Charisma and Flow

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Every so often you come across a study that sheds so much light on a field that you don’t understand why it’s not more widely cited. Raymond Bradley’s The Social Structure of Charisma of 1987 is such a book – it manages to be both deeply rooted in the Weberian theoretical tradition and strikingly original in its contribution to the field. (I feel it over-reaches itself theoretically a bit towards the end, but then ground-breaking studies often do have cracks in them, and that’s no reason to disregard what they do achieve.)

However, I recently came across a Masters dissertation by Dushyant Singh that builds on Bradley’s work to theorise not only the ways in which Al Qaeda is a charismatic organisation, but how security forces might use these ideas to damp down the charismatic effect in order to reduce its violence. Fascinating stuff, but not primarily why I’m mentioning it here.

What I’m interested in today is a diagram that Singh reproduces from a later study by Bradley and Pribam that refines the relationship between two key elements he identified in the book. Originally termed ‘communion’ and ‘power’, they are renamed in the 1998 study ‘flux’ and ‘control’. They refer, respectively, to the sense of deep affection and euphoria that results from merging of individuals into the group, and the top-down exercise of authority that keeps the emotional energy thus generated in check.

Bradley & Pibram's representation of charismaBradley & Pibram's representation of charisma

The diagram shows how control without communion produces a rigid group dynamic with no internal impetus, and how communion without control produces a volatile, unstable dynamic. But a balance of the two creates a charismatic group dynamic that has the capacity to endure so long as the two forces counterbalance one another. Once you get to exceedingly high levels of both, you get a state of turbulence that is also unstable, and may result in the dissolution of the group, or it may result in the group’s transformation into a much more radical form. (I imagine this a bit like the where Skynet becomes self-aware and takes over the world in Terminator.)

Now, a couple of things interest me about this. One is the way it sees the charismatic dynamic as a zone. There are clearly experiences that lies within it and others that lie outside it (which resonate with the ‘you either have it or you don’t’ kinds of mythology), but there can also be variability as to the strength and quality of the charismatic encounter. Some organisations may veer more towards the controlling, others more towards the volatile flux end; some have more of both than others.

The other point of interest was its resonance with the way Czikszentmihalyi theorises flow as a balance between challenge and skill. It’s not exactly analogous – hierarchical power over a group is not the same as an individual’s control over an activity, neither is the potential disorder of flux the same as the disorder an individual experiences when faced with a situation at the outer edge of their current ability. But, as I say, there is a resonance.

Czikszentmihalyi's representation of flowCzikszentmihalyi's representation of flow

(The flow diagram is inverted compared to the charisma one, in that Pribam and Bradley place the scale of control on the y axis and disorder on the x axis, while Czikszentmihalyi presents them the other way round.)

And this resonance is not just the parallel theoretical structure of a state that requires elements in two somewhat antithetical dimensions in order to exist. It is also an experiential resonance. The way it feels to be in a state of flow is much like the way it feels to be part of a group that has been galvanised into a charismatic state. In both states, you lose the sense of self; your awareness is fully wrapped up in the task at hand. And in both there is that deep sense of well-being, which comes partly from having no space in your consciousness for self-doubt, and partly from a sense of being connected to and part of something meaningful.

So, the practical question now emerges as: to what extent do the activities and/or approaches one uses in rehearsal to get into a flow state overlap with the activities and approaches one uses to generate a charismatic encounter?

I’ll attempt an answer another time. (Classic write-blog-post-to-work-out-what-the-question-is experience here.)

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