Being in the Flow: The Start of Authentic Leadership

This past week, I attended the 2014 Opera America conference in San Francisco where I had the privilege of working with the 2014 Leadership Intensive participants.  These 14 talented mid-career opera administrators from North America and Europe were selected to participate in a program that provides training and resources designed to “bolster their leadership capacity and advance their careers”.

My role in the program is to teach the skills essential to today’s leaders.  And for me, the start of great leadership is to know and present yourself authentically to those whom you lead.  Our first session was therefore dedicated to helping our budding leaders develop their own sense of authentic leadership.

The Authentic Leader

The Authentic Leader is a person with the courage to embody his/her deep-seated values, who knows and uses best talents and strengths and taps into passions in the service of a greater vision in order to inspire others, with optimism, integrity, passion and purpose, to follow his/her lead.

This involves

  • A mindset of positivity
  • Aligning with your values
  • Living your passions
  • Playing to your strengths
  • Knowing your life purpose

Let’s take a closer look.
The Mindset of Positivity:  Flow

We started off by investigating the Mindset of Positivity and learning about Flow. For the program participants, this was one of the most important lessons of our session.

“Flow” is a term that entered into our vocabulary thanks to the positive psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990).

Flow involves engaging in an activity that

  • you are good at and that gives you joy,
  • has a goal so that you know what you want to achieve,
  • provides you with feedback on how you are doing so that
  • you are inspired and challenged to increase your level of performance and
  • you are so engrossed in what you are doing that time goes by and you do not even notice it.

As such, Flow is a growth experience that finds the “sweet spot” where your skill level meets the challenge at hand. Flow also presumes that you can control the experience and that you have the ability to cultivate and master the necessary skills through training and discipline.

The great thing about Flow is that it does not matter what activity you are engaged in: you can experience Flow in your professional life, in your creative life, at play or with other people.  You can also experience Flow no matter who you are, be it a skier, a painter, a musician, a mathematician, a lawyer or a sculptor.

Moreover, Flow can occur in small moments throughout the day, such as having a phone call with a loved one and feeling incredibly connected to that person. And most importantly, Flow comes from your actual experience. You are not pretending to be at Flow but instead are drawing on an episode from your own life.

As one of the Leadership participants observed:

“Flow is the place where I can take myself to feel inspired and to inspire others.”

During our session, we spent some time identifying our Flow experiences.  These included:

  • a thrilling opening night of a new opera production;
  • an amazing collaboration that resulted in a fantastic opera production;
  • attending a deeply moving opera performance that reinforced the decision to be in the field;
  • cooking and innovating in the kitchen to create a great meal;
  • creating and delivering a presentation that wowed the audience.

After sharing these experiences, one of our leaders exclaimed that she wanted to create a “database of her flow experiences” because she loved the concept so much!

We then examined how these flow experiences related to authentic leadership.

Flow and Values

For starters, when you are at Flow, chances are that at you are doing something that feels important to you. This reflects your values or the core principles for which you stand. The more your life reflects your values, the more fulfilled, engaged and happy you feel about your choices. And once you know your values as a leader, you can align your life with your values by creating your leadership principles and taking actions reflecting those principles through a simple 3-step process:

  1. Write a definition of your value.
  2. Create a leadership principle that reflect that value.
  3. Take an action that demonstrates your commitment to that principle.

Our leader who found Flow in the kitchen felt that the experience reflected his values of creativity and passion. This translates into a leadership principle that his life must be filled with creativity and passion. For his action, he has committed to listening to an opera excerpt every day to remind him of his love of opera so that he can authentically embody that value in his leadership capacity.

Flow and Passion

Flow also reveals what you are passionate about. Passion is critical to leadership since it connects you to that which you are most committed, makes you feel alive and excited and inspires others to follow your lead.  It is also a powerful motivator for you to create your calling in life.

Our leader who experienced Flow through collaborative partnerships not only values relationships but is passionate about working with dedicated teams of talented, motivated artists to create great art. His work thus reflects his passions and he is deeply committed to continuing on that path.

Flow and Strengths
Flow also reveals your strengths and talents, another key concept of authentic and powerful leadership.

Strengths research shows that identifying and using your strengths is associated with greater happiness and motivation, a better sense of direction and a higher probability of achieving goals, as well as increased self-confidence and productivity. So it makes sense that powerful, authentic leaders know and play to their strengths.  

Our leader who experienced flow when she made an inspiring presentation is a great communicator whose positivity, visionary thinking and enthusiasm excite other people and enable her to exert a lot of influence.  And in her telling of her Flow experience, we all were able to recognize those strengths!

Flow and Life Purpose

Finally, flow can lead you to discover your sense of purpose. In fact, the 4-step process for creating a Life Purpose Statement starts by identifying 3 to 5 stories of when you are at Flow and then extracting your top 2 talents and passions.  The process results in a statement that follows this template:

“My purpose in life is to use my (top 2 talents) to (how I impact others) in order to (how I want to make the world an ideal place) because (why that is important to me).”

Having a sense of purpose is essential for authentic leaders since it enables leaders to create the vision that can inspire others. Our leaders are in the process of formulating their life purpose statements so stay tuned for more!

Bringing Flow into Your Life

Since Flow is such a powerful, positive experience, our leaders were eager to bring more Flow into their lives. In fact, one of our leaders recognized that he worked so hard that he often denied himself the pleasure to being at Flow and has committed to reinvesting his energy to bring more Flow into his life.

How do you do that?

Create a Flow Affirmation

First, figure out what you are like at Flow.

In our session, I asked the participants to describe themselves when they were in this state of Flow and to come up with their Flow or “Best Self” Affirmation

Once you know the words that describe yourself at Flow, insert the words into the following template in order to create your affirmation:

I am________, _________, _________, _________ and ___________.

How to use your Flow Affirmation:

Your Flow Affirmation is a great tool to use when you need a boost.  Because it comes from a real experience, it reminds you that you have the capacity to be at Flow and you can thus rely on the affirmation to help you feel more confident.

You can incorporate your Flow Affirmation into your life as follows:

  1. Set a goal to be the person who you are at Flow.
  2. Pick one word each day and make it a point to be the person embodied in that Flow word.
  3. Commit to taking actions each day demonstrating that you are, in fact, capable of being in the Flow.

Actions to Bring More Flow into Your Life

Moreover, you can actively cultivate Flow by taking the following actions.

  1. Notice your attitude throughout the day and pay attention to the situations that make you feel at Flow.
  2. Document the situations or experiences that give rise to Flow.
  3. Take actions on a daily basis that enable you to experience Flow.
  4. Journal about and/or document your successes when you are in Flow.

Our leaders are experimenting with their Flow affirmations this summer and we will reconvene in August to see how they are doing.

Take a page from these budding leaders and commit to bringing more Flow into your life!