What’s Your Sign?
The more I drive in Atlanta, the more I’m convinced that yellow traffic lights are just a suggestion. Is the guy in front of me really in a bigger hurry than I am? And what does it say about him when he floors the accelerator as the light turns yellow? It tells me that he’s aggressive, impatient and driven. Is he a guy that reaches his goals faster than most other people? I don’t think so. I think he’s reckless, unlawful and a few fries short of a Happy Meal. No matter what kind of guy he is, he sends a sign with his actions.
That makes me wonder–what’s my sign? What do my actions say about me when I don’t know people are looking? Are my character, integrity and honesty evident in all that I do? If actions really do speak louder than words, what do they say? What’s my sign?
What’s your sign when the light turns yellow, or it appears there’s danger ahead? When good times seem lost in the turmoil, does your sign say, “Proceed with Caution”? Are you approachable and trustworthy, or are you explosive and volatile? Does your sign say “Yield,” or are you signaling you don’t want to own the problem? When people are looking for leadership, does your sign say “Merge Right”? Are you patient; someone who quietly waits his or her turn to go with the flow? Or are you someone that will blaze a new trail rather than sit idle?
Does your sign say “Stop” or “Do Not Enter”? Do you look as if you’d prefer that troubled colleagues came back when times are better? Do you feel as if you have a crisis to deal with and you’re very happy and safe in your bunker? In tough times, does your sign say, “One Way” or “No Turns”? Are you just looking out for yourself, unwilling to change direction? Or does your sign say “Slower Traffic Keep Right” or “HOV Lane Only”? Can you send out the message that signals your confidence, encourages associates to follow your lead, assures them that you know where you’re going and how to get there?
These are fun, but the message is a serious one. Everyone has a sign. You carry your sign with you when you come into work in the morning, and when you return home in the evening. You can’t escape it. Your sign sits outside your office, and it follows you to lunch. It’s there after you turn the lights out, and it’s with you when you scramble to make the kid’s ballgame. No matter what someone wants to talk with you about, they see your sign before they see you.
FDR and the History of Signs
When FDR campaigned against Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression, few people really knew who he was, or what he could possibly do for them. But in one of the most difficult economic times in history, he exuded confidence, optimism and a reassuring, paternal tone. When he made his first inaugural address in 1932, America had not yet hit bottom in the Depression, but FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Did he really believe that? Did he really have no fear about the depth of despair in the nation, and how difficult it would be to lead Americans back to better times? No matter; his sign said, “Yes, I Will.” He became the leader of a country in great need. Surely he experienced hopelessness and uncertainty, but he never showed those signs to the country he was leading. People embraced his sign, his attitude, and began clawing their way back to prosperity.
When approached by the U.S. Olympic Committee to coach the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic hockey team, Herb Brooks was uncertain, at best. He wasn’t sure anyone could play with the Soviet Union, never mind beat them. But that’s not a sign he ever gave his team.
He assembled what could arguably be called a band of young, relatively inexperienced misfits. Kids who for the most part had never played together before, assembled in short notice, to take on a group of Soviet men who’d been playing together for years, winning nearly every time they played.
Brooks worked his team hard, always suggesting that they would play as well as they practiced. Although he often went home to his wife suggesting regret over accepting the assignment, he never let his team see that sign. He built their confidence. He worked them hard. He convinced them they could win. His sign was so convincing that he began to believe it himself. Every sign he gave them was positive. Forget about history, forget that no one thinks you can win, and forget your limitations.
Of course, they beat the Soviet Union and went on to win Olympic gold. Everyone in the country believed in them once they won, but it was the sign from leadership that kindled the fire in the hearts of the team.
What’s Your Message?
So what does your sign say about you? Are you misunderstood? Try to imagine approaching your office, about to bring yourself an unexpected challenge, or about to ask for advice or counsel. When you see the sign outside your office, will you enter at your own risk?
Transparency is a good thing if you’re happy with the image you can see. Your attitude, your character, your integrity precede you wherever you go because you’re placing the signs alongside the road. Place them well. Make sure your sign gives proper direction, guidance and instruction. Does your sign say “Open For Business,” or does it say “Everything Must Go”?
No dangerous intersection is without a traffic sign. At your intersection–where budget meetings, reductions in force, profit/sales shortfalls, family issues, general malaise and your personal health come together, “Proceed With Caution.” Be thoughtful and deliberate in who or what has the right of way. And be careful to make sure you’re directing traffic properly by giving the right sign.