January 19, 2018

Setting and defending boundaries

Three senior managersFlexibility is a good thing.


Sometimes—and about some things—we need to be inflexible: We need to have boundaries. We need to decide what we are going to accept and what we are not going to accept. Actually, we probably already know, deep down (we can tell by what upsets us—that’s a signal), we just need to articulate the parameters properly to ourselves, and our colleagues, if they’re involved.

Then we need to make our boundaries clear and visible to those we are interacting with, whose compliance we need—and whose liberty-taking is causing us problems.

Funnily enough, it can be in the other party’s interest to be compelled to act in a certain way if they want a particular outcome. They may benefit from that kind of influence.

For example, having high expectations of the time-keeping and focus of participants in events and workshops may actually be part of the learning. They need—maybe in some ways want—to be called out on their distracted behaviour, like checking their phones for email, or just not turning up at all.

Rather than being soft and accommodating, we may be more help to people if we set fair boundaries, communicate them clearly, and are robust in their defence.

How are your boundaries looking?

Demanding and accommodating

Three senior managers talkingIt’s good to be accommodating. It helps make a reality of collaboration and getting a group of people working together.

Sometimes though…

We need to be demanding.

Some roles involve directing an organisation on behalf of stakeholders of one kind and another. At times, that means asking clearly for what we want. That’s both the nature of the job, and the culture expected of the people involved—a shared value, if you like.

Different sectors have different expectations about the balance between being demanding and being accommodating.

Where’s the right point for you—soft or hard, or somewhere in between?

Good to be clear about this, perhaps even to flex a little, depending on the circumstances—on which tribe you’re with at the time. Or don’t expect to fit everywhere. That’s fine too.

The unchanging nature of leadership

Admiral Horatio NelsonWe’re so accustomed to ever-present change and the need to lead ourselves and others through challenging times, we’re inclined to think leadership itself is a changing field. I am anyway, or I was.

Actually, of course, it’s really the one constant…

I mean leadership in the sense of contributing something to help shape the future, or more literally, “stepping ahead.”

The nature of leading is a timeless quality, resting partly on skill, partly on personal presence, and partly on inner belief and sense of purpose, and more besides—an art much more than a science, and so somewhat elusive.

Our individual knowledge of leadership, of course, changes as we learn and grow.

And yet the nature of leadership probably stays the same, and so a very worthwhile investment.

Sometimes people talk about different styles of leadership. I’m not so sure. I believe all of these styles (or most of them) are part of the range of the best leaders—the ones with the most flexibility. Ultimately leadership encompasses them all.

Profiling—reformer or reinforcer?

Team of business people walkingThere’s a problem with the team. They’re not performing as effectively as we would expect…

Tempting perhaps to reach for the psychometric profiling tools to understand who’s doing what and why.

But there’s a danger…

The results of profiling are almost bound to reinforce the problem patterns because they give the individuals involved greater reason, justification even, for being the way they are.


They may become more aware of their traits and choose to change them—that is a possible outcome.

But it might be better just to build their flexibility in the first place; to coach them in different ways of showing up in the world.

Relationship mastery: For the young or for the wise?

Senior leaderRelationship skills are sometimes seen as a subject for members of the younger generation—as if their need is the greater and older colleagues already know what they need to know.

But it isn’t necessarily so. Sure, experienced people are more skilled in professional relationships, but they are called upon so much more given their positions and the scale of the challenges they face. The bar is so much higher and the need for flexibility and resilience so much greater.

An assumption that deep learning about interpersonal skills is really for the younger crowd suggests we don’t realize the power of the skills we could be acquiring. It shows, as ever, we don’t know what we don’t know.

The more authority and responsibility we have, the more we need the most insightful approaches to take us forward.

Wise heads need more mastery not less.

What’s the social function of competitive sport?

Rugby playerHow do we benefit from playing or watching competitive sport? Clearly there are health and fitness benefits from active participation, but what about the social benefits of a game?

The behavior of some of the followers of some sports might seem to preclude any social benefits, but even in those cases, the individuals involved are gaining a social benefit by belonging to a “tribe” of some sort, even if the rest of us would rather they didn’t.

Watching a game of some kind is obviously, at its best, fun, exciting and even invigorating. We bond with our fellow supporters of the same side, but what about the opposition? Does a hard-played, seriously-supported match strengthen relationships with the other side? And if so, how does that work? Presupposing that’s a desirable outcome, what does it depend on?

Is it about shared experience? Or an opportunity to work off a certain kind of energy?

Perhaps if we have the maturity to see ourselves as not just part of the tribe supporting our favorite team, but also part of that bigger tribe of fans of the sport, for example, or even just fans of high achievement in anything, then we deepen relationships with the other side.

What’s different in those sports where antagonism with the other side prevails? Is it down to a greater need to define ourselves as against another side, as NOT something? Does it indicate a lack of any other sense of identity?

Here’s my take on what’s worth thinking about…

1. Our ability to be aware of our own tribal behavior.

2. Our flexibility and willingness to align with a broader tribe when that’s what matters.

3. A sense of identity that isn’t defined as being NOT something else.

These points might apply to other situations perhaps, including ones where the stakes are higher (if that’s possible!)

What do you think?

“Flexibility and weakness are completely different” – Aung San Suu Kyi

“A steel wire is strong because it is flexible; a glass rod is rigid but may shatter.” Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticised alternately for being too flexible and too rigid, but her continuing appeal and influence suggests she has the balance right.

She has not achieved her objective, you may protest. What is her objective though? If it is peaceful change without bloodshed and saving the people of Burma from great violence, perhaps she is succeeding. Meanwhile, note the Burmese general’s fear in the face of a slight 65-year old woman of integrity.