Charisma and Flow 2: Nature of the Common Ground

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In my last post on this subject, the question emerged as to what kind of overlap there is between activities/approaches that generate a flow state with activities/approaches that generate a charismatic encounter. I’m thinking particularly of the choral rehearsal here, since that’s the primary context in which I’m likely to apply these ideas – though if we learn more generalisable things in the process, that’s fine too.

Now, for all the structural and experiential resonances between these two states, theorising their overlap has been trickier than I expected. This is partly because there is one huge apparent contradiction between the two. A key element to Flow is the sense of personal control, that what you are doing makes a defining difference to the outcome of the activity. Whereas, a key element of a charismatic encounter is the way people hand over their sense of executive control to the leader.

Nonetheless, the quality of really dynamite choral rehearsals where amazing things happen convinced me to keep probing this relationship despite this apparent conflict. I think the contradiction looks bigger on paper than it is in lived experience – there are certainly times when you have handed over your musical consciousness to a conductor’s direction, but retain the sense of responsibility to get things right! But noting the theoretical rift is a useful reminder that, while it is possible (and desirable) to generate both together, the presence of each does not necessarily guarantee the presence of the other.

The key element to emerge as the place where they work together was the way that for flow to occur, you have to be working at the edge of your ability. The reason it takes up the whole surface of your attention is that if you let go for a moment, you will fall off.

Various commonly-documented elements of a charismatic encounter can be used to promote this state. Charismatic leaders are typically reported to have high expectations of their followers, for example, and destabilising people from their comfort zones is one of the situational tools charismatic leaders use to generate uncertainty and therefore the need for direction in their followers. There are ways to destabilise people that don’t involve stretching their skills (an unpredictable temper, for instance – one of Hitler’s preferred methods we are told), but they are probably less useful to the choral director than those that up the technical or artistic ante.

The cult’s ‘demand for purity’ is relevant here too. Requiring members to adhere to strict requirements of behaviour and belief provides not only coherence of action that underpins effective ensemble, but also gives the individual that clear concept of the distinction between correct and incorrect action that is required for flow.

And common to all this is the requirement that participants extend themselves. Casual engagement cannot generate flow: you need to ramp up to that point at which the challenge is nearly but not quite exceeding your current skill level. And of course, the central characteristic of a charismatic leader is that they inspire commitment, even devotion, from their followers. The meanings they give to the situation through the cause they promote provide the motivation for the singers to throw themselves into the experience and out-perform what they thought was possible.

And the rewards come in two dimensions: the experiential reward of the process itself (communion and flow), and the outcome reward of achievement. People do feel wonderful about themselves when they have just contributed to creating something beautiful.

Working through this question has left me feeling a little more sanguine about the benefits to an ensemble of a charismatic director. Having recently explored charisma’s relevance to hypnosis, cults, terrorism and corporate collapse, I was becoming particularly sensitised to the dark side of the phenomenon – it’s not surprising that charisma is mistrusted as often as it is celebrated.*

But flow is an inherently positive state. It is immensely pleasurable in itself, and people emerge from it better at doing something that they care about. So a potentially useful check when using techniques to turn rehearsals into charismatic encounters is to consider whether the techniques are also promoting a flow state. It may not be a bullet-proof ethical test, but it’s a good start.

* Incidentally, you may have noticed that the adjective ‘charismatic’ is used in the kind of novel that gets left in holiday apartments to indicate that a character is going to play a key part in the story’s emotional narrative, but the author isn’t telling yet whether it will be as villain or hero.

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