6/16 – Flow-Based Leadership

Judith L. Glick-Smith

Judith L. Glick-Smith, Ph.D.

Judy G-S - Copy (415x500)

Judith L. Glick-Smith

Have you ever worked in an environment where everyone is happy and productive, where everyone is actually having fun doing what they do. No one complains about [the boss / a co-worker / the project / upper management / etc.]. The organization is innovative, creative, and profitable. The workplace fosters a sense of belonging, collaboration, and a “do whatever it takes” attitude. There are organizations, both geographically contained and virtual, where this is actually the culture. How can a leader facilitate the conditions and the social connections to accomplish this?

The field of Positive Psychology has shown us that when people maximize their optimal experiences—also called “flow”—they tend to be happier and more productive, leading to more opportunities for team and organizational flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).

Flow has very distinct characteristics. Think of an activity where you have clear goals and are receiving immediate feedback. You experience lots of opportunities for decisive action. Awareness and action merge. You are concentrating completely on the task at hand. You feel confident and perceive that you are in complete control. You lose your sense of self. Time morphs—you don’t notice time passing, time speeds up, or it slows down. And, finally, the experience is autotelic. That is, you do the task for the sake of doing it. These characteristics were identified and quantified by Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi in the late 1980s (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). He has continued to do research in this area over the last 30 years. He has determined that, when people optimize their flow states, they are happier and more productive (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).

Everyone experiences flow from time to time. However, the question becomes, “How can I, as a leader, facilitate flow experiences for those who follow me?” Building on the work of Csikszentmihalyi, my doctoral research looked at flow-based decision making in the fire service. My findings showed that flow-based decision making is facilitated by training and experience. Flow-based leadership facilitates flow-based decision making (Glick-Smith, 2012).

Most recently, for the past five years, I have been conducting an ethnography of a 37-year old organization of firefighters called Georgia Smoke Diver (GSD), an extreme, experiential training program for structural firefighters in Georgia. What is particularly interesting about this group of firefighters is its focus on leadership development.

The GSD program runs like a well-oiled machine with very little conflict. The ratio of instructor to student is often three to one. Instructors come teach twice a year on their own time and their own dime for a week at a time. What makes them so committed? Why would they give up their vacation time to train other firefighters? People seek out flow experiences. The GSD organizational model facilitates flow experiences for its instructors and students.

Here are the components of the GSD program. These can be applied in any organization. However, it is important to apply them consistently, authentically, and in their entirety.

  1. Lead by example. Demonstrate your own commitment to service through outward-focused servant leadership. Smoke Daddy David Rhodes, GSD Chief Elder (a.k.a., GSD #339, Battalion Chief in the Atlanta Fire Department, and Rhodie), believes that he is a “leader of equals”. He demonstrates this through both action and attitude, coupled with outward-facing compassion and love for the GSD program and his profession.
  2. Articulate and regularly communicate your vision to instill a sense of purpose. The GSD mission is read out loud during every morning briefing. The instructors know the mission, but this helps emphasize its importance: “To prevent death and injury by training firefighters to be adaptable and to develop critical decision making skills in high stress environments” (Georgia Smoke Diver Association, 2013).
  3. Establish and maintain an infrastructure that supports the work of the organization. A stable infrastructure enables people to do what they do. Working a flow-state means we are receiving feedback in the moment. An inadequate system or an ill-defined process will pull the individual out of his or her flow state in a heartbeat. Workers shouldn’t go home at the end of the day frustrated by an unstable work environment.

The GSD program uses the Incident Command System (ICS), a standard for managing incidents in the fire service as a solid, proven framework for running the class. The logistics for running a class like this are daunting. Each class begins with as many as 40 candidates and 80 instructors. The ICS facilitates the efficient use of talents and resources.

  1. Bind the group and cultivate trust with ritual, storytelling, laughter, and collaboration. Every aspect of the GSD program has meaning. The student drills have been developed as a result of someone in the fire service dying in the line of duty. Prior to each drill, the instructor tells the story and demonstrates how to enable a better outcome. He then encourages students to invent a better way.

Formal rituals (such as graduation) and informal rituals (such as the Thursday evening instructor dinner, a.k.a. Animal Night) fill the week of training. New rituals appear; older rituals morph or disappear with each successive training. Stories of events that occurred in previous classes get repeated over and over, often with embellishment. There is a lot of laughter coupled with the seriousness of why they are there. They trust and love one another completely because of their common experience and commitment to the mission of the program.

  1. Honor individual creativity. Each instructor carries index card forms with him. If he has an idea, he can immediately capture it and turn it in to Operations and Plans. The Board of Elders then determines the viability of the idea. Often the idea is implemented immediately; sometimes, it is implemented during the next class. Even if it is rejected, the leadership acknowledges the creativity by explaining why it cannot be implemented.
  2. Use positive motivation techniques. Every morning, at the daily briefing, assignments are made. One of the teams is called the Mo Squad. These are instructors whose sole responsibility is to motivate the students. What would your work environment look like if you had people whose sole purpose it was to give encouragement to others?
  3. Learn what gives people joy and give them the opportunities to work in that space. You must listen to the people who do the work of your organization. Ask them what they love about their work. Then, listen. Most organizations have some sort of review process where employees are evaluated. Then, after identifying a person’s weaknesses, the organization attempts to provide training or help in areas where he or she is weak. This doesn’t make any sense. Instead, provide people with training that enhances his or her strengths. People are more likely to find flow in the tasks and activities where they are strongest. Then, give them the opportunities to be in their joy-space. Flow comes out of experience and training when the individual feels challenged, but has a better-than-average chance of success (Glick-Smith, 2012).

In the GSD program, new instructors shadow seasoned instructors. All instructors continue to learn from each other. New instructors must learn the basics of instructing in the program, whether it is feeding the students at lunchtime or building fire for an evolution. Over time, the instructors let it be known to the Operations Manager what they prefer to do. The Operations Manager then makes assignments accordingly. This way, each person is given the opportunity to try different tasks and eventually find that flow task. When individuals work in flow on a team, team-flow happens. Creativity and innovation are the inevitable results of unfettered team-flow.

If all of these components are in place, each individual in the organization becomes a leader. This makes the organization sustainable. Change is integrated into the fabric of the culture. Your people will embrace change, because they are creating it on a moment-by-moment basis. Well-being in the workplace translates into well-being in the individual.

In the Georgia Smoke Diver program, the instructors work together, live together, and play together during the week of training. They have all been through the training, which pushes students to the limit. They hold onto their togetherness and commitment in their daily work at their individual fire departments. They live their lives in the spirit of servant leadership. They do their work because it autotelic—for the sake of the work and the joy of doing it. They are the happiest, most loving people I’ve ever known.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). Good business: Leadership, flow, and the making of meaning. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Georgia Smoke Diver Association. (2013, Jan 01). Georgia Smoke Diver. Forsyth, GA, USA. Retrieved March 19, 2015, from

Glick-Smith, J. L. (2012). The path of the razor’s edge: An examination of the flow experiences of firefighters. ProQuest: UMI 3481816.

About the Author

Judith (“Judy”) L. Glick-Smith, Ph.D., has been a communication and organizational development consultant since 1983. She is President/CEO of MentorFactor, Inc., which focuses on helping organizations facilitate flow-based work environments. Judy has a Ph.D. in Transformative Studies with a concentration in Integral Studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies. She has a Master of Science in Conflict Management from Kennesaw State University. She is currently doing an ethnographic study of Georgia Smoke Diver, an extreme experiential training program in the fire service. MentorFactor, Inc. –


  1. Jerry Allen on June 17, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    That was quite interesting to read. Having been on the inside of the tunnel for about 25 years it was quite a reflective read for me. I am reinventing my role for the future. I have discussed and will continue to work with the Elders to make my contributions worthwhile. I have no desire to be in the way but to contribute in a meaningful way. I am thinking of several ways my experience can benefit the organization. I believe my background in psychology and deep transformations in life and career can benefit the organization by exit interviews. Second I believe my ability to assist Instructors with feedback on their methodology and interactions with students and other Instructors is without parallel. Due to my depth of experience as senior officer intersperced with starting over at 45 and rising to Deputy Chief a second time with the same department prepares me to be detailed to a special project assignment especially with direction from Rhodie and Hull. There is a need for a look into the future to remain relevant. To stay on the cutting edge means someone or some people are looking at what is being done with an eye on how we can ALWAYS be getting better and NOT patting ourselves on the back while we are slipping away from the mission we have carried out so well. Cortez started and so many have worked so hard to continue a path to excellence, this doesn’t happen without planning and a keen eye on our progress and future needs. Thanks for stirring the mind……..Remind me to talk about our dirty secret in the fire service……..Mental stress from exposure to trauma……..Too much to discuss on paper………..Jerry Allen, If better is possible, then good is not enough! Good is the enemy of our best……….

    • Judith Glick-Smith on June 18, 2015 at 5:19 am

      Thank you for your comment, Chief! You are the perfect example of what this article is about. You guys amaze me!

  2. […] Many thanks to Judith L. Glick-Smith, Ph.D. for letting me share this summary of her article. You can see it in its entirety here. […]

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