Traffic Jams

I love the speaking work I do, because even when I’m presenting about a topic I’ve addressed before, I always learn something new. 

I was recently with a group of church leaders, exploring improv as both a spiritual practice and a tool for good leadership. We were talking about the pace of change and how overwhelming it can seem. As a visual parable for this, I showed the short video Rush Hour. In this clip, a normal intersection has been creatively edited to heighten the traffic congestion, with lots of near misses and narrow escapes. (Click on the video below, or use this link.)

People usually resonate with the video immediately, with most folks feeling some level of stress at all the close calls. One person in this group loved it, though, as an example of a well-run system: Congestion is inevitable, but if nobody collided, and traffic kept flowing, that’s a GOOD day indeed! 

We reflected on the ways in which ministry leaders must manage complex systems involving staff, volunteers, church members, the community, and more. Then one person made a point that will forever change how I see this video. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but here’s what I heard and have continued to ponder:

We deal with other people all the time in our work. And it’s easy to imagine each of us as one car, or truck, or pedestrian in that intersection. But actually, each of us is our own intersection. Each of us is managing untold roles, responsibilities, and relationships. Our traffic is both internal (did I lock the front door? why is my teenager ignoring me this time?) and external (I’m two days late on that report; the dryer is making that weird sound again). 

Boom!

I felt the deep truth of my colleague’s observation. At the same time, I felt that familiar “ker-plunk” in my gut as I realized how much more complicated this makes our task. It’s hard enough to navigate the perils of leadership when you see each person in the group as its own moving part. But team members are all a network of moving parts. And leaders are their own intersections too. I imagined one intersection superimposed on top of another, endlessly, like those clear plastic pages in science books that show individual systems of the body.

I’m still pondering the implications of this insight. I also know that, as a leader, I can’t be other people’s internal traffic cop. The best I can do is keep my own intersection running as smoothly as possible—and keep an eye out for potential fender benders—even as I try to be compassionate toward other people’s internal gridlock, collisions, and close calls.

I’ve long loved the quote, attributed to countless writers and philosophers, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.” I recognize the truth of it, though I’m not always the best at living it. Maybe we could alter it slightly, to “Be kind, for everyone is fighting traffic.” 

Onward,
MaryAnn

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