Leading in the Flow - The NWORX Lens for Leadership

NWORX
12 mins
March 21, 2021

In the ways we nurture a human, we must decide what matters and must be consciously controlled, and how we must design the distribution of this control in our systems to affect change. A human plays within these systems to create the desired output, and at NWORX, our specific focus is on how to enable a Leader to play well.

Today, we want to ask what a Leader experiences when he plays well. What is the commonality, if there is, among all his effective ways of acting? What is a great act? But before we can talk about optimizing Leadership, we must begin from the scope of Life in general.

If you had to optimize your life for a single thing, what measure would you choose?

Success? Happiness? Contribution? While you take a moment to answer, allow me to walk you down the logic of my personal answer.

Almost all life is lived from a drama triangle of Victim, Villain and Hero”, [1] announced Jim Dethmer, the founder of The Conscious Leadership Foundation. He was re-iterating the popular Karpman Drama Triangle, which essentially argues that all the roles we play in life, can be seen as some combination of the above 3 roles. Now this triangle can be easily seen as a coherent system when you impart these definitions for the 3 roles:

  • Hero -Takes control with intention to preserve/create and grow the self.
  • Villain -Takes control with intention to destroy and restrain the self.
  • Victim -Intends to assume no control, and places one’s self on the receiving end of someone’s control.

All the roles we play can be deconstructed down to some combination of the above 3, and sometimes, a combination of all of them at once.

Jim explains that when things are done to you, be it something as simple as the weather bringing down your mood, you live in the victim consciousness. And when you take control over yourself, you can then either be a Hero or the Villain. The triangle stems from the locus of control and the moral use of power by an individual. And hence, Jim concludes: “When you move from victim consciousness to the creator consciousness, you can make shifts to being the Hero.”

Now within your individual conduct, you want to be in the creator consciousness as much as possible and take control of your life as a whole. But there are times you must relinquish control to others for the better like, when you are in a team and you need to trust in the power of the leader. Or in your own individualized creativity, where you will find yourself constantly being shaped by what is created. In essence, in the creator consciousness the entire thing is either initiated or can be stopped by you. All in all, playing along the boundaries of control is the dance of Life.

And so now, I ask, if you had to optimize playing this dance towards a single thing, what measure would you choose?

You might give answers like fame, money, contribution, success, happiness, meaning or some other abstraction, and sometimes no abstraction at all but an emotion. We tend to be biased towards more quantifiable abstractions and so we tend to heavily focus on things like money. But in any case, I couldn’t settle in any of these answers. Where my dissatisfaction with these answers fundamentally lie is that they are detached from the immediate experience of life — the Present. All the above answers depend on some consequences in the future. But so many of our actions are intended with no result . So many results were never intended. We must have a north star for our actions agnostic of the results that usually depend on many factors. And so, I went looking for an answer that makes life not about some probable future, but purely about the present.

It is then, in the works of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we found the concept of Flow States. In his own words, he describes Flow as:

“Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

Mihaly discovered Flow State to be the optimal human experience based on his research over the course of decades studying both regular and high-achieving people. Flow States are actions that are done for its own sake, living in the present, while also being the cause of producing the best outcomes. It’s when you don’t look for it, you find it. When artists share a tale about how it was as if “they were possessed” when their masterpiece effortlessly flowed out of them, they’re talking about Flow States.

Flow state as a lens to understand the art of Leadership

At NWORX, we are building a solution to develop individuals into Leaders and our challenge lies in preparing a Leader for performances whose results will only be clear long way down the future. Hence, we need a way to evaluate these performances by observing the experience of the action where we ask: What are the most effective kind of actions? This is where the concept of Flow States provides a North Star for our actions. It is our goal to strive for these optimal experiences in the practice of Leadership.

You experience Flow States when you creatively dance with the boundaries of control.

When looking for the one thing to optimize life for, philosopher Zat Rana remarked, “There is in fact a close-to-right answer.” One answer that reconciles everyone’s personal answer and measures life as it is lived. Zat then shared his deceptively simple but profound idea:

“You should measure the amount of your life you spend in a state of flow.” — Zat Rana

In a powerful verse, Zat gives us his description of the Flow state, one we’ve filed for the ages:

“Flow sits right at the edge of both self and selflessness, order and chaos. Where these dichotomies meet, there is an attention in consciousness that manages to momentarily hold them both in place, together, as to transcend our experience into a state of enjoyment that can only be felt as the unfiltered present moment.

In this state, you choose what you pay attention to, not some distraction. You are naturally happy, not needing to think about it. You are growing in complexity, merely by virtue of being active towards where your mind is focused.”

Of all the possible answers to the optimizing life question, the state of flow is the one that makes life purely about the present, first and foremost. In this sense, you create a Structure based on the past (memory) and the future (imagination) through which the flow of life occurs. The structure has a context specific to an individual.

In Zat’s description of the flow state, you can find an anatomy of the entire experience. We now have a window for the Art of Leadership. It is here we can start to build the NWORX leadership solution.

The NWORX Way: Optimizing the Direct Experience

While thinking about Leadership, we ground our focus within the immediate experience in which a leader functions.

We can formalize the various contexts a particular leader functions in, embed them into the systems he works within, and then this structure provides the support over which the chaos of his job unfolds.

The function can be a conversation with a colleague, brainstorming on a product, planning the strategy and the culture for the company, or writing this essay. Here, Mihaly would boldly argue that optimal Flow States can be experienced in any activity you can imagine.

At NWORX, we design the immediate experiences to stimulate flow states by cultivating the contextual systems in which the leader plays. The context is the specific reality of every leader we work for. And so we assert:

The NWORX solution begins and ends at the contextual flow of a leader.

Our team has been observing leadership solutions spanning multiple approaches and ideologies over the years. Broadly-speaking, these solutions range between content-based and coaching-based programs. While we can endlessly debate on their effectiveness (more on this in the next section), I will skip and arrive at the relevant point:

Any leadership program is only effective when the solution percolates through to the direct experience of the Leader.

But across most of the landscape, the ultimate outcome has been mostly left to chance. They fail to access through and influence the direct experience in which the leader functions. The unsaid fact is that to have an effect on the practice is extremely difficult and rare for a myriad of cultural, economical and simply flawed reasoning. The content-and-coaching in-advance programs are merely poking at the practice from a distance. There are few more, hands-on approaches proposed but most of it quickly gets complicated and expensive when you try to scale-up.

But at NWORX we bring a pivotal shift to the approach for Leadership developed. We’ve inverted it. We begin by firmly grounding our focus in the immediate experience of any particular leader, the practice they were merely poking at, and working backwards from there towards the whole system.

At NWORX, the direct experience is the medium of leadership development.

A pivotal shift in understanding Leadership

Remember how I said that we have a bias to abstractions that are more quantifiable. We can be so deluded that if something can’t be measured, we will conspire some way to talk about it in numbers. For example, many leadership solutions are deconstructed down to optimizing certain values and drivers, or the combo of competencies and behavior. They essentially slice and dice the leader into these “quantified-ideas”, and then predict how it will combine to create effective actions.

But here’s the unsolved problem: human consciousness is opaque to our measuring devices, it cannot be exactly quantified and cannot be captured in numbers without creating vanity metrics.

These approaches are flawed in that it is like trying to predict the taste of food by simply adding up your impression of the taste of individual ingredients, with not much understanding of how the different ingredients interact. Humans are complex systems and you cannot reduce them to your assumed, one dimensional cause-and-effect mechanics and then begin to combine these abstractions into vague predictions without knowing how it all works underneath.

At best, you leave the effectiveness of your solution to the mercy of chance. At worst, you can cause unexpected consequences destructively affecting the leader.

At NWORX, we’ve flipped the approach. By focusing on the context in which things are done, it allows you to work backward from there and clearly evaluate actions, rather than trying to make sense of everything that goes on in the background leading to those actions.

Ineffective leadership solutions are infested with vanity metrics. When you obsessively analyze a leader along those vanity metrics, you constrain the leader into a prescriptive advice of the variety: “try to be more of one thing and less of another.” The leader gets stuck within these assumed dichotomies that he doesn’t know how to combine. Similar is the flaw with the idea of cognitive biases, where you can’t be trying to reduce a particular bias, while the rest of your thinking goes unchecked. This is to say in practice, you can’t be focusing on few single parts, while the whole of you is acting. And therefore, rarely does the above kind of advice fits cleanly into helping the whole of the Leader. In some simple ways, this is what happened when you tried to optimize for marks instead of holistically learning in school.

You get caught-up in dichotomies when you slice and dice a leader along presupposed elements. It is like a doctor marvelling over succeeding to keep the cholesterol levels down, while the patient is dead. The perspective becomes rigid. But when from the spotlight of performance context you illuminate the actions and simply focus on how the various elements relate, you can start to shape the leader as a whole towards being more effective. We simply create mental and physical environments in which we’ve known Leaders to play well.

We strive our best to not give prescriptive advice, but help you with mental models, systems and mindsets that you control and can adapt towards the path you walk upon. “The best programs explicitly tailor a “from–to” path for each participant.”, said Pierre Gurdjian in a McKinsey article. It is the accomplishment of the goal itself that then feeds-back into the approach, not some vanity metric that is supposed to map to reality but never really does.

By deconstructing the solution down to “your immediate experience”, contextually optimizing the experience towards the state of Flow by deploying systems, mental models and mindsets, we have at NWORX initiated a pivotal shift in leadership development.

A primer on NWORX: Leading in the Flow

Our first act is to establish the context in which a leader functions and the long-term goals he wishes to accomplish. And then we can work backwards from this context to understand the Leader’s functions within the structure supporting the practice, as a whole. This structure is made of his own identity and perception, various NWORX systems, top-down frameworks and bottom-up data and mindsets. We then evolve this structure to change and/or optimize the actions towards flow states. And so:

We capture the actions and bundle them into challenges planned into the next few weeks. With these challenges, we intend to bring about core perspective shifts to orient all future growth on. As they’re accomplished, the context and rituals start to take shape while we capture them into systems the leader can work with and works within, all the while consolidating the frameworks and baking them into the mindset of a Leader.

An effective leadership development system must fundamentally focus on always retaining the whole context in which a Leader acts.

To maintain the context, we’ve created the NWORX suite of Apps to handle information flows during practice, punctuate it with challenges, rituals and other elements to serve as a system in which you can track your Leadership growth.

What does this All Mean

NWORX makes the direct experience of a Leader as the medium of their development, which ensures that the whole of a leader marches upon a corrective process, perfecting one-step at a time. NWORX escapes the dichotomies of one-dimensional “pseudo”- elements (like a failed attempt at creating human Metadata) and recognizes the vanity metrics that previous content and coaching-based Leadership development solutions got frequently stuck in, with diminishing connection to the actual output.

We create the process specific to every leader, and distil out the systems within which these processes run through. An effective leadership development system must fundamentally focus on retaining the whole context in which a leader acts.

Finally, we help the leader take charge of these systems and then he can take control of his development for years to come. The challenges and rituals then is a means to achieve states of flow. The leader can orchestrate more states of flow for himself, and perhaps, for everyone trusting his leadership. We can embed this approach into information systems using some thoughtful software and modular elements to deploy these systems at scale.

This is how NWORX attempts to scale up effective Leadership solutions while building for effective and rich experiences.

By deconstructing the solution down to “your immediate experience”, contextually optimizing the experience towards the state of Flow by deploying systems, mental models and mindsets, we have at NWORX initiated a pivotal shift in leadership development.

Coaching programs can only “hope” to find their way into the direct experiences of it’s participants. These programs are, at most, poking from an arm’s length at what truly matters. At this distance, all content can only be highly abstracted, often only speaking in broad strokes, and is difficult to map to the concrete context of the participant. And so, the ultimate outcome is mostly left to chance.

This operating manner is unfortunately the reality of most leadership development programs one will come across today. If you approach a leader with any of these programs, a leader worth his salt will make you question if you’ve been working on anything valuable at all. Needless to say, we were left deeply unsatisfied with the whole landscape of leadership development.

You see “Leadership” is a broad term, and while the title remains the same, the environments in which an individual performs varies widely. Two leaders might have nothing in common, besides the fact that their peers call them their leader. “Leadership” is not exactly a craft that can be step-wise nurtured in the routines of a program, and there is no “You’re Ready” moment at the end of it. The development of a leader is a long-term, non-linear, ever-changing, ever-course-correcting journey, specific to every leader.

Leadership is not an absolute craft, but a specific journey.

We don’t want to help the leader with poking sticks. We don’t want to deliver a solution that is reduced to some noise at the back of the mind by the time it comes to act. Instead, we want to dive, head-first, alongside a leader into the direct experiences that populate his life’s work.