Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning

Book Review By Ron Cacioppe
Managing Director, Integral Development

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning" is a remarkable book, The author, who introduced the concept of flow in 1975 has extended the application of flow to the role of business in society.

He describes the new work as “a guidebook for a way of conducting business that is both successful and humane,” focusing on “how leaders and managers and…employees…can learn to contribute to the sum of human happiness, to the development of an enjoyable life that provides meaning, and to a society that is just and evolving.”


The experience of Flow is familiar to anyone who is passionate about what they do. It refers to that almost transcendental state we dive into when the world around us disappears and we are fully involved and focused in the moment. Recent research suggests that the flow experience is what human beings seek at a deep level, and that providing this experience is a major pillar of “good business”.

Flow is a special kind of enjoyment and is a common experience experienced by a wide range of people— creative artists, mountain climbers, stay-at-home mothers, workers in all types of jobs, and visionary leaders. A flow activity is intrinsically rewarding worth doing for its own sake, even if it involves monetary or other rewards. Experiencing flow contributes to our happiness and improves the quality of the work we do.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research has shown that there are many common elements:

  1. Deep, focused attention, sometimes to the point of joy
  2. Being fully in the present moment
  3. Very clear goals; you know what has to be done
  4. Immediate ‘on-line’, real time feedback; you know what you are doing is right
  5. A fascinating challenge and you have the skills to respond to it.
  6. Harmony with the situation; you are not in circumstances beyond your control.
  7. An altered sense of time; time usually stands still or passes slowly.
  8. The loss of ego; you immerse yourself in the moment and the activity.

A flow activity is intrinsically rewarding—it is worth doing for its own sake, even if it involves monetary or other reward as well. Experiencing flow, says Csikszentmihalyi, contributes to our happiness and improves the quality of our existence.

Flow experiences, with their balance of challenges and skills, lead to ever more refined skills and/or a fuller understanding of the subject at hand. If leaders and managers can design jobs to make workplaces more amenable to flow, there will be benefits for the organization and for employees. The best way to manage people is to create an environment where employees enjoy their work and grow while doing it.

It is the central concept of Good Business that flow experiences are not merely coincidences; that the experience of flow in the business environment, can be designed to occur much more frequently. Surveys in the United States and elsewhere show that more than 80 percent of adults do not experience flow on a regular basis. The potential for increasing flow and enjoyment in the working population is immense.

Because business is so central in today’s world—it controls the flows of vast resources and has a significant say in the direction of nations—bringing flow to work at an individual level is, therefore, essential. Strains that have appeared in the free market businesses such as the financial crisis, excessive greed, unethical practices and exploiting workers—are becoming increasingly frustrating and people are looking for a new approach in which short-term financial achievement is not the only indicator of success.

Good Business  was based on an extensive tri-university research project that utilized interviews with 39 “visionary business leaders” who modelled the desired behaviors. They ranged from Sir John Templeton to Anita Roddick of The Body Shop to Leon Gorman, Chairman of L.L.Bean, and are quoted extensively throughout the book.

The visionary business leaders broadly agree on this simple proposition:

“To be successful you have to enjoy doing your best while at the same time contributing to something beyond yourself.”  

Breaking this statement into its parts, we are all unique, but integrated. However, as we are connected irretrievably with other people and entities, we must live our lives in harmony with that reality as well.

Flow opportunities have diminished in today’s workplace because purpose or goals can be ill-defined, feedback may be inadequate, skills are not often well-matched to opportunities for action and many workers are not in control of the final result.

“The ideal organization,” says Csikszentmihalyi,” is one in which each worker’s potentialities find room for expression.” 

The leader becomes an enabler, rather than a doer, in this environment.


Anyone who has been involved in strategic planning is aware that the highest level of a plan is its vision statement, in which the organization defines the future state it wishes to work toward.

Csikszentmihalyi goes one step further and calls the vision’s “vital essence,”  the soul of the organization. Two examples of organizational soul are attempting to achieve excellence and doing something of benefit to others.

Properly conceived and applied, these kinds of overarching goals can galvanize a company’s workers in a way that the financial bottom line cannot.

In Csikszentmihalyi’s words:

“The search for a life that has “relevance or meaning”…is the primary concern of soul. This is…the need that motivates us to become part of something greater or more permanent. If a leader can make a convincing case that working for the organization will provide relevance…then his vision will generate power…
If…a vision is genuine and is carried into action, it becomes a powerful attractor for members of the organization. It provides a goal that is worth pursuing over and above the extrinsic rewards that can be provided by the job.”

Limitations of This Book

Csikszentmihalyi's chose to interview only CEOs as the voice of good business.  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 their companies?

There is an assumption 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. It would have been useful for the book to include interviews of people at lower levels to see if they believed the views of the CEOs and if they believed the purpose of their work is to experience flow.

Yvon Chouinard is the founder of Patagonia, a company that makes outdoor gear is a great example in the book.  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 is at the management level and do the people who are making his clothing get the same luxury? Some people have worked in a company for 20 years and have yet to be invited to any "retreats" though upper management always is.

Csikszentmihalyi spends 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 quotes Jack Greenberg, the CEO of McDonalds a place that isn’t known for healthy food.  He also chose the CEO of Amway which a lot of people associate with pyramid selling and a sales process that is irritating and manipulative.  Can you be a "visionary leader" and head a company that turns friends or acquaintances into irritating salespeople?

While Good Business suggests it is possible for everyone to achieve flow at work, workers at lower level boring 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. 

As happened to many good management ideas in the past, if managers try to use the idea flow, mindfulness and being the present as an alternative or excuse not to provide good work conditions or leadership, then we have missed the point.

Some people have criticised this book as simply a marketing ploy by the publisher to repackage Flow and Good Business into a successful book for a new audience.  While I can see how they might see this, I feel that Good Business goes much further than Flow and is a much better book since it takes Flow on to a larger social and organisational scale.

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. 

While he seems to be aware of Zen and other spiritual practices where a person does mundane tasks as a spiritual practice to drop the ego and experience the unbounded moment or flow, he does not discuss this possibility in business – to use repetitive work as an opportunity for spiritual development and flow. 

Tich Nat Han, a Zen monk, says that if a person cannot learn to be fully in the present washing dishes then s/he cannot truly live one minute of life. Teaching workers that is a radical shift in perspective.


Leaders can design jobs to make workplaces more conducive to flow, by creating an environment where employees enjoy their work, gain skills and are given challenges to help them grow. There are a number of things that can be done to increase the experience of flow;

By the organisation

  • Top management commit to building a workplace that fosters flow.
  • The organisation has an overriding worthwhile purpose and vision
  • Continuous communication of the purpose, vision and values to everyone.
  • Clear performance goals at the individual, team, and organisational level.
  • Good feedback mechanisms.
  • Match the challenges given to people to the skills they have.

By the individual

  • Think about the occasions when you have experienced flow and what you were doing, and use them as a springboard for increasing future flow at work.
  • Consider how you can contribute to the prosperity of your organization, beyond the financial bottom line, and act on your ideas. .
  • Hire a business coach who can help you experience flow, mindfulness and greater happiness.
  • Ask for clarification of your goals and for more feedback.
  • Find work challenges you but matches your skills.
  • Have your managers and employees read Good Business.  It could be good for your business.

In effect, bringing flow into work suggests that the purpose of work is not just to make profit or to grow a sustainable business but to experience flow, since that is what leads to true well-being and success for employees, managers and organisations.

Essentially, Csikszentmihalyi has given a modern name to aspects of spiritual and mystical experience that have been around for thousands of years.  Good Business  could be especially useful for anyone interested in practical philosophy and bringing mindfulness and spirituality into the workplace. 

At the end of the day Good Business is a study of consciousness, what makes us happy, what makes us do good creative work, and what makes humans want to really contribute to society and the world.

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