[Guest blogger Nina Peterson is the COO and a partner at Wisdom Works. She last blogged about leadership strength through altruism.]
The recent news about WikiLeaks (see NPR for a detailed recap) reminds me of one of my coaching clients. You might say she had a sort of “leadership leak.” She is a fairly new manager in a small, growing organization with a culture that is very flexible, entrepreneurial, and all about employee empowerment. That was almost her downfall.
The values of her organization encourage people to take initiative, bring themselves fully to work, and make things happen. And it pays off—the people who work there are dedicated to the mission and their results are impressive. Our colleagues at the Center for Creative Leadership might call this boundary-spanning leadership. It’s a type of management that seeks to break down barriers that limit our ability to succeed. It is effective when departments feel walled in, like grain in silos. And it can foster healthy new forms of interaction at times when the levels of an organization seem impermeable. For my client though, she suddenly felt shaky about the foundations of the very management structure she had always depended on.
A healthy boundary-spanning culture works well for many people. In fact it is common today for organizations to seek to create an open, participative environment where information is shared for the good of the whole and employees are creative and collaborative in meeting client needs. But in the case of WikiLeaks, an attempt to make documents more widely accessible brought embarrassing revelations to light. Now the country’s diplomatic corps are scrambling to come to terms with this new transparency. Similarly, my client is learning a few key lessons about boundaries.
Specifically, her “leak” sprang from a very ambitious and capable employee in her department. He regularly seeks to go above and beyond the strict definition of his responsibilities—the kind of team member you love, right? Right … but only up to a point.
One day my client found herself blindsided by an untimely decision made by her superior. It was a decision that fell within her responsibility and that she was actively collaborating with others to finalize. Her employee had short-circuited a “chain of command” (although that’s overstating it for her organization) and my client was the one who got shocked. To be fair, her employee was simply seeking clarity and following a habit he had developed: to go wherever he could get answers in the moment.
As leaders, it is natural to relax when we have talented performers on our team. Situational Leadership teaches us to support employees once they demonstrate their capability and succeed outside the box (learn more in this brief, helpful essay by Bernard Erven—a PDF document). It is only when free-flowing activity becomes chaotic and unproductive that we need to re-establish a code of conduct with more targeted direction. That was what my client was facing, and in our coaching sessions, she realized that she had been vague about roles and scope. We determined that she needed to follow the UCSF faculty recommendation that workplace boundaries be “carefully negotiated in an open discussion about responsibilities, goals, and priorities.”
Consider the adage: good fences make good neighbors. Leaders who assert their responsibility and authority create a container where employees can more accurately channel their energy and creativity. It’s similar to using a bellows, which contains and channels air to fuel a fire: it accelerates the process. Once my client declared her leadership position, reinforced productive boundaries, and outlined her expectations for coordination, she and her employee achieved a mutual understanding for how to work together without “leaks.”
Photo by dougtone