The nature of leadership competencies is evolving because the context and challenges facing leaders in organizations today are shifting, as are the demands and speed of necessary change. One quality that is emerging as essential is the need for leaders to be focused outward, reaching out and moving across many boundaries, spanning multiple constituencies of people. The leader does not just lead downward, but also out, across, up, and down, crossing many boundaries and hearing from many interest groups and communities.
While other members of a team or organization are engaged in sustaining current operations, focused either inward or somewhat narrowly on outer connections to a key group of customers or suppliers, the leader has to act as a boundary spanner bringing needed information into the system, engaging and taking into account the needs of multiple external stakeholders, and balancing the demands of prior agreements, current systems, external constraints with the need for change and innovation. The complexity of this is incredible.
Watching with appreciation the diplomacy of our celebrated and recently retired U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I am struck by the need to balance the divergent demands of many internal U.S. constituencies—congress, the defense department, media, and public opinion—with the evolving pressures by external governments and events, some of which are unknown or not appreciated by the internal constituencies. While she may act on what she knows or in response to multiple demands, Clinton also had to continually listen and remain open to other voices, who did not know what she knew and who had a different experience or values framework. Her ability to do the right thing and act with integrity alone would not offer her a clear path for action. The right thing appeared different to each constituency. She had to balance all sorts of voices and listen, but also assertively defend her own and other’s policies. Watching her testify to a sometimes belligerent senate was a case study in how a leader has to communicate, listen, and balance many opposing forces, and survive with their credibility intact.
In a smaller way, every leader has to perform such balancing acts. They often are privy to information that is not fully known by others. This may not be secret, but simply hard to convey. Every group will say that they want more communication and information in a world where there is already too much. How much can people be informed and how loud must we listen to their voices so that they are meaningfully engaged in the work of an organization and not disaffected? A leader must decide how much each group needs to know, but they will often feel frustrated and feel they do not know enough. They then blame the leader for not communicating. The challenge of transparency is not a clear one: some information cannot be shared, other information is too complex to share, and other information is available but would take considerable time to process.
How does a leader face these challenges? First, they have to set clear rules and policies to define how they are including and balancing the needs of each constituency, inside and outside. A leader, who can define a clear structure for how things are done and then act consistently to honor it is highly valued and respected. The challenge arises when policies are ambiguous and a situation emerges where people do not feel that the leader is behaving congruently with the policies or values.
Another area where a leader must be direct and forthright, which is often unpopular, is in presenting constraints on what can be done. A system can redefine itself, but there are laws of tax, commerce, trade, confidentiality, and prior agreements, like pension plans and contracts, that cannot be ignored or redesigned out of existence. Every change occurs in a context of things that cannot be changed and the leader has to keep each constituency in mind of these.
Leaders, however, can present constraints in different ways. The leader can be problem-focused, presenting the constraint as a given that cannot be questioned. He or she can take a solution-focused and say, “We need to take this into account, but maybe we can find a way to respect the constraint and still find a new path.” Solution-focused activity is creative and focused on change, but respects reality.
Another element of boundary spanning for a leader is when the leader is able to bring together two divergent groups. Rather than act as a go-between, handling communication between two groups directly, the leader can tell each group that they have an important perspective, but that they need to get to know and work with another group that sees things differently. Engaging with people rather than doing things for people is an important element of boundary spanning.
While new concepts of leadership are about collaboration and about the leader as a servant and helper, the additional elements of boundary spanning and balancing are much more active, creative, and essential, and demand a more active role for the leader. The leader has to balance yin and yang, active and receptive, outer and inner, in order to manage the complexity of a changing, hard to define, organizational challenge.