Flow: The Next Step in Leadership

February 23, 2016
February 23, 2016 Joe Britto

Flow. In sports they call it being “in the zone”. For jazz musicians they’re “in the pocket”. But zones and pockets aside, what exactly is Flow?

Going with the Flow?

Well, Flow enthusiasts call it a mental state of “optimal experience”. Sounds good?

When you’re in Flow you’re strong, alert and in control. You’re unselfconscious  and that inner critic is turned off. Time slows down and speeds up all at once. You’re at the peak of your ability and see everything clearly. And, you come up with the solution to the problem everyone’s been stressing about.

Just look at extreme sports. Being in Flow has pushed those guys well beyond what we’ve thought possible. Surfing a 100 foot wave just for starters.

Can you remember the last time you were in Flow?

Well, I did try surfing many moons ago and the only thing flowing was water… over my head… a lot of it. So, if like me the likelihood of you getting on a surf board (let alone surfing a 100 foot wave) is pretty small, maybe you’re thinking Flow is just for the action adventurer types.

But although high-octane adventures might be the showier side of Flow, it isn’t just about extreme sports. And we can all find ways to create Flow in our lives without jumping off a cliff, unless that’s your thing of course.

Get into the Groove

So how can you get more Flow in your life? The leading figures in the world of Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Steven Kotler – say Flow states come from activities with specific properties: whatever gets you into Flow needs to be meaningful and purposeful to you, fit your skills but challenge them, and give you an immediate sense of how well you’re doing.

It could be dancing, composing music, rock climbing, carpentry – whatever floats your boat (literally in some cases). And some other good news – you can be in Flow at work too, if that work has meaning and purpose.

Increase Flow. Increase Workflow

Most of us know about the 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert theory. And maybe those 10,000 hours are a daunting prospect. Even de-motivating – ever felt you’re clocking up hour after hour and not getting any closer? Well, here’s some news. Kotler’s book The Rise of Superman shows being in Flow actually creates intrinsic motivation – once you’re doing something in Flow you’ll want to experience it again and again. And that accelerates your skill development dramatically. In fact Kotler claims it cuts those 10,000 hours in half.

And that goes for honing leadership skills as much as mastering the piano.

Of course, all skills need practice. What Flow theory is telling us is how to get more for that practice. But not just for us, for our teams, and for our organizations.

Oh, talking about work, people experiencing Flow regularly are some of the happiest people in the world. Why wouldn’t you want some of that in your workplace?

The Bigger Picture

Most employees spend as little as 5% of their time at work in Flow. Imagine what impact it would have on the world if that increased even just a little. Better employee health, better relationships. And yes, more productivity.

Those employees go home and spend time with their families and friends. Maybe they even take up new hobbies that get them into Flow. Once you find Flow you take its benefits into the wider world, and that creates a domino effect of more Flow in different environments.

And that’s unmissable opportunity for any leader who wants to make a lasting positive impact on society.

Cultivating Flow

Whether your primed for increasing Flow, or just thinking about the possibilities, here are four ways you can encourage Flow:

  • Direct and immediate feedback gives you the chance to adapt your behaviour quickly. That in turn helps hone your performance and increase your chances of entering a flow state. What can you do to get that that kind of feedback?
  • Stretch yourself. Take on a challenge that’s about 10% beyond what you think is possible.
  • Environments rich in novelty, unpredictability and complexity trigger flow. What can you do to create stimulating sensory environments around you?
  • Focusing your concentration on a limited field of attention is a known Flow trigger. Yoga, Meditation, Tai Chi or other Mindful experiences offer a chance for just that.


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What to dive deeper?

Check out The Six Attributes of a Leadership Mindset by Joe Britto

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