Dr. Judith Glick-Smith has been studying flow-based decision making and flow-based leadership for several years. It was during a conversation with her brother-in-law, (a former battalion chief of a Virginia fire rescue department) when she realized that he had all of the characteristics of flow in his decision-making in his line of work. In 2011, when she needed to select a topic for her doctoral dissertation in Transformative Studies, she honed in on flow-based decision making and leadership in the fire service industry.
Her story however, isn’t solely about her research and education with flow-based leadership. Back in the 80s Judith owned a technical writing company in Dallas, Texas and had 25 people working for her and she was an IT consultant. She witnessed many bad decisions made in IT at the leadership level and then when 9/11 hit, her business went bottoms up. That’s when she decided to go back to school to learn more about psychology and study decision-making from the angle of quantum physics, and anything that would quantify better decision making in the workplace. It was then when she truly learned all the ins and outs regarding the concept of flow.
The feeling of being “in the zone,” is often referred to in the field of positive psychology as “the flow.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist is recognized and named the psychological concept of flow. Judith says “Flow promotes productivity and people who are able to work in flow are five times more productive. Flow is that feeling you get when you’re doing what you love. You kind of lose your sense of time. You’re concentrating on the task at hand, to the exclusion of everything else around you, some people call it being in the zone, it’s the same thing.”
This week on Trusted Counsel’s podcast show “In Process: Conversations about Business in the 21st Century,” we interview Judith Glick-Smith, Ph.D. She is the author of Flow-Based Leadership: What the Best Firefighters Could Teach You About Leadership and Making Hard Decisions. She is also the founder and CEO of MentorFactor, Inc. and is the Executive Director of The Center for Flow-based Leadership. She is a recognized expert on flow-based decision making and flow-based leadership.
Whether you are in the fire service industry or not, the book referenced above is a terrific roadmap for leaders in any organization in which decisions must be made in chaotic, uncertain and rapidly evolving situations.
During the course of the podcast, entrepreneurs, business owners and C-level executives will learn:
- About flow and why it’s important
- Characteristics of flow
- The idea of making better decisions when your team is in a flow state
- What you can do right now to maximize your flow state
Don’t miss a single episode of our podcast show. Subscribe to our show “In Process Podcast” on iTunes and now on Google Play to receive this episode as well as future episodes to your smartphone.
Get Your Team Into “Flow” and Increase Revenues & Success
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Speaker 1: It’s time for In Process; conversations about business in the 21st century with Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon, presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law firm. For more information, visit trusted-counsel.com, and now with In Process, here are Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon.
Evelyn: So, John, a new setup, a new location for recording. This should be interesting.
Evelyn: We’re becoming such expert podcasters. Can you believe it?
John: I can’t believe it, and I guess we got so good that we’re also shortening the time format of it.
John: We’re down to 30 minutes.
Evelyn: That’s right. So, people do not have to listen to us stumble over our reintroduction every 11 minutes of our guests.
John: But I’m excited about it. I think it’ll be a much more concise and impactful show.
Evelyn: I think that’s true.
John: Today, we have Judy Glick-Smith. Judy is a consultant and founder of Mentor Factor Inc., the author of Flow-Based Leadership: What the Best Firefighters Could Teach You About leadership and Making Hard Decisions. Judy, welcome to the show.
Judith: Thank you.
Evelyn: So, Judy, what is flow and why is it important?
Judith: Flow is that feeling you get when you’re doing what you love. There’s a lot of opportunities for decisive action. Awareness and action merge. You kind of lose your sense of time. You are concentrating on the task at hand, to the exclusion of everything else around you, but it isn’t tunnel vision, it’s hyper vision. It’s being aware of what’s going on, but being able to filter out and concentrate on where you are at any given moment. There is a loss of sense of self. There is a feeling of confidence, and you do the work for the sake of the work. So, does anything come to mind when I give you that description?
Evelyn: If you find what you love to do, you do it bigger and better, and more focused.
John: I think of sports immediately, the few times in my life when I played sports well.
Judith: Some people call it being in the zone, bringing your A game. It’s the same thing.
John: Right. Exactly.
Judith: And why is it important? It increases our sense of wellbeing, it promotes productivity. In fact, Mackenzie just did a longitudinal study over a 10 year period on peak performance, which when they describe peak performance, it is the same thing as flow, and people who are able to work in flow, or their peak performance, they are five times more productive, so it increases productivity when people are given the opportunity to be in a flow state.
Evelyn: Interesting. So, how did you come to create Mentor Factor and be involved in this type of coaching?
Judith: I used to own my own technical writing company in Dallas, Texas, and I had 25 people working for me, and I’ve been an IT consultant since 1980. So, I had seen a lot of bad decisions made in IT, and after 9/11, my business kind of went poof, and I had decided to move back to Atlanta from Texas to be near my family, and I decided to go back to school. I wanted a degree in something that I could look at what I wanted to look at, not necessarily something that was situated in a particular field like psychology, or physics, or anything like that.
So, I found a program in transformation, transformative studies, at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and I was able to come in and look at decision-making from any angle; quantum physics, spirituality, psychology, anything I wanted to look at that would inform that question, I was allowed to do, and as I was going down the rabbit holes of transformation, I discovered this idea of flow, which comes out of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Martin Seligman, and a number of other people who studied flow at a quantitative level. They’ve quantified it.
So, my question became does being in a flow state facilitate decision-making. I was talking to my brother-in-law who is a former battalion chief from Prince William County, Virginia, fire rescue department, and he stopped me and said “Let me tell you a story.” And he told me the story of Kyle Wilson, who on April 16, 2007, lost his life in the line of duty, and my brother-in-law was the battalion chief who made the call not to rescue him, and I realized all of the characteristics of flow were in his decision-making process. So, I went back to my committee, and I said I want to look at critical decision-making in the fire service to inform this question, and they got excited about it, and they told me to interview 16 firefighters, eight men and eight women. They wanted to make sure there wasn’t a difference in gender, and there isn’t.
I did that. I collected all my interviews, I analyzed the heck out of them for two years, wrote my dissertation, and published, and graduated in 2011. So, in the process of going through that research, I met a gentleman named David Rhodes, who is a battalion chief here in the city of Atlanta, and he also heads up an experiential training program here in the fire service, and it’s based here in Georgia. It’s called Georgia Smoke Diver. Now, these aren’t the guys that jump out of the planes. They’re structural firefighters, and most of them come from paid departments. They’re not volunteer departments, and David called me, and he said, after my dissertation, to him and all my other participants, he said “Would you like to attend one of our training programs?” And I went “Yeah!”.
Not to take it, but to observe because one of the results of my study said that the answer is yes, you do make better decisions when you’re in a flow state, but only if you’ve had the right training and experience, and because this particular program is so rigorous, what they do is teach firefighters how to be better, and it’s a program that’s outside of the training they get at the fire academy here in Georgia. It’s a very strenuous program. So, I went and observed, and I kept coming back. I just attended my 14th training in March of this year, but I began to see, as I watched them operate at every level, whether it’s the instruction, or the way they lead each other, how the organization was formed, how it perpetuates itself. It’s been around since 1978, and it is a completely, even though the guys are from paid departments, it’s a complete volunteer organization. So, the firefighters who come and teach-
Evelyn: Choose to be there.
Judith: They choose to be there. They take their precious vacation time twice a year to come teach.
Judith: And it’s pretty powerful. I thought, there’s something here, and I began to see the patterns, and I began to, and I tend to be very analytical in my life, it comes from my IT world, and I decided to write my book. So, that’s kind of how it came to be.
Evelyn: So, using those principles.
Judith: Yeah, and that framework that they have managed to put together.
Evelyn: So, then, that training process, those sessions, are those in a classroom, or are those-
Judith: Oh no. I should clarify that. What enables flow and decision-making when you’re in flow is training and experience, but it’s also experiential training.
Evelyn: So, situational. I’m in a situation where I have to respond.
Evelyn: In a leadership manner.
Judith: Yes. The smoke diver program is very hands-on. They have burns, they simulate flash overs. They do all kinds of real life, but it’s simulated. They put the students into situations that they can run into out in the real world, for example, Georgia has a lot of swimming pools, right? So, imagine rolling up in the middle of the night, and there’s been a call, and you don’t see anything yet, and the lights are all out in the house, and you walk to the backyard, and you fall in the pool, and you’ve got all your gear on. How do you get out of the pool? So, that is not taught in regular firefighter training school.
Evelyn: I see.
Judith: But they teach that.
Evelyn: Interesting. Just one of those examples.
Evelyn: So, then, how have you been able to turn these situational experience from the firefighters to leadership principles and flow elements that relate to executive mentorship?
Judith: I do workshops, and I do speaking. That’s what I’m doing so far. The workshops are getting to the point of being experiential. I haven’t gotten them quite to that point yet. I’m working on one right now that’ll be taught in South Africa if it comes to fruition. It’ll be a five day class, but it starts out, because flow is a feeling and it starts within the individual, I have to start there. People have to know what it feels like to move forward. There are a number of other people out there that are talking about flow in the workplace, and I feel like they’re jumping in in the middle. How do we get to team flow without recognizing that it has to start right here. I have a lot of imagery that I use. For example, one of the characteristics is loss of sense of self. So, you are outward focused. When you’re outward focused, you facilitate flow for others. So, that’s what has to start inside, but there are triggers.
You can learn how to trigger flow for yourself if you start paying attention to when you are in flow and you ask yourself what got me here. So, there’s certain things that you can do, and so that’s one of the things that I teach. What will cause you to be in flow will not be what causes you to be in flow. So, I’ve had people say well, let’s just do a bike trip, and we can get everybody in flow.
Evelyn: See what happens.
Judith: Well, no, if you don’t like to ride a bike, you’re not ever going to get in flow, so it’s not like I can force somebody to be in flow. So, you have to start with where you are.
John: What are some things that have helped people get in flow because I know the few times I’ve been on, let’s say the tennis court playing really good tennis, I haven’t really known why I’ve ended up there. I can’t pinpoint it.
Judith: If you start paying close attention, so you’re there-
Judith: And you all of a sudden realize you’re in a flow state, you’re in the zone, come away from there and write about it, reflect about it, what got me there, what all happened? Was it the location? It could’ve been weather had an impact. It could have been the person that you’re playing with. It could be the court itself. Are there any leaves on it for you to run into? It could be a lot of things.
John: Are there a lot of commonalities? I know you said each person’s different, but is there a set of commonalities that you find to be general amongst people, like normally, you’ve gotten a good night’s sleep before, or you came in completely prepared and for some reason, your mind was just clear? Is there something-
Judith: There are things that you can do to maximize your flow states and eliminate the stresses. Sleep is one of them. If you’re tired, and that’s one of the things that they have trouble with in the fire service, I listen to firefighters who are retiring, and their number one thing they say to me is “It’s so nice to be able to sleep all night and not have to worry about waking up.” Because they never get into that REM sleep. You’ve got to have that REM sleep, and you’ve got to figure out where is your peak. I have finally decided, as much as I love to work, and read, and write, and do what I do, I have to have eight hours of sleep. I’m going okay, that means I go to bed at 8:30, I get up at 4:30, and I go to the gym because exercise is the other piece of that. You’ve got to keep your body moving. My daddy was a doctor. He said if you stop moving, you die, and I took that to heart.
I took it to heart. So, I do weight training three times a week, I walk five miles a day with my dogs. Walking my dogs is a flow state for me. So, as you learn what your flow states are, you’ll start maximizing those. I love what I do in IT, even though it’s frustrating as heck sometimes because I’m having to pull together information from a lot of different sources, and I do really technical, technical writing. I can go in and figure out how hardware works and how to hook up systems and things like that, and I love doing that, even though it’s frustrating at times, but there’s some days where I just don’t feel like it, but I have to because I’ve got a client that needs me to do the work, right?
Well, things that have gotten me into flow, over the years, I’ve learned to find out sometimes music will put me there. So, I just put my headphones on, I turn on Marvin Gaye, and I drop into flow, tell somebody how to put a gas station together, which is what I’m doing right now with one of my clients. So, you know, you figure out what are those things.
John: How do you jump from flow from an individual basis to leadership and organizational bases?
Judith: Great transition question. Okay. Have you ever seen a murmuration of starlings?
Judith: Do you know what I’m talking about?
Judith: I bet you’ve seen it.
Evelyn: I have.
Judith: Yeah, I have too. I bet you’ve seen it, you just didn’t know what it was. It’s when there’s a huge flock of birds, little birds, little starlings, and they’re in the horizon. They’re probably being chased by a predator, but they do this lovely dance in the sky.
John: Oh yeah, yep.
Judith: Okay. Every little individual starling has a piece of that dance. So, that little starling is enfolded into the flock, and the flock is enfolded into that little individual starling. So, if one makes a micro move, the rest of them move with it, okay? So, that’s group flow in nature. It’s actually called a soliton wave in quantum physics. So, there’s a physics connection to that. When little tiny changes result in big change. Okay. So, if you think of people, how do you get a team to be in flow? Well, if you’re the leader, you’ve got to know what each person’s flow state is, and that means you’ve got to be a good listener. You have to listen. Ask them what puts you in flow. You have to give them the definition and then find out where their flow states are, and let them talk about it. When people talk about it, it calls that feeling up again, and everybody feels flow at some point in time.
So, how do you tap into that because that will make them five times more productive. So, then, if you’ve got … oh, let me give you an example. I have one of my clients did a special project thing. Everybody in the company had to self-select. It was called future Friday. People submitted ideas that they wanted to see implemented in the company, and it came from grassroots. It did not come from On High. So, then, once they got vetted, I don’t know who vetted them, but there were like 30 different projects, and everybody including consultants, were supposed to participate in this. Everybody in the company self-selected. They said ah, that project sounds interesting. I think I’ll do that. So, you had six Fridays to meet, and people were complaining.
“I have other stuff to do, and I’ve got to do this every Friday?” But the very first meeting, and there’s no one that’s a leader, no one’s designated as a leader, but the leaders rose up out of it, but not in a … at least in the group I was in, not in a way that was dominating. Each person took on, we decided as a group, what our deliverable would be, and then this person would say I can do this piece, and this person said I can do this piece, and it got to the point every other Friday for six … so, it was 12 weeks, we met, and about the third meeting, we were there late. That’s usually a day everybody was running out because we were so excited about what we were doing, and everybody would come, and everybody would get excited about it. We were in team flow on those Fridays, and it wasn’t anything that we made happen. It just happened.
If you try to make it happen, it probably won’t. Does that make sense?
John: Yeah, absolutely. In sports, we always say we’re in the zone if you personally are in the zone. If you’re playing good as a team, you say we’re in rhythm with each other a lot.
John: So, that’s how I’m thinking about this, but I mean, there’s certain things you can do, I know how you say you can’t make it happen, but you can facilitate it to happen, right?
Judith: That is the key, and the facilitation comes in that framework that I describe in here. You’ve got to have the infrastructure. You’ve got to be communicating. You have to know what your vision is. What is the mission that this team is on? Everybody has to be on the same page. You can’t have this person thinking the mission is this way, and this one’s thinking this way because you can’t come together on that. All of those things kind of have to be in place. One of the things I didn’t explain, and this will help in all this, is that flow is the intersection of skill and challenge, so anybody can be in flow at any level of experience. So, even if you’re a newbie and you don’t know how to do it, if you’re being challenged, and you like the challenge, and you’re willing to push through it, you can be in a flow state. Even though your team might be doing something they’ve never done before, if they’re facilitated, if they don’t get the blue screen of death in the middle of their work, if they’ve got the resources to do what their job is, then they can be in flow. Two of my firefighter friends from the smoke diver group, they read the book. They’re buds. They’re the best friends. They went through high school together, they went through firefighter school together, and now they work on the same shift in the same department in the same house, okay? So, they read the book at the same time, and they got so excited. When I saw them the next time, they said Miss Judy, we trigger our own flow state. I said how do you do that, and they said when we roll up on scene, we look at each other, and we’re in flow, and I just thought that was so cool, and they don’t say anything to each other. They just are there.
John: Yeah. Yeah. That comes in one of the tenets that you put in here about building the group on cultivating trust.
John: They must have a lot of trust between them.
Judith: Absolutely. Yeah. There’s another book called The Stress Effect that was written by Henry Thompson. He’s actually out of Athens. He’d be a good one for you all to get on the show. He talks about stress and emotional intelligence and that kind of thing, but he has an acronym called ARSENOL and I like it because it’s kind of a circle with awareness, is the A. Awareness, Rest is his next one, and then he has Nutrition, and there’s something for every letter in the word, but that is critical to have all that in place for you to be able to be in a flow state.
John: Can an organization be in a flow state if it has a member who’s not cooperative?
Judith: Individual members can be in flow. If you have a team working together, and you’re wanting team flow, all the members have to be in flow. You can have individual tasks where people are in flow together, but if you’re doing something as a group and one person is not in flow, that’ll pull the whole team out of flow. That’s what I’ve determined.
Evelyn: So, that’s when you vote them off the island.
Judith: Yeah, that’s when you vote them off the island.
John: It sounds like there could possibly be some room for disagreement, or discourse, or discussion, but not for dissension, right? It sounds like that would-
John: Completely pull it out.
Judith: Now, I will say this. You can put in places to manage that because the smoke diver program does. They are very flat organization. Being in the fire service, or studying them for so long, they’re very hierarchical. So, when I showed up the first time, I couldn’t tell who was the fire chief and who was a regular firefighter because they all wore the same uniform. They had khaki pants, black tee shirt, black hat. I was with 90 alpha males and didn’t see any conflict for a week, six days, no conflict. That isn’t to say the conflict didn’t happen. It’s how they managed it.
Evelyn: Worked it out.
John: Yeah, that’s a great point.
Judith: So, if it was between two people, they worked it out right then, they’re committed to this because they’re all on a mission. Every morning, they read the mission, and I ask why do you read the mission? They know why they’re here. “We do it to stay on point.” Is what David told me. To stay on point.
Evelyn: So, if you know what the objective is as a group, basically, you communicate well when there’s dissension, and yet you can all strive and succeed.
Evelyn: Toward that objective, even if you have very strong personalities and opinions, and different knowledge bases.
Evelyn: Very interesting and exciting for us.
John: I’m now dedicated to figuring out how I can be five times more productive. You’re going to get more questions after the show.
Judith: That’d be great.
Evelyn: That’s excellent.
Judith: That would be fine.
John: Well Judy, thank you very much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure. If you’d like to learn more about Judy and her services, please visit her website at mentorfactorinc.com, that’s I-N-C dot com. We hope you enjoyed In Process today. Thank you for joining us.
Evelyn: And be sure to get Judy’s book at Amazon.com. That is Flow-Based Leadership: What the Best Firefighters Can Teach You About Leadership and Making Hard Decisions. See you next time.
Speaker 1: This has been In Process; conversations about business in the 21st century with Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law firm. For more information, visit trusted-counsel.com.