the factories, suddenly, the way to do that, is we need to really standardize work, we need specialization of labor, we need most people to not really think, or have a craft just come in and make this widget the same way every time, pound this nail into this hole. The same way, every time that, you know, the assembly line mentality of work really became the dominant way. It’s like, we only need a few people to think. In fact, that gave rise to the modern structure of the hierarchy, which is well, why would I come in and just work for someone else, instead of you know, find my own field? Well, because you will make more money, that’s why. Well, okay, so it’s a safer work environment, and I make more money, but now it’s a transaction. So the transaction is I will get a stable, guaranteed amount of money in a safe work environment, if I come in and do what I’m told. And make 10 widgets an hour, that’s my quota. I make 10 widgets an hour, 10 hours a day. Now, in the early days, they were like, oh, and we can turn lights on. And we can work people 14 or 15 or 18 hours a day. And at some point, there was a bit of a revolt. But you know, this whole idea of a five-day workweek, 40 Hour Workweek, I mean, that evolved as part of the Industrial Revolution.
Mark Divine 16:41
And affected our academic situation. I mean, all academics, labor unions.
Aaron De Smet 16:46
And now for generations. That’s how we’ve all operated.
Mark Divine 16:48
Aaron De Smet 16:47
That’s how work gets done. And everybody has a boss, and the boss tells you what to do. And, you know, we try to standardize work. And we have a standard work week. That’s been kind of starting to deteriorate, though, for a while. People are like, Oh, we always have to come into the office and do work. It’s like actually, pre pandemic, a lot of people were working a little bit from home here and there, because they could. You know, you go back to the 50s 60s 70s 80s. It’s like, Why do I have to go to the office to work? It’s like, well, that’s where the things all the files are in the file cabinets at the office. If somebody calls me on my business phone, it’s going to ring in the office. If I want to have a meeting, it’s at the office. If I need somebody to type something up on letterhead, it’s at the office. Well, we haven’t had to do that for a couple of decades. We just keep coming in, because that’s a long standing norm. It’s just a norm. A lot of these norms are just in place. We have a five day work week. Why? I mean, nobody questions why it’s just that well, that’s just how it is. That’s just how it works. You work Monday through Friday, and then you get the weekend off.
Well, that’s a little bit like, But why? The reasons why don’t really apply anymore, and haven’t for 10 or 20 years. We also have tremendous generational differences. And by the way, there’s a survey that asked kids what do you want to be when you grow up? So you can imagine for decades, the answers were things like police officer, astronaut, doctor, lawyer. Well, actually in China, the answer is still astronaut. But in the United States, in most developed Western countries, the answer has changed. Do you want to know what the answer is now?
Mark Divine 18:22
The number one, you mean?
Aaron De Smet 18:22
Number one, what do you want to be when you grew up? Ask a kid now what do you think they want to be?
Mark Divine 18:26
Aaron De Smet 18:28
Mark Divine 18:30
Now what was that even 10 years ago, you didn’t even know what that was.
Aaron De Smet 18:33
No, you didn’t know what that was. And the fascinating thing is, if you ask, well tell me who your boss is. They’d be like, I don’t have a boss, who’s your employer. I don’t have an employer. When do you work? Whenever I want. And the interesting thing is it turns some things on their head, like one of the things they like about it. I’m not sure this is a good thing. But they get instant feedback. Like it’s not like, I have to wait till the end of the year to get my performance evaluation. I can see how many likes I got right now. I can see how many followers I have right now. I mean, it’s a whole different mindset. Now, that tipping point of what do you want to be when you grow up having pre pandemic of I want more flexibility. I want to be my own boss. Where do you work when you go into the office? Whenever I want. If I’m an influencer or Tik Tok, or a YouTuber, and that’s my job. I have teenage kids, and they first told me they want might want to be that when they grew up, and I told them, You might guess what, you know, a 50 year old professional would say I’m like, kids, that is not a real job. And my kids are like, well, it might not be a realistic job, but dad it is a real job. And now I’m like, oh, not only is it a real job, it’s a desirable job. So this is what’s changing what people see as desirable for a career in the next generation Gen Z and beyond has shifted.
Mark Divine 19:45
And even can expand influencer to like the entire digital ecosystem. Which is growing especially you know, with the metaverse, and what not. People now, like there’s a whole like, I don’t know how many people in Korea who make money playing a video game.
Aaron De Smet 20:01
Mark Divine 20:02
The impact of this, by the way is profound, right? Because like, you know, we’re up in, we just had a townhome up in Lake Placid. My family’s been there for years and we had a little blow up right with, you know, leaking from above and you know, big problems. And so we’re like, Okay, we got to get the plumber in there are like, they’re no plumber. Like, they can’t find anyone to be a plumber anymore. Nobody’s applying for the plumber jobs, right. And like all these old these jobs, which used to be appealing the trades, they can’t fill because this younger generation is…t
Aaron De Smet 20:33
This is where I think things have shifted. I think we could fill them if we reimagined the job.
Mark Divine 20:38
Yeah., you’re right.
Aaron De Smet 20:39
I think too many of the traditional jobs that still need people to do the work, or have been created in such a traditional way that people don’t want it. So all these trends of you can work from home, but we don’t. We have a five day work week. But the reasons why may not apply anymore. We have a traditional hierarchy in most companies. I’ll give you one other example in most companies, it would be unheard of, for a person to make more money than their boss, just unheard of not like rare, or unusual, but absolutely unheard of.
Mark Divine 21:11
Maybe in sales.
Aaron De Smet 21:12
Maybe in sales, maybe in sales, that would be the one. One exception would be there’s a few a few exceptions in some financial investment gigs and some sales gigs, where what you earn is much more variablealized, that your bonus might then put you over. But when you step back, and why is that most of the reasons go back to an old way of thinking about how organizations work that go back to the industrial revolution. But the level of automation that’s happening now means that most of the jobs of the future are not going to be of the routine, build me 20 widgets an hour, because that’s the quota, I can see your work, I can see if you’re productive. I can see if you’re doing a good job. It’s like how if you’re doing knowledge work, that I can’t have ai do because it requires emotion, or judgment or creativity or humanity. And it’s really work that a person should do. How would I know if you’re doing a good job? Why would it matter? If you work 40 hours a week or 30 hours a week or 50 hours a week? Why would I care? There’s a few places where you see this where there have been almost forced natural experiments. While you’re in California, Hollywood would be a good one. You know, at one point due to a combination of antitrust and monopoly busting and you know, breaking up of the old studio system, right around the time that unions formed across not just actors, but directors and writers. Suddenly, you had a very different ecosystem that at the time maybe said, Well, this will never work. You mean, I don’t control all these acts, they are part of the guild. And they get to go from gig to gig like that’s crazy. That’s never going to work. And actually, over time, I would argue with it made things better. You wouldn’t pay a star actor by the hour, right? You wouldn’t say, I’m going to pay you more if we do 10 takes instead of five, I’m going to pay you twice as much. In fact, I’d rather have five takes than 10. To be honest. In fact, I’d rather have one take, like, why would I want to pay an actor more, the more hours the more time they work. But that’s how we treat it. You’re a coder, let’s say, let’s say you code in Python, or some language that is in demand. The old way of doing it would be like, I’ll pay you by how many lines of code you write, well, that doesn’t make any sense, or how many hours you work. It’s like if I can deliver you the features and functionality you want with less code and fewer hours, why would you pay me less?
Mark Divine 23:38
Right? It’s probably better.
Aaron De Smet 23:40
It’s probably better. It’s simpler. It’s better. But the way we work today is and you saw this during COVID. You have all these managers on we kind of get people back into the office to make sure they’re productive. I’m like, How do you know, just because they’re in the office? How do you know they’re productive?
Mark Divine 23:55
There’s a good argument that there’s a lot of productivity killers in the office.
Aaron De Smet 23:58
Ther’s a lot of productivity…. Now, by the way, I’m a big believer in having in person connection. But I don’t think everybody being virtual and remote all the time is a good idea. But I also think some of the reasons why some managers and leaders wanted people back in the office were the wrong reasons.
Mark Divine 24:13
I agree, yeah.
Aaron De Smet 24:14
I remember somebody said, Well, the utilization of our office space has gone to just such low point. It used to be 100%. It was like your office utilization used to be 100%. Well, close to it. I’m like, really? You would have people at 2am on a Saturday? No, not then. That’s off hours. I’m like off hours. So you’re pre defining the hours based on the hours that you set, which is what nine to five Monday through Friday, right? Well, why are those the hours? People work on weekends, sometimes?
Mark Divine 24:44
Ueah. Some coders probably work better at night.
Aaron De Smet 24:46
They might work better at night. In fact, there is some evidence that there’s now three peaks of work before lunch after work and after dinner. And that third peak for some people is really productive. And there’s there’s a lot of benefits to adding more flexibility. But let’s imagine I invited the CEO to imagine I said, let’s imagine you gave someone some hard work, and some deliverables and some output they needed to produce. Let’s imagine they produced it and did all the things you asked and more by, say, 4pm on a Wednesday, what do you want them to do on Thursday? Well, they should be working, doing what? Joining meetings, they don’t need to be at sending emails, they don’t need to send? Launching initiatives that are duplicative of other initiatives that already like what do you want them to do? Like if you just want to give them busy work to just be in the office and be busy. I’m not sure. I’m not sure that’s a value add. It might even be value destroying.
Mark Divine 25:37
Killing morale. Yeah. Exactly. Interesting.
Aaron De Smet 25:40
But these are these mind shifts that I think were kind of percolating under the surface pre pandemic. And the pandemic just really shifted it. And people said, you know, I’m not sure there is a reason to be in the office Monday through Friday. Why Monday through Friday?
Mark Divine 25:55
Let me relate this to an article you wrote with the interviewing the military lieutenant colonel.
Aaron De Smet 26:01
Mark Divine 26:01
Who was saying it’s very similar COVID. And kind of trying to re enter the workforce is very similar to a military member coming back from multiple deployments where at first of all excited, and then they’re like, they lose the bubble, because they’re like, things aren’t the same. They have a lot of stress, they haven’t dealt with, there’s conflict. So we’re also dealing with that, right? I agree with you this kind of long are bubbling under the surface, we have to change the story about work, and this accelerated it. But then you layer on top of that the sense of like, people dealing with basically post traumatic stress, returning to the workforce and really just jacked up.
Aaron De Smet 26:38
Exactly. And I would say a lot of unresolved grief.
Mark Divine 26:42
Aaron De Smet 26:42
And people think of grief as when a close loved one dies. That’s when you grieve. But actually grieving is a process we go through psychologically, whenever we feel a sense of loss of something loved or cherished, that could be a loved one, it could be a pet, it could be an experience, it could be my favorite restaurant closed, that I felt an emotional connection to, and I loved and cherished, having coffee at that place. And that place doesn’t exist anymore. So grief can be the loss of any kind of loved your cherished things. And a lot of the loved your cherished things we might not have even been conscious that we had, and so many things after the pandemic were gone, or the experience of it was gone. Because now even when people go back to the office, it’s not the same. Yes, I can go back to the office. But all the people aren’t always there anymore. That running into people in the hallway, I don’t run into all the same people because they’re not there the same day on there. And I think some of the grief that people are experiencing, they can’t even quite put a name on it a finger on it. When we were talking the military veteran, you you mentioned when we were talking I had written an article about grief, and she, and about resignation and a bunch of stuff. And she had actually called me, we turned it into an article together because she had such fascinating thoughts on when she said when I came back from deployment, the first time I didn’t understand why they were sitting me down and giving me a talk. And then by the third time I was like, now I understand why I need this talk because things are different in ways that I can’t put a finger on why I miss the old thing. It’s not objectively better. Yes, we have a new couch, and it’s a better couch. But I kind of just in so many things just are feeling off. And I think COVID did that to just about everybody. There’s something unsettling about having everything changed for me all at once. And I can’t tell what I’m missing about the old but I’m missing something out what we’re losing from what was pre pandemic.
Mark Divine 28:37
Yeah, so this is probably a good place to talk about your book Deliberate Calm, because I think it addresses like, one of the things that how we can kind of address this, these confluence, or this complex of these major, this major cultural societal change that’s been going on as we move out of the information age into the conceptual age, or exponential age or whatever it’s ultimately going to be called. And then as we kind of re norm ourselves after COVID and try to re enter our relationship to work. What did you discover in Deliberate Calm, that can help leaders kind of lean into this?
Aaron De Smet 29:08
I’ll share one quick experience I had that was that planted a seed for some of this, for me. Really two personal experiences one professional and one personal. The professional experience I had was in December of 2019. Some colleagues of mine at McKinsey organized a group of clients in it’s called the resilience Advisory Council and a group of people that talk about how to build more resilient organizations. A lot of them were financial institution executives, and I believe they started after the financial crisis around 2008 2009. And I was asked to present on effective decision-making in order to be more resilient and in times of uncertainty. And another presenter was their Harvard professor Dutch Leonard, and we got to talking because one of the things he said when he was presenting that I found fascinating was when there’s crisis or a big issue and you need resilience, you really need to differentiate between two types of crises. One is what he called a routine emergency. Where it is a crisis, there is a lot at stake, but it’s something we’ve experienced before trained for there unknowns, but they’re sort of known unknowns, if you will.
And he said, So, if you have a firefighters going to fight a fire, there’s a lot of risk, there’s a lot of danger. But if there’s no real X Factor about the fire, they know what they’re dealing with. And they’ve trained for this. And that’s a routine emergency. He said, there’s other types of crises that have major uncertainties where you don’t, the amount that you don’t know what you don’t know is so huge and constantly shifting, that the way you tend to react might easily fall back into some patterns that are ultimately disastrous. And trying to bounce back to known methods and routines might be the exactly the wrong thing to do. And it got me thinking about some of my own experiences, I went through a personal crisis of my own, my first wife was an addict, and an alcoholic, and hid it very well for years. I couldn’t figure out why I was so successful professionally, and personally, my life was falling apart, my marriage was falling apart, I was like, I need to get a divorce. On some level, I was relieved when I was like, Oh, she has an addiction. And that’s okay, we can do something about that. But I couldn’t really do anything about it, because she didn’t ultimately want to get help. And I reacted very badly to that situation, the being out of control of something that I really wanted to control and fix led me to react in ways that were ultimately, at best not helpful, and at worst, self destructive.
And in my mind, I started thinking, you know, I was in a crisis of uncertainty, personally, boy, it’s really easy in those crises, to fall back on things that have served you well in the past, in completely different situations that where it doesn’t apply anymore. And I noticed once I made that connection, how often I see leaders in a business environment, experiencing a crisis of uncertainty and new situation, and they double down on the thing they know how to do when it’s exactly the wrong thing. And you see this sometimes with professional athletes where the rules of the game haven’t changed, you’re prepared, and the instinct of you just double faulted in tennis, or you just threw an interception, you should forget that mistake and just move on with what you know. Maybe take one one small learning of, you know, but really, it’s calm down, you made a judgment mistake, because you didn’t follow it, you know, go back to what, you know, calm down, and go back to what you know. There are other situations where the calm down part is still true, but not to go back to what you know, that nagging doubt, that nagging question that you should ignore, in one situation, because the rules of the game haven’t changed. In other situations, that nagging doubt, you should actually really bring to the forefront and not put aside and say, Maybe I need to say, Wait, maybe I need to behave very differently here and explore a completely different way of thinking about this approaching this. And that can make all the difference. And it’s no longer obvious and clear when we are in a new situation or not. There’s so much disruptive technology. There’s so many VUCA situations where something starts out looking like Oh, I know that threat. I know that opportunity. And as you get into it, you’re like, Whoa, this is a little bit different than anything I’ve ever experienced. Maybe it’s time to not just rely on the things I’ve always done that have worked in the past.
Mark Divine 33:43
I think it’s fascinating, because you know, as you’re talking, of course, I’m reverting back to my Navy SEAL training. And we had routine crisis. And we had what we called standard operating procedures. And we drilled those SOPs relentlessly. So when their routine crisis happened, we knew what to do. And then you had the, you know, the non routine crisis, right? And what we learned and why we started talking about VUCA, volatility, uncertainty, complexity ambiguity, you know, 20 years ago is because we learned that in combat, you have the non routine crisis occur repeatedly. And also sometimes fast, like right on top of each other. And so you really don’t have time to get back into your flow or rhythm.
Aaron De Smet 34:22
Mark Divine 34:22
Or how to do things. You need to really think very differently. And so we tried to set up conditions for chaos and constant change. So you couldn’t rely on the known knowns or even known unknowns, like you said, you had to like, get out of the box and come up with radically new solutions.
Aaron De Smet 34:41
The other thing I’m saying is, for most people who weren’t in the military, or who weren’t astronauts or who weren’t in some of these, for most of them, that situation where you go from a crisis of uncertainty to another crisis of uncertainty was unusual, like 50 years ago, that was rare. Most So the things were not one thing after another, most of the things were predict, reasonably predictable. And now I think more than norm is uncertainty. Or at least we don’t know yet, if this is one of those uncertain things, it’s just know the pace of change is so fast, the amount of disruption is so coming so fast, not just technologically but political instability, global supply chain crises, the world has become so interconnected that one small thing somewhere can have surprising effects, you know, five steps removed in ways we’d hadn’t imagined. And that is now creating a world where something that may be used to be isolated to a need of Navy SEALs, in combat situations, is now a lot like what a business executive faces on a almost week to week basis.
Mark Divine 35:49
I love the title of your book, Deliver Calm, because, you know, we say in the SEALs, the first thing you need to do is pause and breathe.
Aaron De Smet 35:57
Mark Divine 35:57
Yeah, we use the OODA Loop, like you got to change the way you think.
Aaron De Smet 36:01
Mark Divine 36:02
And make your thinking process where you’re, you’re observing and reorienting constantly. And then and then you take your action. And then that action is also not the main, you don’t like create a 3 plan or 10 Page plan. You just like back in the you know, let’s go try something fast twitch iteration is what we call it.
Aaron De Smet 36:17
A big fan of the OODA Loop.
Mark Divine 36:18
Yeah. So do you get into some of those strategies in the book?
Aaron De Smet 36:22
Some colleagues of mine, and I built a whole training program around leadership that includes a whole module on the OODA Loop, It’s not the…
Mark Divine 36:28
Aaron De Smet 36:28
I don’t think we hit it in the book. In the book we do, we don’t specifically call out the OODA loop as a way to orient and make fast twitch decisions. But we do call out the pause, breathe, orient, you need to match the situational awareness with a self awareness in a way that’s different than you do in a normal standard kind of situation. You need to be aware, not only of your current thoughts, patterns, biases, but also your tendencies, in a crisis. When you are stressed, how do you tend to react? And does that serve you? And is it appropriate here? And sometimes it is, sometimes the quick reaction is exactly what you should do. In many cases, it is not.
Mark Divine 37:14
I agree with that.
Aaron De Smet 37:15
One of the people who read the book, and I was eagerly awaiting some of the online feedback and to say, do we get five stars? Or do we get two star? One of the early ones gave us a quite glowing review. But what she said was, if I’m remembering this one, it was one of the first reviews on Amazon, I think, and the reader said, I would recommend starting with the appendix. In the appendix, we actually have a, here’s how to do it day by day, just put it into practice, rather than reading about it, just do it. Here’s a week by week, day by day, kind of go do it.
Mark Divine 37:47
That could have been a follow on book, by the way, you missed an opportunity.
Aaron De Smet 37:50
I know I should have split it into two books. But I thought that, you know, I can see how that would resonate rather than just read about it. Because we we referenced some of the theory and the neuroscience behind how the brain works. And this person was like, that’s all great and interesting. But the biggest benefit was actually in the appendix of actually just doing it, putting it into practice. Some of its basic like, yeah, just breathe, take a pause, a six second pause. And I know six seconds might seem like a long time, but it’s not that long, a six second pause, where you breathe, take a deep breath, take a step back from whatever the issue or problem is, can give your brain time to reset.
Mark Divine 38:29
Yeah, it’s almost like a forced mindfulness practice. I mean, the practice of mindfulness is, you know, over time, when done, effectively creates that capacity for that space and a separation where you can, you know, kind of watch your thoughts and emotional reactions as they arise without engaging in them without letting them take you. So by just pausing and taking a deep breath, you’re kind of forcing that and giving yourself the opportunity to say, Okay, wait, what’s happening here?
Aaron De Smet 38:56
And yeah, I feel like technology has done two things that together go exactly against that, even though that’s what makes it needed even more. So one is, as technology deals with the more routine things, the things left for humans to do, are inherently more non routine, and more judgment based and more creative. So being able to be on autopilot is less than less a luxury. Because all the autopilot stuff now machines are doing. And technology has enabled this always on always texting, emailing, slacking, video, at any point, I can call a meeting right now and we can just have it. And it’s just this rapid fire frenetic pace that’s creating almost this technology induced ADD, where we’re just jumping from thing to thing to thing to thing to thing. And the combination of that, I think makes it even more important and yet harder for people to just pause and take a break. I have my EA just say you got to find time every day where you just put breaks in.
Mark Divine 40:00
And, and there’s neuroscience behind that, too. Anytime you do something that that is really engaging and requiring a ton of energy and you’re learning and presenting, if you don’t take time for your mind to just stop and process, then you’re going to have to, it’s going to have to do it at night. Right? And so then you’re going to end up, you know, spending a ton of energy while you’re sleeping.
Aaron De Smet 40:20
And people are sleep, increasingly sleep deprived too.
Mark Divine 40:23
That’s right, and they’re sleep deprived, so they’re not processing and they miss major insights, insights that could shift perspective on things or be like, Oh, that ahha, this is what I learned.
Aaron De Smet 40:32
Exactly. That’s exactly what we found in the research, but also in practice. So, you know, trying some of these things with clients, they self reported that, wow, when I put these in practice, I felt more creative, more productive. We also it with, in one case, asked the people who were working with the people going through this program, to report if they noticed a difference. And they also noticed a difference.
Mark Divine 40:57
Aaron De Smet 40:58
And the program was like, about 30 minutes a week, for a couple months of just these little tools and tricks. And it made a tremendous difference in people’s reported well being, ability to show empathy and compassion and ability to be creative ability to be an effective leader. But again, it’s so easy to fall into a pattern of not getting enough sleep, not taking any breaks, jumping from one thing to another, not pausing, not realizing that the situation calls for something different than what I know how to do. And that if I use my normal playbook of what’s worked for me in the past, it’s likely to be a suboptimal outcome. In many cases, we don’t even realize we just do what we always do, and then are looking around for who to blame for why it didn’t work.
Mark Divine 41:45
Like Einstein’s quote, keeps I love that. We keep solving, trying to solve problems from the same paradigm that created it doesn’t work, or expecting different results, Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World. Did you do the audio book? Did you read the audiobook?
Aaron De Smet 41:57
I did not. We hired a we hired someone to read it. I think that was better. I’m not sure my voice is as calming as the one we the one we picked. I actually read an excerpt. And I asked my 16 year old daughter to listen to my version, and then two of the voice actors. And my daughter was like, Dad, there’s a clear rank order of this and your number three. So we actually did end up going with her recommendation.
Mark Divine 42:22
Oh, that’s terrific. All right. Well, Aaron, thanks so much for your time. This has been fascinating conversation. I really appreciate it. And I’m looking forward to reading the book I wish I had before the this call. But you know, we’re all busy and didn’t happen. So I mean, I’m gonna go order it now.
Aaron De Smet 42:35
That’s right, you can do it now. Great. Well, wonderful. Thank you.
Mark Divine 42:38
Thank you very much. Hooyah.
Aaron De Smet 42:40
Mark Divine 42:44
Well, that was a fascinating discussion with Aaron. Thanks so much for joining me today. Amazing, amazing. I loved talking about your book, Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World. And some really fascinating discussion about the great resignation and COVID and, you know, working in VUCA, and really, really interesting. So appreciate that interview. Show notes will be up at Mark Divine.com. And the YouTube video will be on my YouTube channel. But you can find at Mark Divine or just by searching YouTube, you can find me on Twitter at Mark Divine and on Instagram and Facebook at real Mark Divine, or reach out to me on my LinkedIn profile. And newsletter Divine Inspiration comes out every Tuesday where I have show notes for the weekly podcast, my blog, the book I’m reading and a practice and other really interesting things that come across my desk. So check it out, and subscribe at Mark Divine.com. And share it with your friends.
Thanks to my amazing team, Geoff Haskell, Jason Sanderson. Catherine Divine, who helped me produce this podcast and bring incredible guests like Aaron to you every week. Ratings and Reviews really, really help. My goal is to get 5000, 5 star ratings and reviews this year. And that helps other people find it helps gives us credibility and keeps us top of the ranking. And there’s a million podcasts out there. So it really helpful if you do that. And I really appreciate it. I appreciate you too. And I appreciate the you are doing the work to make yourself better and more calm or deliberate, deliberate, calm, to be unbeatable, to develop strong body strong mind strong team, that’s what we do is SEALFIT and Unbeatable. So if you’re interested in training with us, check out SEALFIT.com We have some amazing performance challenge. We’ve got some incredible crucibles, and all of them designed to make you stronger and more fit more aware and a better person and thanks for doing that work, so that you can lead by example, and help others be strong as well. Till next time, this is your host Mark Divine, Hooyah!
Transcribed by Catherine and https://otter.ai