Is There a Flow State of Leadership?

“Flow” is the state of being totally immersed in an activity. Can leaders attain this state, too?

Think of the last time you were completely immersed in a particular activity. You lost track of time; your concentration was at its maximum; it was instantly clear what to do next and how; all the day’s typical distractions just faded away. When you eventually got jarred back to the here and now, you looked back on what you’d accomplished and were surprised at the creativity and sheer volume of what you’d produced — but you still weren’t entirely sure how it happened.

There’s a name for this very specific state you were in: it’s called “flow.”

The essence of flow is total absorption in the task at hand; the task taking precedence over everything else, and actively working on the task itself becomes its own reward.

Now, let’s apply this concept to leadership. Being a strong leader is often defined in terms of the mastery of distinct, carefully-considered actions — coaching a struggling employee, reviewing and making decisions based on data, creating a long-term operational plan for your business unit, among many others. Given the diversity of these actions, it might seem counterintuitive that a leader could enter a flow state while engaging in them, shifting from one distinct activity to another.

But what if truly great leadership required transcending a varied set of deliberate, learned actions? What if, instead, it required achieving a flow state?

How do leaders get — and stay — in flow?

Based on the foundational work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, most research consistently cites flow as falling at the intersection of two factors: an activity’s degree of challenge and how skilled someone is at performing the activity.

In a study by Csíkszentmihályi spanning several different jobs, some leader activities were more flow-inducing than others. Less flow-inducing activities included scheduling, paperwork, individual problem-solving, and preparing work for others. Meanwhile, the time leaders spent working with others to discuss and resolve issues most often created a flow state.

We’ve also seen signs of how interaction-based activities help promote leaders’ flow state in our own research, the Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015. We found that only 21 percent of companies put a premium on, and give leaders more opportunities for, the interacting aspects of their jobs (time spent in work-related conversations with team members, peers, and customers). Yet, these companies had leaders more than twice as likely to be engaged in their jobs — a key sign of consistent and common flow experiences.

What are the advantages and risks of a flow-state for leaders?

Extensive research by Robert Eisenberger and colleagues has resulted in a lengthy list of positive outcomes linked to flow states at work. Individuals in a flow state are happier, friendlier to others, and much more often find themselves in a positive mood at the end of the day. Flow’s benefits extend beyond mere appearances and mental states, however. While in a flow state leaders are more creative, more likely to spot and take advantage of continuous improvement opportunities, and more spontaneous, often breaking out of convention and status-quo thinking.

But flow states also carry risks. Recent research led by Julia Schuler shows that individuals deeply immersed in a flow experience have impaired risk awareness, which in turn leads to riskier behavior. Flow-state leaders deep “in the zone” can become overconfident, and quickly find themselves rashly expending company resources and making decisions without fully factoring in available data and potential consequences.

A leader’s complete immersion in current activities can also be a concern if his or her employees feel left behind or that their ideas are marginalized or abandoned while the leader storms ahead. Transformational leaders shine in their individualized consideration for each one of their employees.

Creating an environment for leader flow

A flow state is fragile, and requires a supportive environment to sustain it. Here are five recommended actions to promote a flow-friendly environment:

Craft development assignments — Because the basis for flow requires a high challenge, leaders should continually craft challenging development assignments. These can be long-term assignments such as international or rotational placements or short-term assignments that allow immersion, but not so long they become routine.

Build and sustain leader skills — If leaders don’t have the skills they need to meet the high challenges, they may become anxious and apt to take risks, which disrupts flow. To ensure leaders are prepared, target the skill profiles needed to match the available opportunities, such as coaching and inspiring others.

Design a flow-inducing work environment — Companies can help make flow states more common through environment design. Create “focus room” locations away from the fray of an open office plan. Additionally, encourage leaders to create workdays that line up with their personal flow patterns. This could involve periodically turning off email notifications or scheduling meetings midday (when flow states are rare) to minimize disruptions.

Monitor vigilantly and enable real-time feedback — Constructive, in-the-moment feedback is a key precursor to leaders achieving flow states. Experiment with gaining feedback both people — coaches, mentors, fellow leaders, and employees — and from other sources, such as gamified systems and technology tools that provide prompting, instant self-checks.

Measure, analyze, and adjust — Companies must actively watch for signs of slippage — for example, when flow fades to relaxation due to a lack of challenge, or to anxiety due to a lack of skill. This may also require a “pulse survey” approach with frequent, brief, and tailored data-gathering.

Flow is all about the combination

Leadership flow is fragile, requires constant reinvigoration, and is dependent on clear goals, a unifying purpose, and a steady supply of activities that demand a leader’s full attention and capability. But the advantages of a flow state mindset for leadership is that it enables leaders to be more creative and less bound by conventional approaches, and the authenticity that comes from this immersion carries through to induce flow for their employees, too. These benefits will only be achieved, however, if companies invest in a well-crafted work environment that are conducive to a flow state of leadership.

This blog is excerpted from the essay Is There a Flow State of Leadership? from DDI’s Challenging Thinking Series.