Five Things Leaders Need to Know About Boundaries

Posted 04.08.2009

One thing is for sure about living in 2009. You don’t have to look very hard to find examples of what happens when people lose their grip on the boundaries that previously brought order to their lives.  Let’s take a look at a few examples that range from the seemingly ridiculous to the very serious to see what the common denominator lessons might be.

Blackberry1 The first is an article from the Washington Post titled “Text is Cheap” that documents the annoyances of being in conversation with someone who suddenly starts texting with someone else on the other end of their Blackberry or iPhone connection.  The article offers some advice for dealing with this situation including getting up and moving to another table until the offending party gets the message that you expect their full attention.  Sounds like a good move to me as it reintroduces some boundaries that encourage civil conversation.

Sen_stevens Example number two is the upcoming criminal investigation of the federal prosecutors responsible for the now overturned conviction of Senator Ted Stevens for accepting various gifts and household improvements from contractors in Alaska who wanted more government business.  Both the judge on the case and Attorney General Holder have excoriated the prosecutors for withholding evidence that may have helped the defense.  When a judge says that this is the worst case of prosecutorial misconduct he’s seen in 25 years on the bench, you sort of sit up and take notice.  It makes me wonder what happened to the professional boundaries that the attorneys were undoubtedly familiar with in their long careers in the law.  As the judge in the case stated, the government’s obligations to the accused apply whether it’s a “public official, a private citizen or a Guantanamo Bay detainee.”  Columnist Dana Milbank of the Post did a nice job of summing up how a culture can overwhelm longstanding boundaries when he wrote that Senator Stevens “found that when the government starts down a path of disregard for the rule of law — at Abu Ghraib, in the torture memos, in the mass firings of U.S. attorneys and at Gitmo — ultimately even a powerful lawmaker is not immune.”

 The third example to cross my radar screen is a speech that Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman of Goldman Sachs gave in Washington on Tuesday.  As Steve Pearlstein of the Post reports in his column, Blankfein explained Wall Street’s role in bringing about the current financial crisis in unusually candid and clear terms:

Blankfein1 "We collectively neglected to raise enough questions about whether some of the trends and practices that became commonplace really served the public's long-term interests… We rationalized because our self-interest in preserving and growing our market share, as competitors, sometimes blinds us — especially when exuberance is at its peak."

I think one way to interpret what Blankfein said is that self-interest can overwhelm boundaries that have been established for the common good.

Finally, I’m reminded of a conversation I had recently with a business unit leader about how the culture in his organization is shaped by a CEO at corporate headquarters who is known for yelling and screaming to make his point.  This BU leader told me that he has made it a point to coach the CEO to stop doing this.  I asked him how he’d gotten permission to be direct with the CEO and he told me that early in their relationship he was on a phone call where the CEO started yelling at him.  A few days later, the BU leader flew to corporate headquarters to personally tell the CEO that he wasn’t going to work with him if the norm included yelling and screaming.  The CEO got the message (in that case) and the BU leader’s credibility and influence went up in the process.

I’m ending with this example because I think it illustrates several things that leaders need to think about when it comes to setting, enforcing and living with boundaries.

1.    We need boundaries because they enable relationships, organizations and society to work for the common good.

2.    Boundaries can be quickly overwhelmed by group think.  When the mindset becomes “Everybody else is doing it, so I will too,” boundaries can easily go out the window.

3.    One of the jobs of leadership is to call out when established boundaries are not being honored and to take a stand in defense of those boundaries.

4.    Calling out what’s broken takes courage and comes with some personal risk.  The business unit leader in my last example was taking a risk when he flew to headquarters to let the CEO know that he wasn’t going to work for a yeller.

5.    You’ve got to understand your own personal boundaries and stay tuned into them to know when it’s time to take the risk of setting or reestablishing the boundaries that serve the common good.