Posted by: chrismaser | May 13, 2010


Boundaries are those lines of silent language that allow a person to communicate with others while simultaneously protecting the integrity of their own personal space as well as the personal spaces of those with whom they interact.

The language of boundaries transcends individual space to include familial space, cultural space, and even national space. Understanding personal boundaries among individuals of the same culture is difficult enough, but expanding that concept into a fluid working ability among different cultures is most difficult to accomplish. This is especially true in situations where work may be done through a translator in a language a leader can neither understand nor speak.

A simple way of looking at boundaries is the adage “good fences make good neighbors.” As an a example, consider cliff swallows, which attach their mud nests to such surfaces as the faces of cliffs, the sides of buildings, and under bridges. These enclosed, globular nests share common walls, which not only strengthen the nests but also keep the peace by preventing the inhabitants from peeking into each other’s abodes. If, however, a hole is made in the common wall and the swallows can see each other, they bicker and squabble until the hole is repaired, which immediately restores tranquility.

A more complicated way of dealing with physical boundaries is to compare them to the home ranges and territories of animals. A home range is that area of an animal’s habitat in which it ranges freely throughout the course of its normal activity and in which it is free to mingle with others of its own kind. A territory, in contrast, is that part of an animal’s home range that it defends, for whatever reason, against others of its own kind. This defensive behavior is most exaggerated and noticeable during an animal’s breeding season.

How does this concept apply to us? Suppose it is Saturday morning, and you leave your home to take care of a few errands. You simply go about your business without paying much attention to what is going on around you or to the people you pass, unless you happen to meet someone you know. In general, you are simply engrossed in what you are doing. When you have finished your errands, you start home.

The closer you get to your neighborhood, the more alert you unconsciously become to changes around you, such as the new people moving in two blocks away. This “protective feeling” becomes even more acute as you approach the area of your own home and notice a car with an out-of-state license plate parked in your neighbor’s driveway. You get out of your car and immediately notice, perhaps with some irritation, that the neighbor’s dog has visited your lawn while you were gone. If your neighbor’s dog had anointed someone else’s yard with its leavings, you probably would have paid scant attention.

The same general pattern extends to your home. Inside your home, how well you know someone and how comfortable you feel around that person determines the freedom with which they may interact with you and your family and use your house. You are the most particular about your ultimate private space, your physical being.

For example, an unwanted salesperson may not be allowed inside your home. A casual acquaintance, on the other hand, may be allowed in the living room and use of the guest bathroom, but they are not allowed to wander about the house without permission. If one of your child’s friends comes over, they may be allowed in the living room, kitchen, family room, guest bathroom, and your child’s room (only with both your and your child’s permission), but is not allowed in your room or your bathroom. At times, even your children may not be allowed in your room without your permission, or perhaps you in theirs.

As you return home after a Saturday morning of doing errands, the closer you get to your home, the more you notice what is going on and the more observant and protective you become. Inside your home, the closer you get to your own room, and beyond that to your physical person, which represents your ultimate territory, the more clearly and carefully you define your boundaries. The reverse is in effect, however, as you leave your room and go into the rest of your house or your neighborhood, which represents your home range.

Although the above dynamic may function in a “normal” manner for strangers, it often becomes so blurred among the members of a dysfunctional family that personal boundaries, including the physical body itself, are violated. In some families, appropriate personal boundaries are all but absent. This dysfunctional trait is too often carried over into the arena of leadership.

Leaders, particularly those young in experience, are often puzzled about how to deal with the overly demanding follower or constituent. Because caring leaders typically feel they should extend themselves in being helpful, they often burden themselves with the unrealistic standard of giving unselfishly, regardless of how great the demands placed on them are.

These demands can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. To give you, the reader, a better sense of the trespass of boundaries, this paragraph and part of the next are written using the personal pronoun “you.” Suppose a person calls you frequently at home and expects to talk at length over the telephone, demands to see you more often and for a longer period than is necessary or you can accommodate, wants to see you socially, wants you to take care of them and assume their responsibilities, expects you to “pull strings” in their favor, demands that you make them “special” in your life by paying continual attention to them, or demands that you make their decisions for them. This is the reason a leader must draw clear boundaries.

It is useful for a leader to review their encounters with overly demanding constituents and see how they feel about these interactions. How were the demands placed on you, and how did you handle those situations? Can you say “no” when it is necessary or desirable? Do you value yourself enough to protect yourself from unreasonable demands? Do you allow yourself to be manipulated because you are afraid of losing your constituents or because of your need to feel needed?

The demanding constituent can feed the ego of an inexperienced leader, and for the unaware leader, there can be a personal, if unconscious, payoff. An unaware leader can delude themself into an exaggerated sense of self-importance by thinking that they must at all times be available to those who are in need. What would my followers do without me?

There are two imperatives in dealing with demanding constituents. First, you must be aware of the nature of the demands and your reactions to them. Second, you must have the courage to confront the person with your perceptions of the person’s behavior and your own needs.

It is therefore a leader’s task to set the behavioral boundaries as to the rules of conduct. This is critical not only because the rules of acceptable conduct are the infrastructure of society but also because the rules of conduct make true leadership possible. Understanding and respecting boundaries helps to build and maintain trust, which is important because interpersonal boundaries are an absolute social necessity of communication.

Let’s look at a few concrete examples. The most important interpersonal boundary for a leader to maintain is that of a servant at all times (but not a slave), because you serve as leader at the behest of your constituency. By staying within “servant boundaries,” you are non-threatening and can create and maintain a safe environment within which your followers feel freer to communicate. This means you must never crack a joke or allow anyone else to do so if that joke is at the expense of someone, which can only be insulting, such as jokes about race, religion, or gender.

One of the more important behavioral contracts that a leader must make with each person who speaks to them is to listen without interrupting. This is imperative because waiting your turn is part and parcel of civility and equality, both of which are prerequisites for true leadership and the safe environment in public debate that such leadership inspires. Listening empathically can also sway the uncommitted constituent.

Series on Leadership Challenges:

• The Challenges Of Leadership

• Dealing With Anxiety

• Use Of Power

• Criticism In The Form Of Projection

• Criticism And Your Image

• Being And Disclosing Yourself

• The Zen Of Perfection

• Honesty With Followers

• Understanding Silence

• Understanding The Need To Be Heard

• Dealing With The Uncommitted

• Accepting Slow Or Delayed Results

• Learning Your Limits

Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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