Flow-based Leadership

“Flow-based Leadership” blog entry is from our guest author: Judith L. Glick-Smith, Ph.D. (President/CEO – MentorFactor Inc.).

Have you ever worked with a team of people who are all in flow? Great teams are committed and connected. Purpose binds them together. You will do whatever it takes to accomplish your goals.

Working in an environment like this is fun. No one complains. The organization is innovative, creative, and profitable.

At a personal level, you feel confident because the team provides a safe place to challenge yourself. There are organizations all over the world where this is the norm. My book, Flow-based Leadership: What the Best Firefighters Can Teach you about Leadership and Making Hard Decisions, offers a model for how to facilitate the conditions and social connections that foster a flow-based organization. This model comes out of my research into the flow experiences of firefighters which have spanned ten years.

Flow-based Leadership

First, we need a definition of “flow.” Many other researchers have defined flow. I built on the work of Csikszentmihalyi in my research, so I won’t get into the details here other than this: Think of an activity you love to do, where time has no meaning, and you do the activity for the sake of the activity. Firefighters often refer to this feeling using words like “being in the zone” or “bringing your A-game.” Almost everyone experiences flow from time to time. Csikszentmihalyi’s (2003) work has shown us that when people maximize their flow experiences they tend to be happier and more productive, which leads to more opportunities for team and organizational flow.


Ten years ago, in the fall of 2007, I entered a Ph.D. program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in the field of Transformative Studies. I came into the program wanting to look at decision making. You see, I have been an information technology consultant my entire life. I was curious why so many of the projects on which I’ve worked never made it to completion. It seemed to me that many of these failures were due to poor decision making and/or bad leadership.

As I began to traverse the rabbit holes of the literature on transformation, I came across Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow. I mentioned the characteristics of flow to my brother-in-law, a retired Battalion Chief from Prince William County (Virginia) Department of Fire & Rescue. He told me a story about an incident he was involved in just that year (April 2007), where he had to make the decision to not rescue a downed firefighter. I realized all of the characteristics of flow were in my brother-in-law’s decision-making process.

I went back to my doctoral committee and told them I wanted to look at the flow experiences of firefighters in the midst of critical incidents. They agreed. I interviewed 16 firefighters, gave them the characteristics of flow, and listened as they excitedly told me 49 stories. I dissected and analyzed those stories, wrote and published my dissertation, and sent it to all my participants. My findings were consistent with those of other researchers: Because flow is the intersection of skill and challenge when you have the right training and experience, flow facilitates better decision making.

One of the participants in my study was Battalion Chief David Rhodes of the Atlanta (Georgia) Fire Rescue Department. Rhodes also heads up an extreme, experiential training program called Georgia Smoke Diver (GSD). Rhodes invited me to attend one of their training in November of 2011. What started out as a simple observation turned into a full-blown ethnography of this organization. To date, I’ve attended 12 classes.

The Georgia Smoke Diver Program

The people who serve in the GSD program are unbelievably physically and mentally tough individuals. They are committed to “training firefighters to be adaptable and to develop critical decision-making skills in high-stress environments.”  The ratio of instructor to student is often three to one. Instructors come to 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 outflow experiences. The GSD organizational model facilitates flow experiences for its instructors and students.

Flow-based Leadership is a consolidation of my doctoral study and my study of the GSD program. It looks at the stories of great firefighters to describe what it means to be in a flow state and what it means to be a flow-based leader.

The Flow-based Leadership Model

The GSD program’s ability to evergreen the organization over an almost 40-year period is powerful and provides a model for sustaining an organization over time that facilitates both personal and team flow. The following are the high-level components of this model, which are described in detail in my book.

  1. Lead by example. Demonstrate your own commitment to service through outward-focused servant leadership. This is an almost cliché instruction in most leadership models. However, when you bear witness to the effectiveness of this directive, you understand its fundamental meaning. This is the foundation of effective leadership. Behavior is everything. Smoke Daddy David Rhodes, GSD Chief Elder (a.k.a., GSD #339, and Rhodie), believes, demonstrates, and sets the expectation 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 at the moment. Nothing will pull you out of flow faster than bad systems and processes. The logistics for running a GSD class are daunting. Each class begins with as many as 40 candidates and 80 instructors. During the week, they are conducting concurrent drills, many of which involve live burns. GSD has written procedures and trains instructors on every aspect of running the class to ensure safety and consistency.
  4. Bind the group and cultivate trust with ritual, storytelling, laughter, and collaboration. Every aspect of the GSD program has a 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) 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.
  5. Honor individual creativity. Each instructor is empowered to make suggestions for improvement during the training. The Operations and Plans group developed an app for the instructors to submit ideas. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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, provide them with training that enhances his or her strengths. People are more likely to find flow in the tasks and activities where they are strongest. In the GSD program, new instructors shadow seasoned instructors. All instructors continue to learn from each other. When individuals work in flow on a team, team-flow happens. Creativity and innovation are the inevitable results of unfettered team-flow.


You may not be fighting fires, and you may experience stress in different ways, but your attempt to build an exceptional team is no different. These flow-based leadership components can be applied in any organization. However, it is important to apply them consistently, authentically, and in their entirety.   

If 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. The benefits are circular: well-being in the workplace translates into well-being in the individual which, in turn, improves well-being in the organization. The practices of the GSD program described in Flow-based Leadership can teach you how to achieve flow with your team.



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


Judith (“Judy”) L. Glick-Smith, Ph.D., is the author of Flow-based Leadership: What the Best Firefighters can Teach You about Leadership and Making Hard Decisions and a contributing author and editor of the soon-to-be-released, Visionary Leadership in a Turbulent World: Thriving in the New VUCA Context. She has been a communication and organizational development consultant since 1983. She is President/CEO of MentorFactor, Inc., which focuses on helping organizations use flow-based methods to prepare for the unexpected. 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 continues her study of the Georgia Smoke Diver program. You can reach her at +1-770-633-5582, judy@mentorfactorinc.com, or LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/judyglicksmith.