Boundary Spanning Leadership

Boundary Spanning Leadership is a recent White Paper published by the Center for Creative Leadership.  This research, conducted with 128 senior executives during 2008-09 brings into focus the leadership challenges faced by senior executives as they engage across vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic and geographic boundaries.   The research found that whilst 86% of executives said it was extremely important to be able to work across boundaries in their current leadership role, only 7% saw themselves as very effective at doing so.   In particular, bridging horizontal boundaries (across functions and expertise areas) was cited most frequently by the executives as the most critical boundary to span and essential to fostering innovation and transformation within the organisation. 

Of course the notion of boundaries and boundary management in leadership is not entirely new.  A 1992 HBR article (Reprint 92304) entitled The New Boundaries of the Boundaryless Company postulated that we need to see the role of the leader/manager as one who stands at the boundary.  In particular, within the fluid structures of the modern organisation, the article cites 4 psychological boundaries that the leader needs to attend to:  the authority boundary (who is in charge of what), the task boundary (who does what), the political boundary (what’s in it for us) and the identity boundary (who is, and isn’t, us).  Rather than controlling these boundaries, effective leaders contain the anxieties and concerns that arise around these boundaries so their staff can be productive.

Regardless of whether we see the boundaries as physical or psychological, tangible or intangible, it would appear that leaders who can navigate multiple boundaries to build alignment around a common vision will be best placed to deliver now and into the future.  So, how can we develop boundary spanning/management capability in our leaders?  We can:

  • Specifically structure on-the job / developmental assignments to stretch capability across one or more new boundaries (eg. Cross-functional project, different geographies, disparate stakeholder groups, secondment to client organisations)
  • Focus coaching support on how the leader conceptualises their role in their mind this is particularly important in role transition as the person creates and embeds new role-related boundaries
  • Assess leader capability to deal with increasing levels of complexity and ambiguity
  • Design learning simulations which require integration across multiple boundaries for effective task performance.  Simulations such as these are more likely to replicate the skills and emotional capacity needed for success in the modern workplace
  • Encourage leaders to foster boundary awareness and boundary spanning capabilities in more junior staff, for example by making cross-functional collaboration a requirement of any project they undertake
  • Focus Executive/Leadership team development on horizontal boundary spanning and collaboration, particularly for organisations where innovation is crucial for future success
  • Ensure all development interventions acknowledge the complexity of the system/s that leaders operate within, rather than being linear and reductionist in their formulation


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