Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving
Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming
Chris Ernst and Donna Chrobot-Mason
(McGraw Hill, 2011)
The authors of Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for
Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming
Organizations have indeed hit a home run in terms of their
timing of this publication. Tools they are making available to the
executives and senior leaders in the federal government are most
A major undertaking is in the worksthough it has been months since
a White House blog post on January 30, 2011, alerted many to the
fact that Jeffrey Zients, the federal governments first chief
performance officer, was to lead a reorganization of the federal
government. This organizational event will carry with it the high
risks that are inherent in any private-sector merger and
Failure rates for mergers and acquisitions have ranged anywhere
from 50 percent to 80 percent. In the private sector, we factor
into the equation the multi-billion dollar asset value of the
companies being merged or acquired. In the public sector, it is
taxpayers money at stake
The private-sector risks are normally linked with the diverse
cultures and the skills of its senior leadership to pull it off. It
is much the same for the public sector, so this book is a must read
for those who will be tasked with assisting and leading the federal
A measure of success in any major reorganization is being able to
find common ground among the units being merged. Organizations and
groups tend to define their boundaries, but sometimes they do not
clearly mark them.
These boundaries may take the form of a culture, an age range, or
possibly a gender difference. Vertical and horizontal
organizational units may have developed their own unique culture,
their own special standards, or their own support system, and they
want to keep their members safe from outside influence by generally
keeping nonmembers out.
It is difficult, but not impossible, for an organizational unit to
open up its boundaries once common ground is found and allow others
to enter. This meeting creates a nexus or the nexus effect of
significant importance. In this book, the authors offer six rather
specific tools that leaders can use to increase and facilitate
collaboration to reach common ground and the nexus effect.
In-Depth Global Research
Boundary Spanning Leadership is the result of a rigorous
study of 25 organizations. A team of behavioral scientists under
the auspices of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), a
nonprofit institute headquartered in North Carolina, collected the
data. The project spanned five continents and involved the creation
of a database of more than 2,800 survey responses and more than 300
One of the authors, Chris Ernst, is a senior faculty member for
CCL, which provides research and training to managers worldwide.
Donna Chrobot-Mason, the other author, is an associate professor in
the psychology department at the University of Cincinnati and a
director of the Center for Organizational Leadership.
Together, they produced a book that includes many stories,
reflections, and tools for those who will lead the multiple
reorganizations that are inevitable within the federal government.
Stories of Walls, Bridges, and Stakeholders
The authors use storytelling to draw the readers into real case
studies that highlight the need for an intervention. They describe
the barriers to reaching a common ground, provide the tools to work
through these boundaries, and provide exercises to enable the
reader to reflect upon how they all work in unison.
The stories identify and illustrate five types of boundaries:
vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic, and geographic. The
first boundary is vertical and spans across levels in an
organization, ranks and seniority, and includes power and
authority. The second boundary, horizontal, encompasses the walls
created by functional silos, organizational units, peers, and
Another boundary, which is not always seen as an obstacle, is all
about stakeholders. This refers to working across the touch points
of external partners including alliances, networks, value chains,
customers, shareholders, advocacy groups, other governmental
agencies, and communities.
A fourth boundary is demographic in nature. It addresses leading
among such diverse groups as gender, race, education, and ideology.
The final boundary is geographic. Distances, locations, cultures,
markets, and regions are the walls that give us pause.
Tools for Connecting, Reflecting, and Transforming
Significant obstacles present themselves in each of these
boundaries, but the authors provide the tools necessary to bridge
the gaps in an effort to find common ground and experience the
- Buffering is a technique that shields a group from an adverse
situation so that they can have time to regroup and repair any hurt
feelings or misunderstandings.
- Reflecting allows a group to see an issue or an event from
multiple perspectives. It is through this reflection that insights
and common ground can be reached.
- Connecting is a technique of bringing diverse groups or
individuals together so that they might connect on levels other
than that which they encounter barriers. Last summer President
Obama played golf with Speaker of the House John Boehner in an
attempt to connector find common ground between their two political
- Mobilizing is often necessary in mergers and acquisitions.
Boundaries are reframed so that new stories and new cultures can be
created and nurtured.
- Weaving is employed to interlace group boundaries that are
positioned to support mutual goals. The identity of each group
remains intact throughout this process.
- Transforming is the practice of bringing divergent groups
together to collectively support the new directions of the
I cannot fully convey in a review the power of these tools and how
they can be used in your organizations. But I hope I have piqued
your interest about the value that these concepts can bring to a
changing government landscape.
The authors have done an excellent job of describing the boundaries
and in providing leaders with the tools to find common ground. This
can increase the odds of success in transforming organizations.