CsiGood 03-8-75




Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Viking, 2003, 244 pp. 



The author is professor of psychology at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University.  The book describes some of the values, goals, and methods of well-respected, visionary business leaders.  It contains nuggets of value, but you have to mine them from the psychology and philosophy with which the author seeks to make meaning for life and work.


“Our jobs determine to a large extent what our lives are like.”  (3)


“The capitalist vision now stands alone on the world stage.  Will those who promote it understand and accept the responsibilities that come with the privileges they have been given?” (9)


“We must have the conviction that our existence serves a useful purpose and has value.”  “Business leaders…must also have a vision that gives life meaning…” (11)


“Philosophers have long held that happiness is the ultimate goal of existence.”  (21) [Do you agree or disagree?  Dlm]


“Fundamentally, business exists to enhance human well-being.” (21)  “A valuable product or service is one that customers perceive…as making them happier.”  “Good business … refers to transactions that make a genuine contribution to human happiness.” (22,25)


“My definition of being successful is contributing something to the world…and being happy while doing it…”  (29, Norman Augustine)


Happiness results from doing our best.  Enjoyment is the exhilarating sensation of being fully alive. (36)  “Flow” is a “deep sense of enjoyment.” (39) 


Eight conditions for a “flow experience:”

·             Goals are clear.  One knows precisely what tasks he must accomplish and savors the steps along the way.

·             Feedback is immediate.  One can see how well he is doing as he goes.

·             Opportunity and Capacity are balanced.  The task is doable but challenging.

·             Concentration deepens.  You get involved in it, or into it.

·             Involvement absorbs complete attention and blocks out everything else.

·             There is a strong sense of being in control of your own performance.

·             Time speeds up or slows down.

·             One losses one’s self in the experience.


“Happiness cannot be attained by wanting to be happy—it must come as the unintended consequence of working for a goal greater than oneself.”  (56, Viktor Frankl)


“A good flow activity is one that offers a very high ceiling of opportunities for improvement—playing the piano, for example, …  Thus it invites growth.  If one wants to stay in flow, he or she must progress and learn more skills, rising to new levels of complexity.” (63)


“Working with joy to one’s heart’s content while responding to society’s needs is a perfect description of how flow functions in the workplace.” (70)


Page 72 has an interesting chart with degree of challenge on the vertical axis and degree of skill on the horizontal axis.  When both are high, there is “flow.”  When both are low there is apathy.  When challenges are high and skills are low, anxiety.  When skills are high and challenge low, relaxation.  In between are worry, control, arousal (alert, focused), and boredom.  (72)


“A single episode of flow lifts the spirit momentarily; when experienced over time, flow helps make a person unique and indispensable.” (76)


“…the first priority is to eliminate obstacles to flow at all levels of the firm and to substitute practices and policies that are designed to make work enjoyable.”  (81)


The best way to manage people is to create an environment where employees actually enjoy their work and grow in the process of doing it.  “While people are built to work, most jobs are not built for people.” (85)


“Any job becomes more attractive if it is considered meaningful by society.” (87)


“Few jobs nowadays have clear goals.”  “Contemporary jobs seldom provide adequate feedback.” (92) 


“But the need for control from above must be balanced against the need for autonomy that even the humblest person holds dear.” (95)


“A central task of management is to refrain from making it [i.e. good work] even more difficult to pursue by emphasizing greed, cutting corners in quality, ignoring the needs of workers and customers, and generally transforming the organization into a soulless, valueless enterprise.” (100)


“It is part of management’s function to recognize and reward the performance and the attitude of employees, and not just their success, which may be due entirely to fortuitous circumstances.” (105)


Collins and Porras advise, “concentrate primarily on building an organization….” (107)


Three “common things” that determine the success of a business team (per Mike Murray of Microsoft) (114)

1.     Every team member has very clear goals that line up to what the company needs to be doing.

2.     The manager is really good at planning all the incremental activities that need to get done so the work flows smoothly.

3.     The manager is really good at communication and feedback


In some organizations, “the mission of the organization…is unclear to everyone, including the top leadership.”  (116)


According to Alfred Zeien, a leader should spend 90% of one’s time on the three Ps: People, product, purpose.”  “Purpose is the time that you spend with people constantly going over and over and over in their minds, what is the purpose of this whole undertaking.  Why are you doing that job? ….”  (117)


“Even under the best of conditions information decays rapidly as it is disseminated in groups.” “…the only way to combat it is to make systematic efforts to keep lines of communication open.”  “It is also useful for the manager to reflect on whether it is he that unconsciously keeps his workers in the dark.”  (118-19


 “To successfully manage an organization one should also know its parts intimately—especially the people who make it function.  Enrico Randone, former CEO…., claimed that as he moved up in the organization he got to know personally almost ten thousand branch managers dispersed from Milan to Manila….”  (1240


“The head of a large multinational corporation employs the following strategy to keep the lines of communication and feedback open: ‘Two weeks ago, I spent one entire week—five days—traveling to seven different cities and having meetings with employees.’  ‘That’s how you keep your finger on the pulse.  …I’ve got to get out and be with customers and be with employees and be in the field and watch what goes on and provide motivation.’  ‘That’s how you do it.  You don’t do it sitting here.’”  (125)


“Workers need a compelling reason to focus their energies on the job.”  ‘People want to work for a cause, not just for a living.’  (C. William Pollard). (143)


“…in our time the most powerful segment of society is the one engaged in business….” (189)


“In these market conditions businessmen who aim higher than merely generating profits face an uphill struggle.  Yet with power and leadership comes a burden of social responsibility.” (190)


“Max DePree points to the increasing inequity and greed as the darkest clouds on the horizon.” (192)  “One solution to this dilemma is to confront more directly the consequences of a purely market-driven view of the world….” (194) [But who can pin the bell on the old cat’s tail?  Dlm]


“Perhaps the most important distinguishing trait of visionary leaders is that they believe in a goal that benefits not only themselves, but others as well.” (197)


“Probably the most important principle of organizational behavior that emerged from the interviews was the importance of trust, which is brought about by respect.”  “…managers must invest a great deal of their psychic energy in monitoring and enhancing the well-being of the group.  And before all else, they have to develop self-discipline based on self-knowledge, which will prevent them from acting capriciously and selfishly.” (200) 


“Among the leaders we interviewed, the principles of good business were passed on through the belief systems of Judaism, Buddhism, Catholicism, various Protestant denominations, and the Mormon Church.  To an extent entirely unexpected, faith in values acquired through a religious upbringing provided a solid platform for action to individuals involved in some of the most high-tech businesses, from aerospace to software.  (209)  [I wonder why it was considered surprising?  Dlm]