top of page
  • Writer's pictureMarisa Guerin

Leaders Work at the Boundary

Updated: Oct 27, 2018

Marisa Guerin, PhD - October 24, 2018

Years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger demonstrated what became known as “shuttle diplomacy." He went back and forth between the leaders of contentious states, interpreting for each what the other party needed and wanted, and how they saw the situation – including his own nation, the United States. He was working on the boundary, actively integrating critical conversations on matters of international importance.

If you have managed people or projects, if you have led a team or an organization, then you, too, have worked at a boundary – probably several. It’s one of the many “invisible”, but important, features of life in leadership. I use the word invisible because normally you can’t really “see” the boundary that differentiates your team, your department, your community or your project from others. In fact, we can’t even really “see” a project or an organization or a department, when you think about it. We use members, or physical locations, or technology or some other proxy for the identity “boundary” that we are aware of. (It might be revealing to ask your colleagues what they "see" in their mind's eye when they speak of the organization you belong to with them!)

But a boundary is an important idea for the success of any manager or leader, because the role of a manager lives on the boundary. That’s the very nature of the responsibility you accept when you take on the management of a group or a project or a congregation. If you are promoted or elected to a managerial or leadership role -- but you continue to operate as if you worked “within” the team or project, you are failing to move yourself to the place where your work actually lives. If you aren’t working at that boundary, you are missing in action from a key dimension of your responsibilities.

What do I mean by this?

A boundary is a demarcation of a dimension that warrants focused management attention. A boundary both separates and connects. It lets you know which people, processes, materials, or places are assigned to your oversight, stewardship, or accountability, and which are not. It should also put you in relationship to other groups or processes are interdependent with yours, because you must collaborate if you are going to successfully fulfill your shared mission.

For example, the manager of a dining service in a senior residence works at the boundary that contains within it responsibilities related to managing the cooking and serving staff, ensuring menu planning and ordering of food supplies, probably overseeing a budget and ensuring that health regulations are followed, etc. But this manager can't be successful if she or he only deals with what is "inside" the job -- they are also responsible for attending meetings with their peers and the senior operational leadership to whom they report; they need to know about ebbs and flows in numbers for meals and how to support special events planned for the residence as a whole; they must interface with medical and nursing staff for nutritional programs; and they need to provide reports and information of various types for administrative purposes. A good boundary manager will facilitate the right connections with interdependent departments, will negotiate resolution when there is a conflict of priorities, and will buffer their own staff from too much distraction so that the dining service runs smoothly.

Even if you hold the position of leader of a whole organization or religious community, you still have to work at a boundary. Your boundary role means that you represent all of your members to the outside organizations with which they interact; and it also requires you to speak to and for the whole. Yours is the boundary position that holds everyone in a shared identity.

I’m going to unpack three implications of good boundary management: defining boundaries, calibrating them at the “Goldilocks” level, and integrating across them.

DEFINING The first potential trouble spot is pretty basic: sometimes it isn’t clear what is within your scope, and what is not. Many brand-new or informal organizations have fluid or absent boundaries, because the differentiations that matter are still emerging. Those who take up leadership often establish their scope simply by taking on increasing responsibility for what needs doing until they bump into someone that says, “No, this is my area, not yours.” What ensues is either conflict, or negotiation, or creative accommodation, and once resolved, things move on.

Even managers in very large corporate settings can have this experience, because not every organization pays up-front attention to clarifying the expected scope and impact of leadership roles, especially with respect to LATERAL relationships.

An effective team leader needs to be able to define and negotiate the scope of their responsibilities and the nature of their accountable relationships, sometimes on a regular basis if the environment is dynamic.

CALIBRATING Some teams or units can be experienced by their organizations as “over-bounded”. It’s hard to communicate with them, they do things their own way with or without regard for consequences to those who may be interdependent with them. They may feel victimized by other groups, or superior to them, but in either case, they have strong “walls” – it’s hard to collaborate with them. You will hear lots of “we” and “they” language. Picture a circle drawn with a thick solid line, encasing the team within it. For example, if an elected leadership team tends to keep all significant deliberations to itself and circles the wagons when challenges arise, it is going to have a tough time reaching an appropriate balance of response to its members and to outside groups that are interdependent.

Other teams can be experienced as “under-bounded”. Their members don’t feel very connected to one another, and they don’t have much sense of belonging or loyalty to the unit they ostensibly belong to. It’s hard to make agreements with them as a group, because you’re never sure who can speak for them. The contribution that they are collectively responsible for delivering may be unclear to them and to others. Picture a cloud of players with a barely-visible dotted line around them. For example, if the network of congregational members who are involved in peace and justices ministries is widely dispersed over many diverse initiatives, it may be very difficult for a leadership team to pursue a shared agenda in partnership with them on behalf of the whole community.

A team that has an appropriate, permeable, but definable boundary can be said to be in the “Goldilocks” zone: not too tight, not too loose. Clear enough to know who they are and what they are responsible for doing, and also able to communicate and collaborate with others who have a relationship to their work. Picture this “just-right” boundary as a visible dashed line that indicates what lies within but has easy access to neighboring units and teams. An example might be a patient-centered health care team where each member – physician, nurse, physical therapist, nutritionist – can work with the other team members closely to coordinate the care for a specific patient, but can also draw on the deeper resources of their professional “family” as the patient’s needs change.

The business concept of "boundary-less" organization refers to an organization where the cooperation of the members is NOT impeded by walls and barriers....but that doesn't mean that there are no identities within it. The most dynamic and flexible organizational designs foster the capacity of the members to join with others in timely and appropriate ways to fulfill the mission. Rather than being actually boundary-less, they are more accurately described as being fluent in the process of rapidly reconfiguring the structures of cooperation that are needed at the moment.

INTEGRATING What is the work of a leader at a permeable boundary? The leader/manager is responsible for tending what crosses the boundary: buffering the members of the team from excessive pressure, ensuring that necessary resources are available to them, making sure results are delivered, filtering the many messages from the larger system so that the team members remain clear about their priorities and goals. The leader amplifies some messages in the service of the work and dampens or paces others. The leader attends to the level of risk facing the working group, and keeps it at a tolerable level.

Most important, the leader psychologically straddles the boundary that separates and connects one unit and the next. For example, if the leader of a financial department also sits on the management team for the enterprise, then she is responsible for sophisticated “shuttle diplomacy” between these two groups, each of which she belongs to. She must advocate to the more senior team on which she sits on behalf of the needs and perspectives of the team she represents, so that their voice is heard. But she does this as someone aware of her "dual citizenship" -- she is also a member of the management team that has its own accountability, a larger circle that includes her department along with many others. From the perspective of her management team role, she is able to speak to her financial department about the goals and requirements of the whole system, even when those requirements mean that the preferences of the financial department cannot be fully met.

In straddling this boundary, the manager optimizes the best way for her department to be a contributing member of a larger system. She connects both parts, while protecting the limits that ensure effectiveness.

Leaders who live on the boundary of the whole organization with its outside environment must similarly represent reality and vision clearly to the members and must ensure that they are fruitfully connected to the external resources that will sustain them. For those in elected congregational leadership, this can be challenging because the members are unlikely to have as clear of view of the whole context as the leaders. (It's so very true that where you sit determines what you see.) The leaders working at the boundary of the whole are responsible for guiding long range planning so that the entity as a whole is sustainable and fruitful in the future.

Leaders who display faithfulness to the needs of the team they lead as well as prudence and practical wisdom in collaborating with other groups earn the trust of their team. Living on the boundary is not an easy job, and it requires both cognitive and emotional sophistication. A leader who only speaks favorably of the group they are with at the moment and joins in complaining about the "other one" is showing her/his incapacity to represent and balance the legitimate value of potentially competing good goals, and that leader eventually loses the confidence of each group.

Pretty much everyone in an organization is responsible for some boundary that is under their accountability, no matter how modest or how comprehensive their role. It may be the orderliness of the supply cabinet, or the health of the whole organization. And in organizations with truly distributed leadership, all members need a view of the outermost boundary, and a commitment to doing what is necessary for the sustainability and effectiveness of the whole.

What boundaries do you live on? Are they clear to you and others? Are they permeable enough, and sturdy enough? Can you connect your area of responsibility to others with integrity and courage?

Good luck with your own version of "shuttle diplomacy" in the interest of collaboration.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page