The Unexpected Leadership Lesson From Traffic School

Sometimes your right of way doesn't matter at all. Sometimes, no matter how much you just know you deserve something, others won't see it that way or respect it. That's just a fact.
07/02/2013 02:36 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

It was a long, tedious process.

Really, there's nothing like sitting up until the wee hours of the morning finishing up traffic school to incentivize rule-following. I wound up doing it all online, in one sitting. (Let's just say I was near the deadline.)

The silver lining in all of this was a little nugget of a lesson that's already proven particularly useful. It's about a whole lot more than driving.

It's about leaders. It's about life.

It had to do with one simple line stated over and over again, related to things like what to do when a driver cuts into your lane... or when the pedestrian in front of you crosses against traffic... or when a driver shows signs of road rage.

The big answer? (Brace yourself.)

Sometimes you just need to give up the right of way.

We've all been in situations when we just know we have a right to expect something:

  • We are the boss... and expect our staff to create a special report for a meeting.
  • We are the staff who has been given full authority over a project... and expect our manager will sign off on it.
  • We are next in line at the store... and expect to check out and get moving. Next.

Each of these scenarios is perfectly reasonable... and in a perfectly reasonable world would all be done quickly and with a smile.

But we all know this ain't a perfect world.

Maybe our staff member isn't quite so into time management... maybe our creative boss loves to get his fingers into projects... maybe the person behind you in line has just one item and asks if she can go ahead.

When we have a perfect right to something and others fight us or don't come through, it can be extremely frustrating. After all, we followed the rules to get there. In some cases, we actually worked for the right. And when things don't come out like we feel it should we feel annoyed, disrespected.

Understandable. But here's the problem.

Sometimes your right of way doesn't matter at all. Sometimes, no matter how much you just know you deserve something, others won't see it that way or respect it. That's just a fact.

Which means there are some times, even when it might just kill you inside, where you need to give up the right of way... where you need to finish that report yourself, do the project over or let the person go ahead of you. Otherwise, it might just mean a whole lot more time and an even bigger amount of frustration for you. And, even if you push it, the other person might not get it. Or care. So you won't get to keep it anyway.


There are of course times when you shouldn't give up your right of way. There are times when we as a manager need to manage... when we as a parent need to parent. We need to teach lessons or model behavior or get things done.

But there are plenty of times when we don't need to use our right of way simply because we have it. And there are more of them than we may think.

How can we tell if this is a time to give up our right of way?

First, we need to examine why we're fighting so hard to keep it.

  • So... is this one of those times when our right of way absolutely matters?
  • Or... is this simply about having the right of way? Is it about our ego, because we feel we deserve it? Is it just about being right?
  • And... in the end, will giving it up really matter?

I've realized that the greatest leaders understand this point and practice it, because they don't let their egos get in the way. They choose their battles and find success on what really matters.

They know there will be times that -- no matter how right they are -- their right of way is simply not worth fighting for. They know they need to choose what will get them the greatest results, the greatest quality of life, the greatest peace of mind.

I try to learn from them. Which is why I let a speedy little driver go ahead of me at a four-way stop today, even though I got there first.

I knew it wasn't worth it. Besides, the last thing I needed was another incident to take me back to traffic school.

After all, I've learned the best lesson already.

This week...
Recognize how often you fight for your right of way just because you've got it. See if it leads to more frustration.

Then find one situation and give it up. See how it feels. Enjoy the peace it brings.

Then turn your focus on what really matters... and fight for it all you want.

Now go do good... and do it well.

For more by Deirdre Maloney, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.