THE BLOG
12/07/2013 04:09 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2014

Great Leaders Inspire, But What Inspires Leaders

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

"How do great leaders inspire?" asks Simon Sinek, in his now famous TEDTalk on the subject.

Sinek has a great answer. Great leaders start with the why -- telling us not how they're going to do something, rather, why they're doing it. The why inspires, the how not so much.

Yet there's a deeper question here. Not how great leaders inspire, rather what inspires great leaders.

Turns out we have an answer to that question as well -- though a peculiar one at that.

The answer is the radical state of consciousness known to scientists as "flow."

In flow, we are so focused on the task at hand that all else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.

We call this experience flow because that is the sensation conferred. In the state, every action, every decision, leads perfectly, fluidly, effortlessly to the next. It's being swept up in the river of ultimate performance.

No question about it, all of our greatest leaders were flow masters. -- Steven Kotler

This last bit is no understatement. Researchers believe flow responsible for most athletic triumphs, major scientific breakthroughs and significant progress in the arts. In business, a ten-year McKinsey study found executives in flow five times more productive than their steady state peers. No question about it, all of our greatest leaders were flow masters.

But equally important to this discussion is how flow makes us feel. Abraham Maslow believed the experience so profound that it literally "justified existence." Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term "flow", said "the whole effort of humankind through millennia of history has been to capture these fleeting moments of fulfillment."

In other words, flow not only creates the massively amplified performance that leads to greatness, it also rewards the incredible struggle that is always required by greatness.

And this is exactly the issue. We know flow is the secret to superman, yet it's a well-kept secret. The state is extremely elusive. Seekers of all sorts have spent millennia trying, but few have found a reliable way to reproduce the experience.

Yet -- perhaps even more peculiar -- this is not the case with action and adventure sports athletes.

In fact, over the past few decades, this unlikely group of suspects has produced nearly exponential growth in ultimate human performance -- which is performance when life or limb is on the line. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

So why is it happening now?

Simple: These athletes have become the very best flow hackers in history. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. Flow is the only reason these athletes are surviving the big mountains, big waves and big rivers. As I say in the video, when you're pushing the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: It's flow or die.

But for you and me, this is very good news. Researchers have lately made enormous progress on flow. Advancements in neuroscience and technology have allowed us to substitute hard data for what was once subjective experience.

This means, by using the feats of these extreme athletes as case studies, we can unlock the code of flow, bridging the gap between the extreme and the mainstream, and begin applying this knowledge in all domains in society.

This means the greatness of our greatest leaders has become a very real possibility for all of us. To put this differently, this video is the trailer for my forthcoming book, The Rise of Superman (which explores these ideas in depth), but the book is perhaps misnamed.

If we can learn to harness flow in our own lives, then it's not just superman. It's the rise of everyone.

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