The Trampoline Principle
Can you remember the last time you jumped on a trampoline? For some of us that may be longer than others but try and take yourself back to your most vivid trampoline memory. Imagine the feel of the mat beneath your toes, the beat of your heart as you shot into the sky, the sight of the earth as your feet floated up and up. Perhaps the more adventurous ones can recall flipping backwards and forwards with ease, as if you were weightless and gravity had no hold on you. Does the recollection of that memory fill you with happiness and childlike delight like it does me?
There’s really nothing like jumping on a trampoline. That rush of being jettisoned into the sky can make us feel more alive than almost anything else. Yet none of it would be possible if it weren’t for this amazing thing we call a trampoline. I’ve had trampolines on my mind a lot recently but for a reason other than the fact that they bring so much delight. To me, they have come to represent a powerful reality in life that controls whether our relationships, leadership, and lives are filled chaos or balance.
Or should I say “tension”.
At its most basic level, the trampoline experience rests upon the successful management of this one word: tension. Without any bells or whistles, trampolines consist of three integral parts: rigid tubing, a flexible jumping mat, and springs which hold the tubing and the mat together. If you try to utilize any of these parts in isolation, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Picture someone trying to use only one of the three components, thinking he or she could still bounce but just a third as high. It’s probably safe to say that the only thing they would achieve by jumping on a grounded mat is a loss of dignity. This is because in order to achieve the bounce you’re looking for, there must be tension between the rigid structure and the flexible membrane.
This idea of tension between trampoline components is very easily applied to tensions we experience in everyday life. While there are many tensions we must manage on a daily basis, I have found this tension between structure and flexibility to be especially potent in the context of effective leadership. In his book “The Power of Healthy Tension”, author Tim Arnold describes this tension as just one of many “Polarities”. Arnold describes a polarity as “a situation in which two ideas, opinions, etc., are completely opposite from each other, yet equally valid and true.” As I have contemplated this principle and wrestled with how to apply the lessons I took from trampolines to my own life and leadership, I developed what I call “the trampoline principle”, which is this: effectiveness is directly proportionate to how well tension between structure and flexibility is managed.
Two years ago, I served as the interim youth director at my church. During that time, I had many opportunities to learn how important this tension was (and how bad I was at managing it). If I were to relate myself to one of the trampoline components, I wouldn’t hesitate to claim shared heritage with rigid tubing. I am a rule follower to the ‘T’, I love processes and procedures, and nothing turns me on like crossing the last item off of my “To Do” list. While I wouldn’t say I started out being COMPLETELY incompetent at being flexible and extending grace when rules and processes weren’t adhered to, I was pretty dang close. I still recall the angst and frustration that would come over me many a night when computers and other equipment would malfunction, leaders would show up late, or things simply didn’t go according to plan. These deviations from my rigid, structured expectation of how the evenings’ events should occur would quickly send me into a frenzy, leading me to take out my frustrations on other leaders through curt remarks, impatient demands, and an overall lack of approachability. I was trying to achieve my high expectations by jumping on a pitiful “trampoline” that consisted of a rigid tube structure with no jumping mat or springs to hold them together (which is really just a sad excuse for a jungle gym). I was dysfunctional but I didn’t know how to change.
That’s when I began to seriously consider how to apply my own trampoline principle to my leadership. I began to ask myself what it could look like to incorporate more flexibility into my leadership style while still staying true to my God-given strengths as a disciplined and structured leader. As I considered this possibility, I remembered a story of two sisters who invited a great teacher and family friend of theirs over for dinner. Martha, the hypothetical rigid tube, takes the initiative to invite him over. She is clearly a good host and works hard to serve him both before the teacher comes and while he is there. Meanwhile, sister Martha, the hypothetical flexible jumping mat, chooses not to help eager beaver Mary out with food prep and instead plops down next to the master and listens to him as he tells stories. This does not sit well with Martha and she complains to the master about her sister not helping. The master responded by saying, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Many have misinterpreted this story to mean Mary’s flexibility and willingness to go with the flow is the best way to achieve effectiveness in life, but that is only partially true. If we return to the beginning of the story, we find that it was not Mary who made the event possible but rather “stick-up-her-butt” Martha (I can’t help but imagine Mary giving her sister a name such as this). Martha’s initiative and disciplined method of living made it possible for Mary to even have the chance to hear the master speak. In essence, Martha’s structure became the anchor which allowed Mary the freedom to experience the joy of living freely in the moment. It was a symbiotic bond in which both entities were inherently opposite yet simultaneously integral.
If we return to “The Power of Healthy Tension”, the author explains how these opposite inclinations are all part of the equation in achieving what he calls a “higher purpose”. I don’t think our trampoline could do a better job at illustrating what it is like when two opposite entities, held together in tension, work to achieve the higher purpose of becoming more effective leaders and human beings.
I have come to find that it is not a matter of WHICH is better but rather a question of WHEN is it better. As I grew in my journey toward becoming a better leader who could manage the tension between structure and flexibility, I learned that I did not need to sacrifice one for the other. Instead, I learned how to discern which tool to use given the situation. In doing so I learned to distinguish when I should practice flexibility and when I needed to rely on structure. In this practice I discovered a key realization: our organization functioned at its best when we created systems and procedures that allowed flexibility to easily weave throughout. We also must not forget to mention the fact that we are unique human beings with unique needs and not rigid, simplistic robots. All the structure and systems I had created were really pretty awesome and would have functioned perfectly if it hadn’t been for the fact that people were involved. People are messy.
While still ongoing for me, this process has dramatically opened up more opportunities for growth in myself and the organizations that I lead. I’m confident that applying the trampoline principle to your own life and/or organization will also aid you in increasing your own effectiveness. Whether or not you partake in the joy of jumping on trampolines, you can always grow your capacity for changing the world by learning to harmoniously manage the tension between structure and flexibility. And as our ability to manage this tension heightens, our effectiveness is sure to follow.
Have a nice jump.