The reality of control

Before moving to Raleigh for college, I had never driven on a traffic circle. Then, shortly after I started, traffic circles became all the rage for US civil engineers. Circles appeared everywhere.

At my school


At home


And generally all over the US.

Now, I can go off on all of the benefits and drawbacks to installing traffic circles for days. But A) I don’t have time for that. B) 99% Invisible already does a great job of it

Eventually, I learned how to drive in traffic circles properly and how to appropriately honk in a very annoyed fashion anytime someone stops in the middle of the circle to let traffic enter.

Stop it.

But here’s the catch. I was used to traffic circles in the United State.

Charles de Gaulle/Étoile

The moment I set foot on the Place de L’Étoile in Paris was the moment that I really realized I was in France. As the lights of the Champs-Elysées unfolded in front of me, traffic whirled around the traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe.

Like, actually whirled.

See, the traffic circle there is a 12-lane traffic circle with no lane markings.

Which is absolutely insane.

With that many lanes, most of the rules surrounding traffic circles still apply but are highly edited due to the sheer volume pushed through the road each and every day. At that point, the entropy surrounding the system of that traffic circle is so much that to safely navigate that circle requires sharp driving skill and a sense of constant situational awareness.

Constant situational awareness

Long story short, entropy is an inherent disorganization in a system. It’s basically the definition of life. And here’s where control is very important. Unfortunately, the concept that most people have about maintaining control is beyond flat-out wrong: it’s potentially harmful.

That concept, of course, is micromanaging. Control is like quicksilver, too much of it can kill you. And like mercury, the tighter you, I, or anyone tries to hold onto it, the faster it falls out of our hands. At the end of the day, there’s only one thing that’s in our direct control. It’s the only lever we can adjust at any given moment and how judiciously we use it determines how successful–or not–we are in a given situation: our reaction.

What effective leaders do is different. Leaders don’t step in and try to control every element and place burdensome rules on everybody or make everyone constantly report what they’re doing.

Rather leaders do a combination of four things:

  1. Trust
  2. Monitor
  3. Help
  4. Breathe

Relaxed leadership

Here’s how it works.

First off, to be able to properly lead, there has to be an omnidirectional sense of trust that permeates the entire team. Each member has to trust each other and have confidence in their leader’s ability to support them when things go wrong.

When the captain is freaking out, the crew is bound to be freaking out ten times harder.

Because of that, a leader must be able to stay calm. Even when fazed, they have to appear unfazed by whatever is thrown at them in a given day. Their words must have the weight of a level mind so that the entire team can continue to work together effectively.

But a word is not enough. Even when there is trust, leaders follow up with their people. This isn’t to catch people slaking or even to keep people on task. The key is visibility. Visibility so that others can raise issues while still small and require little effort to fix.

Then, they do whatever they can to help, offering their knowledge and expertise to amplify that of those in need of help.

Internal locus of control

So far, all of this is focusing on one thing: the locus of control. According to the theory, there are two people: those with an internal and an external locus of control. An external locus assumes that control rests outside of the individual; it assumes that the person is a mere pawn in a greater game with ineffable results.

On the other hand, a person with an internal locus of control believe that fate lies in their hands and that their actions have an impact on their outcomes. These are the people that can take a deep breath in the face of a major disaster and get to work untangling the mess. They’re the people who don’t simply throw their hands in the air and shake their hands at whatever deity they do or don’t believe in. Instead, they act in whatever way they can.

Like in a traffic circle, these people don’t stop. They enter the circle confidently and do whatever it takes to make sure that they make it out alive.

After all, when the world is burning, the last thing we need it a mass panic.

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Cover photo by Mitchel Boot

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One Comment Add yours

  1. scottrab says:

    Modern roundabouts, the safe form of circular intersection, have only been in the US since 1990.

    Many people confuse other and older styles of circular intersections with modern roundabouts. East coast rotaries, large multi-lane traffic circles (Arc D’Triomphe, Dupont Circle), and small neighborhood traffic circles are not modern roundabouts. If you want to see the difference between a traffic circle, a rotary (UK roundabout) and a modern roundabout (UK continental roundabout), go to to see pictures.

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