Cairn Leadership

4 Ways Leadership Can Help Create More Flow at Work

The case for more flow...

Leaders in flow on a riverAs I spent more time rock climbing, hiking, and mountain biking or simply spending time in the mountains I began accessing flow more often. Seeing the need for a new way to develop leaders, I completed my Executive Leadership Coaching certificate at Georgetown University with the aim to merge great coaching with outdoor adventures. A large part of my vision has always been to simply help leaders find and harness the power of flow in their organizations and everyday lives.

“Few interventions produce a more lasting and positive impact on leaders and teams than accessing flow. It’s like hiring excellent leadership coaches, personal trainers, and business consultants for everyone on your team. Yet, after decades of research, flow remains a fringe idea.”

A 10-year study at McKinsey found that flow makes executives five times more effective, so in flow, a time-starved CEO could finish a week’s worth of work on Monday. Additionally, research at  Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency shows that accessing flow cuts learning time in half, clearly optimizing Learning and Development departments. Flow can cut years off a star performer’s road to the C-suite, keeping vital talent in-house.

So how can leaders move this super solution forward for our people and organizations?

Set meaningful goals

Flow requires a clear end state. When building a piece of furniture, the meaning is clear: a new table. For executives, the meaning is more abstruse. Good coaches always work with clients to pinpoint meaning while setting agreements and asking questions like, “What is important about this?” If meaning is not part of the conversation, your employee will not find flow.


We recognize asking powerful questions and creating awareness as fundamental components of great coaching, just as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found clarity around the task imperative for triggering flow. Coaches all have a version of SMART goals. In order to help clients reliably access flow, attach quality goals to lofty ideas and newfound awareness.

Embrace risk as an opportunity

In our business, we use strategies to push the boundaries of coaching with risk. We take our leaders and teams on outdoor adventures like backpacking while we coach. Why? Steven Kotler explains the neurochemistry behind triggering flow with risk, and simply put, risk demands the right amount of attention. Find ways to insert risk and edginess into your coaching and leadership development so leaders can practice flow skills in a safe place. We often use physical risks like rock climbing, but emotional, social, and creative risks all work, too. Simultaneously address organizational and personal beliefs around failure with your client. Often a client’s or company’s fear of failure implicitly stifles risk-taking, thereby blocking access to flow.

Create a culture of constant feedback

We have all experienced conversations where we noticed somatic and emotional shifts. Giving immediate feedback on these observations usually leads to the breakthroughs that keep us inspired. If you coach your client once or twice a month, they simply can’t get that feedback often enough to access flow. In flow, say while snowboarding, feedback comes in millisecond bursts. Without the ability to notice and correct for immediate feedback the extreme snowboarder could perish. In business, however, feedback comes in a slow drip and often only annually.

Partner with your client to find support systems that will offer feedback on a daily or, at the very least, weekly basis. Consider shorter more frequent coaching sessions and find ways to get your client small unexpected wins at work. A “good job” sticky note on your client’s desk from the boss is often all the feedback needed to drop into the zone.

Read more on the International Coaches Federation page...

Read my full article for the International Coaching Federation to learn all four strategies that help our clients tap into flow.