Adapted from Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations by Christopher Ernst & Donna Chrobot-Mason

In a twist to current thinking about our global, interconnected society, we believe that the world is indeed boundless and flat, but that human relationships are still bounded and confined by powerful limits.

In a flat world, bridging boundaries between groups is the new and critical work of leadership.

Since Thomas Friedman’s 2005 bestseller, The World Is Flat, was first published, the world of business has felt anything but flat — the landscape wrinkled by the global financial crisis, climate change, the energy crisis and political and religious unrest.

Why do things feel bumpier than ever? Of course there’s no single answer, but we believe that the connections in our physical world have now outstripped the connections in our relational world. What is happening is that advances in Internet and collaboration technologies have dismantled many of the boundaries that once prevented people from working together. Yet as physical boundaries have been removed, the boundaries that still exist in human relationships remain, in sharp and jagged relief.

The boundaries that matter most today are psychological and emotional rather than organizational and structural. The divides and rifts in our businesses, communities, regions and countries are largely about identity: our core values, how we define ourselves and our beliefs concerning how we fit within our social world.

There is no quick fix or technical solution to solve problems rooted in the deeper dynamics of human relationships: trust, respect, common purpose, safety, belonging and uniqueness.

In navigating today’s unfamiliar terrain, we are all challenged to think and act beyond the current borders that confine us, our teams and our organizations as a whole. We must gain a new understanding of vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic and geographic boundaries and seek new solutions at the nexus where groups collide, intersect and link.

What does boundary spanning leadership look like in practice?

It can be seen when a cross-functional team with a history of poor performance becomes an innovation engine.

It is a key that unlocks the effectiveness of a virtual team by drawing on the talent and perspectives of its diverse members.

It is about creating time and space for each of us to open up to change, strengthen interdependence, transform the current state and reinvent what is possible.

Boundary Spanning Practices

Boundary spanning leadership involves six practices that help us to 1) manage boundaries, 2) forge common ground and 3) discover new frontiers.

Manage boundaries. The first step to spanning boundaries is, ironically, to create or strengthen them. You must be able to see group boundaries clearly before you can bridge them. Two practices – buffering and reflecting – enable you to manage the boundaries between groups. The practice ofbuffering involves defining boundaries to create safety between groups. Buffers monitor and protect the flow of information and resources across boundaries. Once groups have achieved a state of safety between them, the next practice, reflecting, involves understanding boundaries to foster respect. Reflectors represent distinct perspectives and facilitate knowledge exchange across groups.

Forge common ground. Common ground represents what is universal and shared. To forge common ground is to bring groups together to achieve a larger purpose. Two boundary spanning practices — connecting and mobilizing — enable enable you to tap into the human need to be part of something larger than yourself. The practice of connecting involves suspending boundaries to link people together and build trust between groups. Once the boundaries between groups fade into the background, the next practice, mobilizing, involves reframing boundaries to develop community and craft common purpose.

Discover new frontiers. A frontier is a place of emergent possibility. It represents the outer limits, the location where the most advanced and breakthrough thinking resides. The final two boundary spanning practices — weaving and transforming — enable you to discover new frontiers where similarities and differences meet. Weaving occurs when boundaries are interlaced in new ways to advance intergroup interdependence. Weavers draw out and integrate group differences within a larger whole. Once groups have achieved a state of interdependence, the final practice,transforming, is about reinvention. Transformers bring multiple groups together in new directions to realize emergent possibilities.

Want to be a boundary spanning Leader? The new book by Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason, Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations, is now available. Order the book and find additional resources, tools and other content at

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