Low Flow and Too Much Leadership

by The Inmate

a review of
Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning
by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Viking / $25.95 / 244 pages

Suddenly Hopkins whirled and faced him.  “Somebody has to do the big jobs!”  he said passionately.  “This world was built by men like me!”

—Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

Lazy old day/rolling away/dreaming the day away/don’t want to go/now that I’m in the flow/crazy amazing day

—Enya, “lazy days,” a day without rain

If I had to choose a part of the human body to be (of the parts that both sexes possess), I would choose the stomach.  The obvious choice is the brain, but the brain works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and that contradicts my philosophy of life.  The lungs and heart also work constantly.  The stomach, however, has many periods when it can rest.  It’s a hard worker when it does work, but it also has a lot of leisure time during sleep and after the food is passed on to the intestines–a part of the body I’d rather not be.  I see enough shit as it is.  The brain, I’m sure, thinks the stomach should work more or even aspire to be a brain, but the stomach performs a necessary duty and has plenty of time for itself.

Probably better than any organ the stomach knows how the body is doing.  It sees what comes into it and essentially knows what goes out of it.  Though the brain’s reputation is famous, it is often responsible for pushing the body past its limits even though much of the body is attempting to remind it that it should slow down or change its habits.  The hangover trip to the porcelain god is the stomach communicating its sentiments in one of its more effective ways.  If I wanted to know how the body was doing and how to improve its health I would not only ask the brain.  I would also question the feet, liver, lungs, hands, blood, intestines, heart and the stomach–much like a good doctor does.

So how should one go about evaluating the health of business?  Who should be sought out to give us a clear understanding of how to improve it and in what ways it must change if it is to be a meaningful part of life?  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi predominately goes to CEOs, men and women chosen by other CEOs and business school professors for their combination of “high achievement with strong moral commitment.”  Much of Csikszentmihalyi’s Good Business quotes what they have to say about work as it should be and not as it usually is.

Csikszentmihalyi also makes his own assessments about business.  His ideal is that it be “a place where everyone is encouraged to progress toward complexity—or at the very least a place that does not make it more difficult to achieve personal growth.”  Work should be significant, that is,  one’s job should contribute to the quality of one’s life providing not only monetary benefits, but psychological and spiritual ones as well.  This is a tremendously high ideal and a worthy one, though probably not an achievable one on a wide scale.  These assessments of the potential of business is when Csikszentmihalyi is at his best and most interesting.

This dichotomy, Csikszentmihalyi’s theories about business and the CEOs’ comments about it, makes  Good Business a frustrating book.  Csikszentmihalyi calls these CEOs “visionary leaders” after informing us that, for better or worse, the “two categories of individuals [who] hold the clearest title to providing for the material and spiritual needs of the community” are scientists and “men and women engaged in business.”  This is a disturbing observation.  He then asks the question, “Is this faith misplaced?”  He does not answer it but only surmises that science and business have “created living conditions that are more desirable than any that ever existed.”

This is a modern idea, one steeped in a belief that evolutionary theory crosses over to every other aspect of life.  It cannot be proven and since those of ages past are not here to defend themselves it is a safe statement to make.  As Iris Murdoch and others have pointed out technological progress does not mean that we have progressed in every other way or that our experience of life is categorically better than those who lived in ages past.  The answer to Csikszentmihalyi’s question is, of course, yes.  Though science(often through business) has brought us great good it has also, in turn, been responsible for great ill.  Scientific discoveries almost always have two sides:  nuclear power/ nuclear bombs; ease of travel/pollution; the ability to prolong life/poor quality of life.  Our faith must always be guarded and skeptical or else it becomes blind.

There are two major problems with Csikszentmihalyi’s choice to interview only CEOs as the purveyors of good business.  First, these are men and women who have made it to the top in a culture that is often detrimental to many people.  What did they do to get there?  Though these CEOs might be highly respected in the business world to call them “visionary leaders” would require a more thorough evaluation of their lives.  What do their spouses think of them?  What do their children think of them?  What do their fellow employees really think of them?  What are the working conditions for the lowest level of workers in the companies they run?

Secondly, there is an assumption here that those at the top know best about what makes a good business.  One could argue that those at the bottom have a much clearer picture of what makes business good because they so often suffer the consequences of bad business.  Certainly CEOs can contribute to the discussion, but employees at all levels should be sought out for their ideas about meaningful work.  There is far too much emphasis on “leadership,” as if everyone needs and wants to be led.  In the ideal workplace we will all be leaders and followers, and, more importantly, we will know when to take upon ourselves each of those roles.  We don’t need leaders, we need good colleagues.

For instance Csikszentmihalyi writes about Douglas Yearley of Phelps Dodge.  While running a plant in Los Angeles he would go out onto the floor and talk to the workers operating the machines and ask them, “What can we do better here?”  Apparently he listened and changed things that the workers suggested.  This is so important that it is hard to emphasize enough.  Workers ideas are rarely sought and they are rarely  allowed to act autonomously in the tasks which they perform year after year, the tasks in which they have the greatest knowledge.  Csikszentmihalyi writes, “More substantive ways of improving the business environment involve setting policies that allow people to move and act with freedom, to have control over their tasks, and to have input in decisions affecting their work.”  The implementation of the ideas in this one sentence would go extremely far toward creating more meaningful work though I would change the last phrase to “and to make decisions  affecting their work.”

There are some other interesting CEOs in this bunch.  Yvon Chouinard is the founder of Patagonia, a company that makes outdoor gear.  He approaches his business as if it is going to be here for one hundred years.  That attitude alone would change the nature of much of the corporate world.  In his corporate offices they have a policy called, “Let My People Go Surfing.”  When the surf is up anyone can grab their surfboard from the entrance hallway and hit the beach.  This is great, but it should be remembered that this is at the management level.  I wonder if the people who are making his clothing get the same luxury.  My guess is probably not.  I’ve been working at my company for 17 years and have yet to be invited to any “retreats” though I know upper management has had them.  Hey, I’m not complaining.

Some of the other CEO choices, however, are baffling.  Csikszentmihalyi spends some time explaining that being a CEO of a tobacco company is wrong because we now know how bad smoking is for our health.  Yet, he often quotes Jack Greenberg, the CEO of McDonalds a place that is hardly known for its healthy food.  What credibility does Greenberg have?  He makes a lot of money and, I suppose, those McDonalds’ commercials prove that he is ultimately responsible for happy families.  I guess that’s why they call them Happy Meals—they’re sure not healthy ones.

Another strange choice is Richard DeVos the founder and CEO of Amway.  I base this opinion on my dealings with Amway salespeople and what I have heard from friends.  Amway people are obnoxious.  Under the guise of friendship they attempt to sell their products.  These may be isolated cases, but mention Amway at your next social gathering and see what happens.  Amway salespeople must go through a similar training program that teaches them to view all their contacts(friends, work colleagues, relatives) as potential clients.  Is DeVos responsible for this?  Can you be a “visionary leader” and head a company that turns friends or acquaintances into irritating salespeople?

One of the questions that Csikszentmihalyi’s book brings up is this: how much influence do CEOs have?  As a percentage they make up only a small part of the workforce and though they can make decisions that affect large numbers of people it is doubtful that on a day to day basis their influence trickles down significantly to the lower rungs of the corporate ladder.  Tolstoy commented in War and Peace that generals simply do not have the influence in battles that they would like to think they have.  Likewise circumstances beyond our control can play a major role in what happens in life and in business.

Many of the “successful,” like many of the “failures,” have ended up where they are in spite of themselves, but it is an American fetish to assume that “successful” people have all arrived in their positions by their own merits and therefore have something important to tell everyone else.  I want hear from the visionary man or woman who didn’t “make it,” whose business failed after a year or two or three, who learned that there were other aspects of his or her life that were more important than creating a multi-million dollar corporation.

Society needs businesses and people to start them, but it also needs a new definition of success.  Though I am sure Csikszentmihalyi does not believe that success is based solely upon the size of one’s salary or the position he or she holds, it is nonetheless instructive that he chose to interview only the “very successful” for a book about good business.  The lone individual interviewed who was not a CEO, chairman or founder of a large company was Jane Fonda an actress who just happens to be married to Ted Turner.  Csikszentmihalyi writes, “But one does not only have to be a business leader to believe in what one does, and to think long term.  It is not a luxury or prerogative of the elite.”  Neither is success, though Csikszentmihalyi continues in the same paragraph with this:

The shipping clerk or cafeteria cook who is committed to the work she is doing is more likely to get ahead and succeed.  And what’s more important, she will enjoy her work and feel good about herself while doing it.  That, and not just profit, is the true bottom-line measure of any human activity, business included.

If the last two sentences are true why does the shipping clerk or cafeteria cook still need to “get ahead” and “succeed”?  I am not denying that jobs of this nature are often not enjoyable and have little intrinsic payback aside from the satisfaction of working well and honestly, but modern societies are filled with jobs like this and always will be (I have one).  They are necessary and allow greater numbers of people the opportunity(if they’ll take it) to access self-education, leisure and significant time with family and friends.  Too often, however, those who work these types of jobs are burdened with too little pay and too many hours.  What can make these jobs more tolerable is more money, longer vacations, good benefits, shorter hours and genuine respect from managers and bosses.   People in these jobs do not have to look to the future for “success.”  Success is something we become in the present, something we carry with us regardless of our circumstances.

Csikszentmihalyi is best known for Flow and Good Business is his attempt to bring this concept into the corporate world.  One wonders if this was simply a marketing ploy by the publisher to repackage a successful book for a new audience.  I’ve heard about Flow for years, but have never read it, so I can only base my comments on flow as it is explained in Good Business.Flow is subtitled “The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”  Csikszentmihalyi’s interviews about flow in Good Business come mainly from surgeons and rock climbers.  There are are few writers and one mother.  Flow is a state where one forgets about the passing of time, where concentration is high and where one is completely in the moment.  One even forgets oneself.  Generally speaking the actions that accompany flow are intrinsically motivated.  Essentially, Csikszentmihalyi has given a modern name to aspects of spiritual and mystical experience that have been around for thousands of years.  But flow has an American tinge to it that, ironically, has been influenced by the very culture that Csikszentmihalyi is at times criticizing.

For example, Csikszentmihalyi writes of the “unglamorous tasks” that we must all perform “like mopping the floor or taking showers.”  Though he admits that we cannot be in flow all the time the goal appears to be to access it as much as possible.  Flow is a kind of peak experience, clearly a preference to all those “unglamorous tasks.”  Those tasks, however, are not obstacles to life, but life itself.  Most of life is lived in between “optimal experiences,” in those mundane spaces that are rich with meaning if one dwells in present and not always in the future.  The surgeon and the rock climber sleep, eat, shower and defecate for longer periods of time than they perform surgeries or death defying climbs.  Csikszentmihalyi even acknowledges that any experience can produce flow, but there is only one example from common experience: a mother reading to a child(Unfortunately, this experience may be less common than a parent starting the child on a video or a computer game.).

Flow, like the next promotion, the next raise or the bigger house becomes the goal of life, that thing we long for while we trudge away doing dishes, taking showers and cleaning the yard.  Maybe Csikszentmihalyi would say I’ve misread him, but when he laments how much “psychic energy it takes merely to get ready in the morning, eat breakfast and drive to work” leaving very little for “substantive purposes” it’s obvious that these activities(seen as meditative exercises in some cultures) are viewed as barriers to the good life, roadblocks to flow.  I love taking showers.  Even the drive to work can be a time for reflection, thought or a good book on tape, if one can cease to view the freeway as a battlefield or something that must be hurried through in order to arrive at the “substantial” stuff.   Eating is one of the great pleasures of life, something you get to do several times a day.  Why not thoroughly enjoy it?  Just don’t eat at McDonalds.

Flow almost seems to be a transfer of corporate ethics into psychological life.  Csikszentmihalyi writes, “When a person uses up a fraction of his life and nothing complex results from it, he is wasting psychic energy.”  Later he writes, “Complexity does not come cheap; anything outstanding and enduring has its costs, either material or psychological.”  This is true to a degree, but not all good things come solely from effort, nor bad things solely from a lack of it.  It is ironic that the American work ethic has its origins in Puritanism which teaches the doctrine of grace.

The best thing about Good Business is the questions it raises.  Throughout it I found myself both strongly agreeing and disagreeing, writing things in the margins like, “What?!”(to his assertion that happiness is the result of “doing our best”) or “Is this a worthy challenge?”(to a CEO challenging his staff to increase sales from 300 million to a billion a year) or “Excellent point!”(to his quote “The assembly-line methods commonly applied to education all too often produce neither joy nor learning.”) or “This is important?!?!”(in response to Richard DeVos having his PR department send letters of congratulations, that DeVos signed, to people mentioned in newspapers who did “unusual things and good things.”)  There are assumptions that need to be challenged and ideas that deserve attention, many more than can be addressed here.  An entire book could be written in response to Good Business.

Much business literature rightly acknowledges that employees, particularly those who are lower-level workers or lower and middle-managers, often do not have a voice and are not genuinely allowed to offer their opinions or make decisions.  Here, in Good Business, just as it so often is in the workplace, these voices are again left out of the discussion.  Certainly, let’s hear from good CEOs, some of whom are found in this book.  We need them.  But the view from the top offers only one side of the story and this story has multiple narrators and many, many subplots.  So let us also hear from store managers, shipping clerks, truck-drivers, receptionists, salespeople, construction crews and a host of others whose experiences with and opinions about work, life and meaning would be extremely valuable to this discussion.  They are often invisible not because they choose to be so, but rather because those around them choose to see through them.  Their rumblings presently emanate from underground, but their seemingly discordant notes are an essential part of the music.  Just ask any good conductor.

Note: This review was shortened and translated into German and currently appears in the Summer issue of business bestseller under the title, “Low Flow und ze viel Leadership.” The Corporate Asylum’s quest to take over Europe has finally begun. Wish us luck.

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