Traffic Light Leadership

2015-05-01

The traffic light. An electronic, three-colored sign that exerts no physical control over any person. No traffic light has ever reached out to touch a person or vehicle. They have never uttered a spoken command to anyone passing through an intersection. Just light. Red. Yellow. Green. Three colored dots or squares, and occasionally some arrows. So simple and seemingly irrelevant, yet the traffic light has a profound impact on society. It establishes order. It encourages efficiency. It saves lives! Testimony of this fact is made when the traffic light is ignored. Chaos, injury, and even death can result.

Traffic lights are so commonplace that we rarely stop to consider the power they have. When traffic lights first came into use in the early 20th century, drivers and pedestrians (and horses?) probably marveled at them. Now, with more than 300,000 of them in use in the United States (according to one university study), we don’t think of them any more than we marvel at the wonders of air travel, microwave ovens, or smart phones.

We’re not awed by traffic lights, but they are indeed wonderful. They’re amazing for what they accomplish so quietly and subtly.

Have you ever thought about how you are like a traffic light? (Neither did I until I sat down to write this article.)

I’m not thinking about the red/yellow/green metaphor. Leaders “signal” stop, caution, and go in many ways. It’s a core part of our work, but I’ve got something else much deeper in mind.

What amazes me about traffic lights is the way they are so quiet, so subtle, but have such a profound impact on society.

As a leader, you have the same impact through quiet and subtle elements of your presence and actions.

As a leader, you send many kinds of signals throughout the day:

  • How you walk into the office: Head high or low? Bounce in your step or dragging along? Smiles or grunts as you walk by others? Making the coffee or grumbling over the empty coffee pot?
  • How you greet people who enter your office: A smile or an exasperated, “What do you need?” Stand up or stay seated?
  • How you act in meetings and conversations: Looking people in the eye or checking your phone? Asking questions or grunting tacit approvals? Showing up on time or arriving late?

So quiet and subtle, but each option has such a profound impact!

The bad news is that your own “traffic light characteristics” are already deeply-ingrained habits … and you already know how hard it is to change a habit.

The good news is that a sincere effort to change just one of your “traffic light characteristics” will have a dramatic impact on your followers and their willingness to accept your leadership. (Ask one of your followers to help you and hold you accountable.)

At a deeper level, though, you must do more than change outward habits. The bottom line is that this is an issue of humility and how you love and respect others. (However, starting with the behavior can have a positive impact on the mind and the heart.)

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae, he was addressing a people who seemed to have lost their way when following Christ. They had been exposed to many alternative belief systems and needed to be nudged back onto the path. As a leader, I know how easy it is to lose my way. I know you do, too.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is particularly helpful in this regard. For example, he reminded them, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2, NASB), and “as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12, NASB).

As leaders we are so easily distracted by P&L statements, production problems, bickering employees, lost clients, and on and on and on. Set your mind on the things above. Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, gentleness, and patience.

Stay humble and love people.

Returning to the traffic light metaphor, you need to rewire the mechanisms inside so that the signals are bright, clear, accurate, helpful. Keep in mind, though, that it is the Holy Spirit who does the “rewiring.” That’s not a new idea. About 1000 years prior to Paul’s letter, King David wrote:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:10-12, NASB)

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Credits
Photo “Traffic Light Tree” by William Warby. Available at Flickr.com.

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