Do You Experience Flow as a Leader?

Zen rocks and flow

Ask yourself:

  • Do your work days fly by because you are having so much fun and work seems like play?
  • Have you had situations where your creativity is through the roof and you can watch the steps that lead to success unfold inevitably in front of you?
  • Do you experience emotions such as joy, ambition, gratitude, and connectivity on a regular basis?
  • Are you able to have difficult conversations with team members and remain calm, respectful, and open?
  • Do you work with people who bring out the best in you, people who share the same goals and values as the organization?
  • Do you as a team and organization achieve great things, seeming to get better as time goes on, rising to the next challenge?

If you said yes to one or more of these, chances are you are tapping into Flow. Flow is the state of ultimate performance where we feel our best and perform at our best. The study of Flow, a term coined by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is becoming more accessible to the mainstream thanks to advances in the study of human physiology and neural biology. Fundamentally, to tap flow means to tap into the creativity, focus, clarity and potentiality of an organization. In order to create Flow in organizations there are many things we as leaders can do. To begin, it is critical to understand what is known as the Flow Cycle:

1) Struggle – The old adage ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ applies here. In struggle the challenge that we face is more than we are capable of accomplishing with the skills and tools we currently have. Our brains, bodies, and capabilities are overwhelmed and moods such as frustration and resentment start to set in. Imagine a scenario at work; you are a team leader who all of the sudden has a major project dropped on your desk. Your mind starts racing, you get tense and your breathing quickens along with your heart rate. You are quickly overwhelmed with all of the tasks, coordination, and extra work that you will have to do. You are in struggle.

2) Release – For Flow to happen we have to release and let go of the need to try to control the entire situation. In release we get out of our head and start to simply allow events to unfold. In our scenario, after a few minutes of wrestling with the challenge of what do, you take a few deep breaths, you say to yourself, “We can do this, we have dealt with challenges like this before.” You realize the best thing to do is to get your team together and figure this out. You have just released.

Once we release we allow the third stage, Flow, to show up.

3) It is in Flow where we just start playing the game, we get into the zone and we allow ourselves to become one with the problem or challenge. We lose our ego and our desire to overthink. We start to unleash our unconscious mind, or innate and untapped abilities, our creativity skyrockets, and our ability to make it all come together and perform at the higher level happens. In our scenario, this is where you and your team start really collaborating. Everyone is present and engaged in the conversation. There is a mood of excitement and possibility. Key players share ideas and start taking action. As the team leader, you forget about yourself, your creativity rises, the next steps unfold clearly, and your project is on its way to success. You are in Flow.

At the end of Flow, our bodies and minds are tired, leading to the fourth phase.

4) The fourth phase of the Flow Cycle is critical, and it is Recovery. One cannot sustain Flow indefinitely; eventually the body and mind reach exhaustion. The better and more powerful the recovery, the more quickly one can start the Flow Cycle anew. In the recovery cycle, sleep, nourishment, and diversions are critical. In the scenario, you and your team just finished a day’s worth of work in an afternoon, you are all spent, it was all a blur. You agree that this is a great team to be a part of, and although the last four hours were intense, they were very rewarding. Some head to the gym for post work exercise, some head home to family and dinner, some out to socialize with friends, and some to the couch and a good book. Then a night of good sleep for all. You are now in recovery.

As a leader, you are critical in creating Flow in yourself and in your organization. In follow-up posts we will explore each of the phases more deeply, and how to better create Flow. Until then, start to think about how you as a leader are contributing to, or taking away from, the Flow cycle in your team. If you are finding that Flow is not something you experience frequently, a great place to head for is your pillow. Start with Recovery – a good night’s rest. After all, tomorrow is another chance to find Flow!

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