Leadership, Flow and Ethics

Last month, Prof. Paul Marer[1] – already mentioned in my previous blog entry about Good Work – gave an interesting presentation in Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Positive Psychology class at Claremont Graduate University (California). This post is an excerpt from his presentation about leadership, Flow and ethics, with an emphasis mainly on the third topic.


Csikszentmihalyi in his Good Business book raised the question: “Can one formulate a simple set of values for today’s business leaders to live by that they can not only accept but would also find attractive, irrespective of culture, religious beliefs, experiences, gender, and age?” Csikszentmihalyi answered this question by mentioning certain guidelines for adopting such values. Based on those guidelines, Paul Marer — together with Zoltan Buzady and Zad Vecsey — came up with three, simple value propositions for individuals (including business leaders) to live by. In their 2015 book, Missing Link Discovered: Integrating Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory into Management and Leadership Practice, they named the combined three propositions a Flow-based individual ethical responsibility framework:

  • Do no harm for selfish reasons
  • Contribute to something beyond yourself
  • Help others experience Flow

In the cited book they presented their three „commandments”in the form of a tripod:


Upon rethinking the key messages of Csikszentmihalyi’s Good Work and Good Business books, Marer came to the conclusion that while the above formulation of an ethical responsibility framework is still valid for individuals, if and when the framework is to be applied to leaders and managers of an organization – any organization – an additional item should be added, namely, the pursuit of excellence of whatever “worthwhile” activity the organization is engaged in. The pursuit of excellence, and how many leaders and managers actually had done it, was in fact one of the key messages of Csikszentmihalyi’s co-authored Good Work volume. Adding this fourth dimension makes sense because leaders should be expected to practice values not in the abstract, but largely in the context of the workplace activities of their organization.

Therefore, Marer proposed to add – in fact, “to bring back” — the pursuit of excellence into a now re-labeled leadership responsibility framework, formulating and extending it as follows:

  • Pursue the excellence of your organization’s services, products, and processes by working consistently to meet the contemporary highest standards in the relevant field.
  • Contribute to something beyond just yourself and just the profitability of your organization. Do this in order to give even more meaning to your life and to enhance the productivity, the happiness, and the meaning of your colleagues at the workplace.
  • Do no harm for selfish reasons.
  • Help others experience Flow.

Leaders and leadership (as well as managers and management) that have a serious commitment to live by and to implement the above four “commandments” we call the value-based, Flow-promoting leaders/leadership responsibility framework.

Adopting and implementing the above four propositions as our business leaders’ (as well as our own) personal guidelines would

  • Improve the multi-dimensional performance of corporations (as well as that of any other type of organization);
  • Serve as a good compass for handling ethical dilemmas;
  • Go a long way toward enhancing the meaning of life – that of one-self as well as those of others; and
  • Help save capitalism, which otherwise will continue to be weakened and ultimately destroyed from within by those business leaders and managers who selfishly abuse the system.

In Marer’s view, the best way to make these principles effective is for the owner/leader/manager or the leadership group to take three, sequential steps:

  1. to adopt the above guidelines for themselves and for their organizations, modifying it as necessary to make it more specific and applicable to the organization’s own mission and activities;
  2. to periodically subject all of the organization’s internal and external processes to “conformity tests”; that is, checking whether each process is in conformity with the organization-specific version of the “four commandments”; and
  3. to fix those activities that are not in conformity with the adopted guidelines.

In Marer’s view, this approach is likely to be much more effective than relying on various “codes of ethics” (currently in vogue) that tend not to have their intended impacts, in part because most are too general to be operational and also because enforcement is often left to the firm’s legal division or compliance officer.

A more effective approach is giving ethics high priority at the C-levels of any organization. The best assurance that such a priority is not only stated but is implemented is the integrity of the owner(s)/leader(s)/managers in adhering to the four principles of the value-based, Flow-promoting leadership responsibility framework. This would seem to have the best chance of creating and maintaining ethically and socially responsible corporations that are also profitable. Being profitable over time is essential, for obvious reasons, but it is not the same as maximizing profits, by all means, and always in the short run.

Integrity, in this context, is the persistent and consistent application of the four “commandments” of the proposed leadership responsibility framework.[2]


[1] Emeritus Professor of Business, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.

[2] Integrity as a general concept means the consistent application of the norms and values that an individual has adopted, irrespective of whether its source is religion or any kind of organizational mission or belief system. One such organization, with its own mission and “code of ethics”, is a mafia group. The leader of the mafia can be said to have integrity without, however, being ethical from society’s point of view. Hence the importance of the qualifier mentioned in the text: that the activity an organization is engaged in should be considered “worthwhile” by society’s contemporary standards.