Spanning Boundaries Can Give Direction to Leadership

By Bill Leonard Jun 26, 2012

​ATLANTA--What exactly is leadership?

Anyone who has attended more than one leadership development program probably knows that the answers to that question can differ widely given the circumstances and the person defining the word. This can leave some people confused and frustrated because leadership is not something that has a single, concrete definition.

“I have colleagues who decided they would take the challenge and find the best definition for leadership,” said David Magellan Horth, a senior fellow with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and one of the leaders of the executive education seminar “Boundary Spanning Leadership” conducted June 23 at the SHRM 2012 Annual Conference held in Atlanta. “They took every definition of leadership and examined each one, and what they concluded is that all the definitions do work at some level.”

After Horth’s colleagues considered all the different definitions, they ended up defining leadership in a much different way, Horth told participants of the day-and-a-half seminar.

“Leadership is a process. What we tend to do when thinking of leadership is confuse leaders with leadership,” Horth said. “Leaders are the people who are trying to do leadership.”

With any process, there must be input and, of course, output, Horth said. The input comes from many different sources as people share their experiences, skills and knowledge.

“Whether or not you are a formal leader, you are most probably engaged in the process of leadership,” Horth said.

The output of leadership is direction, and the process of leadership is the most successful when direction is combined with the elements of alignment and commitment, Horth said.

During the seminar, Horth and co-presenter Bill Howland, who also works with CCL, challenged participants to look differently at issues at work. In one exercise, participants used photos and images to describe the toughest challenge that they faced at work. Horth said the idea is to make people think differently about a problem. Most work problems are defined and discussed with words that people write down. Using images to define a problem uses different thought patterns.

“It’s a left brain vs. right brain way to look at this,” Horth said. “Images can evoke much different feelings and emotions, which in turn can radically alter someone’s understanding or perception of an issue. It can conjure up emotions and feelings that they haven’t experienced or thought of.”

In expanding thought processes, the group exercise started seminar participants on a discussion of the five types of boundaries that leadership must span to have the greatest impact and achieve success in an organization. According to CCL research, these five boundaries are:

Vertical: Rank, class, seniority, authority.

Horizontal: Expertise, function, peers.

Stakeholder: Partners, constituencies, value chain, communities.

Demographic: Gender, generation, nationality, culture, personality.

Geographic: Location, region, markets, distance.

Horth said research has shown that horizontal boundaries are the toughest for organizations to span. Silo effects are well-known and one of the biggest obstacles to business and leadership success.

“The problem is people view boundaries as borders that you can’t expand or go any further beyond,” Horth said.

The key factor in spanning boundaries is perception. And, according to Horth, those who view boundaries as opportunities to expand and grow instead of as impediments will make an important step forward in boundary spanning leadership.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect