This article is Part 1 of 4 in a series.

So it has been said by a wise man, (or at least a blogger) that the Holy Grail of Leadership is Finding Flow, or that state of performance excellence where individuals feel their best and do their best.

As leaders, the ability to help your followers find Flow is critical to creating high performing teams. How to do that? A great place to start is an understanding of the Flow Cycle. In this and the next three blogs we will look at each step in the Flow Cycle, starting in this blog with the first phase: Struggle.

We have all likely heard the saying, “What does not kill you makes you stronger!” Well, we are going to tweak it a bit to read, “What does not kill you leads to Flow!”

Essentially, for Flow to show up in an individual, they need to be engaged in a task or situation that is just beyond their skill set; this causes them to struggle. In his book, Good Business, Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning, author Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, the “Godfather” of Flow, determined that to engage in Flow an individual must face a challenge that pushes the person’s skills to the edge.

Take a child learning to ride a bike as an example. To balance, pedal, and steer straight ahead is a huge challenge; it pushes the child’s focus and physical coordination to their limits. When it all comes together — that moment they are successfully riding by themselves — brings the child into a state of Flow.

The main idea is that as our skills grow, so must the challenges expand to bring on the Flow state. Riding a bike around the block will not likely create much Flow for an adult if they’ve done it hundreds of times. Maybe this is why we have the Tour de France and Motocross?

Of course the intensity of the struggle is a matter of degree. A surfer vying for a championship who is taking on a massive wave is going to have a mind and body on extremely high alert. Powerful chemicals such as cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline flood their system. They may go through moments of doubt, flat-out fear, and even thoughts of pulling out of the wave. They are drawing on all of their training and every ounce of talent and mental focus possible – but they are in Struggle; they’re not yet in Flow. Though much less dramatic, one of us struggling to get a business plan down on paper will go through similar phases of frustration, dread, and feeling as though we just can’t get it right.

From a leadership and motivational standpoint, Struggle is necessary for individuals to consistently be challenged and bring their best to their work. When an employee is given tasks that challenge their skills, and those skills are continually refined and deepened, the foundations for Flow are set.

Just think about yourself. When you take on a job that is a level higher or covers new territory, the tasks are more difficult, but it also can be easier to get excited and motivated to perform the task required. When we are repeatedly asked to do tasks and jobs that are not challenging or exciting and do not stretch our skills, we get moods and emotions such as apathy, boredom, worry, and depression which do not lead to Flow.

There are several ways to create Struggle in yourself and your teams, among them:

  • Consistently look for ways to challenge yourself and others to leave your/their comfort zone. This does not have to be huge or profound, just enough to consistently keep people on their toes and on the learning edge. Find ways daily to keep challenging yourself and your team. This can be as simple as having your team read a book a month and each member lead a discussion about it.
  • There are small tweaks to skills and challenges can lead someone to struggle and on their way to Flow. If you have a high-performer on your team, key them up to do the next briefing or presentation to your boss, challenging their comfort zone. Even this seemingly slight opportunity could take them to the next level.
  • Look to see if your team members’ natural skills and temperament match their job. Struggle is not trying to hammer a round peg into a square hole, or setting unreasonable goals that lead to chronic failure.

In the next blog we will look at the next phase of the Flow Cycle, Release. As for me, I am going to go struggle with writing the next blog…

About Croft Edwards

Croft Edwards, MCC, leadership coach and speaker, is a thought leader in the field of leadership and organizational change. He is the President of CROFT + Company, a global leadership and organizational change firm with clients spanning the spectrum from oil companies and manufacturing firms, to government entities and non-profits, to small businesses and start-ups. He has coached hundreds of leaders at all levels of organizations from front-line supervisors to CEOs and Social Entrepreneurs. His speciality is the study of LeadershipFlow, the melding of the emerging study of Flow with the field of Ontological Coaching which looks at how leaders show up in their use of language, moods and emotions and the body. Croft is also a retired Army officer with a decorated career as a command and staff officer in the United States Army, both active and reserve.


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