Leading for Creativity ~ The Correlation Between Coherence, Flow and Creative Thinking

The bi-annual 2010 IBM Global CEO Survey identified the single most important leadership attribute CEOs are looking for in future leaders is creativity and their ability to cultivate creativity throughout the organization.  Today’s global business environment continues to grow in complexity and volatility.  Creativity, at every touch point throughout an organization, is now a key, strategic differentiator that directly contributes to competitive advantage.  Not simply in relationship to what companies do in their marketplace, but how they go about doing it as well.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall seeing creativity as part of my business school’s core curriculum.  Or being offered any seminars, workshops, or creativity coaching while working my way into leadership in Corporate America.  So how does an aspiring leader learn how to cultivate creativity in themselves so that they might then begin to propagate it throughout the workplace?  After four years of canvasing the peer-reviewed research in a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, including creativity research, combined with applying and validating our approach in a variety of workshop settings and coaching engagements, here’s our suggestion.  It starts with a journey as old as humankind; it starts by stepping onto the path of authentic self discovery.

It turns out, creativity is whole brain thinking.  The right brain/left brain paradigm has been proven to be wildly over generalized.  The creative thinker’s brain oscillates readily between periods of spherical thinking (traditionally called divergent thinking) and convergent focus.  It moves readily between both hemispheres of the brain.  The creative thinker’s brain displays both detachment and emotional self-regulation (a key inhibiting neurological activation in the pre-frontal cortex identified during convergent focus).  It is open, intuitive and highly inclusive of novel perspectives.  Leaders can begin to improve their creative thinking capabilities, and more importantly, their ability to cultivate and sustain a highly creative, organizational culture, by developing the core competencies of emotional intelligence (self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness and co-creative relationship skills).

Our brains have plasticity; the ability to develop new neural pathways, which, quite literally change the way we think and perceive the world around us.  This is especially true in the prefrontal cortex, which is the most recent part of the human brain to have evolved.  It is also the last part of our brain to fully develop.  It continues to mature and come online until our early to mid-twenties.  To paraphrase Daniel Goleman, the prefrontal cortex is the executive center of the brain.  Neurologically, it is at the junction of our ancient amygdala (our early warning center) and our higher functioning, rational brain.  When we develop skills that support the growth of our emotional intelligence, new neural pathways emerge along with new connections.  By developing and practicing self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and our relationship management capabilities, we step upon the path to self-mastery.  In doing so, we can positively influence and initiate biochemical cascades (hormones), within ourselves and in those around us, that directly effect our creativity, productivity, physical and psychological well being.

Those capable of self-mastery, of mindfully engaging their emotional landscape (internally and externally), experience multi-dimensional benefits.  First, they experience the physiological and psychological benefit called coherence.1   Coherence occurs when the oscillatory systems of the body (i.e. heart beat, respiratory rate, blood pressure, brain waves) synchronize and become entrained together in frequency.2  Coherence improves physiological function on a biochemical and metabolic level.  We all know that unhealthy levels of stress have a negative impact on our immune system and the health of our heart.  Being in a state of coherence is believed to have the opposite effect.

Achieving coherence also has a positive impact on cognitive ability.  When we are fully engaged and enjoying what we are doing we enter what renowned researcher and psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as flow.  Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s research looked into the psychological state of a wide variety of professionals operating at peak performance.  When they were fully engaged, focused, and enjoying their endeavor, their biochemistry reflected an increase in cortisol (from the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal, or HPA axis) which brought them to a place in which they were taking full advantage of their cognitive and/or physical abilities.  If the HPA axis shot past this point due to stress, adrenaline and cortisol levels continued to rise and performance rapidly diminished.  His work proved that a person’s emotional state is a governing factor in cognitive and physical performance.

Still another benefit of coherence is its effect on our ability to positively engage and motivate those around us.  When we express empathy for another being, entrainment of each person’s physiological rhythms ensues.  Research conducted by Drs. Levenson and Gottman at UC Berkeley observed this phenomena between spouses.3  Research conducted by Carl Marci at Harvard University documented similar results of coherence and physiological entrainment between patients and psychotherapists during expressed moments of empathy by the therapist.4  When people connect emotionally we actually connect physiologically as well.

Emotionally intelligent leaders can actually affect their own biochemistry and state of flow as well as the people around them.  Doing so positively impacts organizational culture, opening and holding the space for creative thinking to emerge throughout the organization.  If there are any secrets to developing the right leadership competencies for the 21st century’s multi-cultural, multi-generational, creative, adaptive workplace, they lie in our very own human nature.

1.)  R. McCraty, M. Atkinson, “Psychophysiological Coherence”, D, McCraty R, Wilson BC, eds. Emotional Sovereignty. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, forthcoming.

2.)  R. McCraty, “The Energetic Heart – Bioelectromagnetic Interactions Within and Between People”.  Institute of HeartMath, Boulder Creek, CA., 2003.

3.)  R. Levenson, A. Ruef, “Physiological Aspects of Emotional Knowledge and Rapport”, In: W. Ickes, ed. Empathic Accuracy, Guilford Press, New York, New York 1997.

4.)  C. Marci, “Psychophysiology and Psychotherapy:  The Neurobiology of Human Relatedness”, Practical Reviews of Psychiatry,  2002; 25(3).

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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