Like many of you, I have grappled with how leaders can nurture both their material and spiritual selves to find deeper meaning and fulfilment. More than a decade back, I had the good fortune to meet acclaimed professor and author, Hitendra Wadhwa, the founder and CEO of Mentora Institute. Through the years, I have learnt from him that within each of us lies a space of highest potential, our inner core. If we can activate this core by cultivating our energies within us, then we can harmonise both our internal and outer worlds, to operate authentically and maximise our impact.
Professor Wadhwa’s ground-breaking work has seen immense success among leaders at top-tier global companies and forms the basis of a popular course at Columbia University. He founded Mentora Institute that offers a transformative approach toward self-discovery, inner growth, and outer impact. His insights are featured in this month’s issue of the Harvard Business Review, “Leading in the Flow of Work” (https://hbr.org/2024/01/leading-in-the-flow-of-work).
Professor Wadhwa describes his model as:
[Leadership-in-flow] involves tapping into neural pathways in the brain — into faculties everyone already possesses but might not be consistently using at work. Rather than a trait to be acquired, leadership is a state to be activated. By shifting the emphasis from learning on the sidelines to leading in the moment, executives can achieve real breakthroughs.
This week, my message focuses on cultivating flow in the workplace. What value does this approach offer leaders? And how can we tap into its potential?
The usual route to developing leaders is through study, coaching and training. Both companies and individuals spend vast amounts of time, money and effort into building competencies like coaching, influencing people, delivering feedback, resolving conflict and driving behavioural change.
Coming from a somewhat different perspective, leadership-in-flow is centred around our innate capacity for exemplary leadership. We can access a state of peak performance by activating pathways that already exist within us but which we may not be using at work. In order to do so, we need to tap into our inner core — the space of highest potential within us.
Anchored in “flow”
Leadership-in-flow builds on the idea of “flow state”, a game-changing theory developed several decades ago by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow refers to a mental state in which a person is totally absorbed, focused and energized, thus enabling creativity and productivity. In this zone of consciousness, where external distractions fall away, we are able to perform at our best. A 10-year McKinsey study found that top executives were five times more productive in flow!
Taking this research forward, Professor Wadhwa and his team focused on studying flow in the context of leadership. Based on their work around transformative moments of leadership, they concluded that every individual can access flow when it counts most — during crucial events and under real-time pressure — by activating their inner core.
The inner core
The idea of an “inner core” is found in both science and spirituality, as Professor Wadhwa notes:
The presence within us of such a core — of a state of peak performance in which we’re calmly aware of our inner and outer conditions and able to adapt our behavior as needed — is being substantiated by scientific studies in a range of fields, including cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology, and neuroscience. Yet the idea of it isn’t new; across the ages, people have engaged in contemplative practices in an effort to connect with what they have intuited to be their spirit or soul and to express its qualities in their outer pursuits.
When we operate from this powerful inner core, we feel calm, centred and aligned. We transcend the demands of ego, attachment and insecurity. We act authentically and in a way that truly serves our objectives.
It is in this zone, where the material meets the spiritual, that we are able to do our life’s most beautiful and meaningful work.
Harnessing energies & actions
To tap into our inner core, we must activate one or more of our core energies:
- Purpose (committed to a noble cause)
- Wisdom (calm and receptive to the truth)
- Growth (curious and open to learning)
- Love (connected with those you work with and serve)
- Self-realization (centred in a joyful spirit)
Professor Wadhwa and his team have identified 25 simple actions mapped across these core energies. Research shows that outstanding leaders consistently draw on a small set of these actions to activate their inner core and find flow during high-stakes situations.
By mixing and matching these actions, we can create almost any behaviour needed to adapt to the ever-changing conditions around us. As Professor Wadhwa notes:
These energies and actions can be harnessed to advance traditional leadership skills. Because they’re like a standardized set of building blocks, their use can help radically simplify competence-focused training.
In order to implement the right actions in a crucial situation, you need to plan in advance. With just 10-15 minutes of prior preparation, you can activate your inner core during a crucial situation and unlock high-performance mode.
A cross-organizational study across industries and roles found that executives who adopted the leadership-in-flow approach saw a 135% jump in their ability to achieve their performance goals over just six weeks.
Here’s how it works, as recommended by Professor Wadhwa:
- Prioritize a single goal. Think of an upcoming event — like an important client meeting or board presentation — and identify your one key goal for it. E.g., securing buy-in for a project. Having too many goals or no goals at all holds you back from finding flow.
- Replace negative with positive. Identify any negative belief or feeling you may have about this event. Then consciously replace it with a positive intention. Remember, your perspective drives your behaviour. E.g., if you go in believing that the other party will reject your proposal, you will be less likely to act in a way that opens their minds, expands their understanding and builds trust.
- Select 3-5 actions to support your goal. Wadhwa recommends choosing actions mapped to the core energies that resonate with you and your goal. E.g., to get buy-in for a new project, you could focus on activating Purpose and Growth.
- Review before the event. Spend a few minutes before the event thinking about your intention and actions. Make an effort to visualize how you will perform each action. This simple mental warm-up boosts your chances of success by a whopping 70%.
The reason this approach works so well is that we are already familiar with most of the actions suggested by Professor Wadhwa. We may not practice them frequently at the workplace but we have experience with them in everyday life.
Below are some of the actions that resonate with me personally (you can find the complete list of 25 actions in the HBR article).
- Reaffirm and reexpress. When facing an unexpected change or a setback, find a way to reapply your core values and purpose to the new situation.
- Understand before you act. Approach an issue with heightened curiosity, and fully explore it before making your move.
- Direct emotional energy. Harness the energy your feelings are producing to advance your purpose. For instance, use the pain of defeat to motivate a team to practice with greater discipline.
- Acknowledge, apologize, address. Swiftly acknowledge, apologize for, and correct mistakes.
- Recognize positive qualities in situations and people.
- Deepen human connection. Create strong emotional bonds with others by accepting and offering bids for connection.
- Spark joy. Cheer others up with small uplifting acts.
Along with adopting the leadership-in-flow model, leaders can also consider the following two suggestions to cultivate flow at the workplace:
- Balance challenge and skill. Research consistently shows that “flow state” lies at the intersection of being challenged and being skilled enough to meet the challenge. Accordingly, leaders should assign themselves tasks and projects that stretch their capabilities while simultaneously building the skills they need to achieve new challenges. (A mismatch between these two factors leads to either boredom or anxiety — neither of which is good for flow!)
- Design your day. From quiet rooms reserved for deep work to meeting-free timeslots, leaders and organizations can reimagine workdays take to minimize disruptions and facilitate flow. These changes are to everyone’s benefit: the McKinsey study mentioned above found that if we could all increase our flow time by 15-20%, workplace productivity would nearly double.
Being “in the flow” is an optimum state for leaders. It’s where productivity and performance soar, allowing us to achieve our best, most meaningful work. The leadership-in-flow model offers us a set of straightforward, already-familiar actions to activate our inner core and unlock flow. With just a little bit of preparation, this action-based approach allows us to dramatically increase our quality of leadership — especially in high-stakes situations.