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Calm, Clear-Headed, and Humble Win for Leaders and Coaches

An emperor, scientist, NFL coach, and World War II hero on great leadership.

Key points

  • The calm, thoughtful example of a military leader strengthened his effectiveness, gained respect, and improved and saved a young soul.
  • Calm is a strength of leadership, not a weakness.
  • The overall purpose of leadership is to promote the growth of people, according to behavioral psychologist Joseph Dagen, Ph.D.

“The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”

Timeless wisdom—minus the patriarchal wording—from “philosopher king” Marcus Aurelius, the world’s most powerful person during his tenure as Roman Emperor from 161-180.

Rephrasing with non-sexist sensibility: The nearer a person comes to a calm mind, the closer they are to strength.

Great advice for leaders, coaches, athletes, military personnel, parents, and physicians. Do you want a surgeon pitching a temper tantrum and throwing surgical tools if something goes wrong during your open-heart surgery?

Stoic Living

Aurelius practiced Stoicism, a philosophy intended for effective living for everyone, not just the powerful. According to Ryan Holiday (2016), Stoicism was not an academic or intellectual pursuit for Aurelius, it was an effort to train a calm, collected, and humble approach to effectively handle the stressful responsibilities and challenges of leadership.

A Scientist's View

Joseph Dagen, Ph.D., is a behavioral psychologist, spending the last 12 years of his professional career researching and training safety-conscious leadership in hazardous environments where life and death hang in the balance, including the oil and gas, military, aviation, and aerospace industries. He has built and managed leadership development programs for tens of thousands of such employees.

 Joseph Dagen, Ph.D., used with permission
Behavioral Psychologist Joseph Dagen. Ph.D. Dagen researches and trains leaders working in hazardous environments.
Source: Joseph Dagen, Ph.D., used with permission

“The overall purpose of a leader is helping the group improve,” explained Dagen in an interview for this post. “It doesn’t matter if it’s with a hazardous environment industry or in athletics, that role is kind of identical in that they (leaders) are there to help achieve some outcome, and it’s their role to help the team achieve that.”

“Great leaders create great athletes, great surgeons, great weightlifters,” observed Dagen. “The more I’ve learned about top-level people, the more I have realized they have similar viewpoints. I hear astronauts talk and it sounds a lot like champion power lifters, because the underlying viewpoints are almost the same.”

People want excellent leaders in their presence, according to Dagen, especially in times of turmoil. Great leadership exudes calm, humility, and confidence, qualities absorbed from leaders by everyone around them in stressful circumstances. It’s as if those traits were contagious.

“In hazardous operations, if a leader creates a work environment that’s punitive—lots of yelling, lots of that type of environment—you will get just enough action from employees that hits the lowest level,” explained Dagen, based on scientific evidence. The quality of work is sacrificed.

The same holds true in athletics, according to a well-seasoned NFL coaching veteran.

“I don’t get yelling and screaming at players when disciplining,” shared retired NFL coach Sherman Smith in an interview for this post. “Are you trying to let ‘em know how mad you are, or trying to improve them?” Smith enjoyed a productive eight-year playing career as an NFL wide receiver and made three trips to the Super Bowl during a 23-year coaching stint with the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, and Seattle Seahawks.

Nobody feels worse about a mistake than the errant person. Displays of anger from a coach or leader add unnecessary stress and keep their people entrenched in past events that can’t be changed, instead of encouraging them to move on and focus on the next thing. It also poisons the leader’s relationships.

Go to a youth or high school sporting event and you’re sure to witness such destructive, disrespectful behavior by coaches, parents, etc. It’s bad leadership, parenting, and role modeling.

“The power of respect is to never disrespect,” Smith said. “You can correct people without damaging them by being disrespectful.”

What Enables Calm?

“Genuine confidence from years of training and experience is where calmness comes from,” according to Dagen. “Great hazardous operations leaders are competent and humble. They are confident through all their hard effort, but they’re also humble knowing that in a given moment there is risk there, and you have to have a clear head in the moment."

“Even though you know the right moves, how do you know that you’ll handle [a stressful situation] well?” explained Dagen. “So, there’s this healthy confidence and humility rolled into one. Effectiveness requires clear-headed calmness, not knee-jerk temper tantrums and other impulsive, angry, or anxious responses.

A World War II Hero’s Example

Admiral John William Bays was a 1927 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and became the Navy’s youngest (40) admiral in 1943. On Dec. 7, 1941, he was stationed at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack that dragged the United States into World War II.

Bays commanded a destroyer during the allied invasion of North Africa and then led a task force for the invasion of Italy. He was a top-level planner and operations officer of the amphibious assault phase of the D-Day invasion of France in 1944.

Bays is the inspiration for this post, stemming from an incident observed when I was 17 years old. It was an act exceeding the courage, resourcefulness, and calm required for wartime deeds that earned him two bronze stars and other honors. What was the feat in question? The clear-headed disciplining of a troubled teenage boy (not me).

It was the summer of 1969 at Culver Military Academy (CMA) in Indiana. I was a first-class midshipman in Culver’s summer school naval program, assigned as “Officer of the Day,” serving Admiral Bays, Commandant of the CMA summer schools.

A young midshipman walked in requesting to speak with Bays. I knocked on the Admiral’s door and he granted me permission to enter. After giving Bays the required salute and statement of purpose, he told me to bring the boy in.

I fetched the young man, leading him to the commandant’s office. The tall, slender Bays waited in his impressive Navy dress whites, a look and presence that garnered deep respect.

Bays welcomed the boy and asked what he needed. Without uttering a word, the boy grabbed a nearby trash can and dumped it on the admiral’s feet.

Frozen in shock and horror, I stared at the admiral, holding my breath for what might happen next. The image of Bays' calm, reflective. downward gaze at his trash-covered feet is forever etched in my memory. He finally looked up and gently ushered the boy into his office. The Admiral ordered me that under no circumstance was he to be interrupted the next hour.

Dumbstruck, I wandered back to my desk pondering what had transpired. The admiral’s office blaring an eerie quiet.

The two emerged 60 minutes later looking like the trash-dumping incident had never happened, shaking hands with a look and an air of mutual respect.

Bays had me write in weekly meetings with the boy for the duration of the summer into his appointment book. He then instructed me to never speak of what I had just witnessed and if it became public, he’d know I was the culprit.

Though I will never know for sure, the boy was likely attempting to be kicked out of military school, as many other kids tried. The young man’s creative effort went unrewarded, however, completing the summer term.

Admiral Bays died in an auto accident in 1979, at the age of 74 in Annapolis, Maryland, but his example lives on. Calm, thoughtful, clear-headed responsiveness saved the day, the summer, and the future for a rubbish-dumping teenager.

That day certainly made a difference in my life. The angry, impulsive disciplinary actions so often observed of coaches, parents, and other leaders are not often effective, undermine effective leadership, harm important relationships, and damage people.

“The power of respect is to never disrespect.”


Holiday, R., & Hanselman, S. (2016). The Daily Stoic. NY: Penguin Random House LLC

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