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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Boundary Spanning Leadership

by Christopher Ernst

In his recent Newsweek article What People Will Die For, the influential columnist Fareed Zakaria wrote about a growing global phenomenon – the persistence and intensification of the boundaries between subnational groups. With the waning influence of the battle of ideology (liberalism, communism, socialism), humans’ oldest identities have moved to the core of intergroup relations. In Pakistan, the societal rift that most deeply envelopes the life and loss of Benazir Bhutto is the divide between the country’s various regions. In Kenya, the tragic events associated with the recent election stem from a break-down along tribal lines. In Iraq, intractable divisions of religion continue to stall efforts toward a more peaceful future.

While the pull of old identities is currently most visible in developing nations, Zakaria notes that this trend is alive and well in the developed world. While Belgium went six months without a government because of the harsh divisions between Flemish and French speaking populations, Scotland elected a party whose central platform pivots on independence, seeking to unhinge the 1707 Acts of Union that established the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Scotland, and Wales.

Leadership research and practice has traditionally focused on the need for leaders to manage and protect group boundaries. As the events Zakaria describe make clear, the opposite response is increasingly called for – the ability for leaders to reach across, span, bridge, and bring groups together across boundaries.

Through the Leadership Across Differences project, (, CCL is currently seeking to understand the increasingly important and necessary role that boundary spanning leaders play in bridging divides between groups in service of a larger vision, mission, or goal.

Critical challenges in Pakistan, Kenya, or Iraq will not be solved by leaders working only within a single identity group. Likewise, this holds true for any of the most pressing issues of today including poverty, education, human rights, healthcare, and the environment. The implication for leadership is this – as ancient identities work to pull groups apart, the role of leadership will increasingly be to create the context and space for these groups to come together. When group boundaries are successfully bridged, pent-up breakthroughs and innovations are unleashed. This is both the challenge and the opportunity for boundary spanning leadership.