Flat World, Hard Boundaries – How To Lead Across Them

Entrenched boundaries can limit an organization’s success; enlightened leaders see them not just as problems to solve but also as potential opportunities.

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As Thomas Friedman so persuasively argued in his book The World is Flat,1 a significant effect of globalization is a leveling of the playing field for many of the competitors in today’s worldwide markets. Technological innovations have revolutionized the workplace, bringing the competitive power of emerging economies’ fast-growth organizations into closer alignment with their developed-world counterparts. Paradoxically, at the same time that these developments have made doing business across borders easier, relational barriers — obstacles to productive human interactions — not only remain largely unchanged but in some cases have deepened.

Consider the hurdles faced by those who lead functionally diverse teams across levels of management and with a variety of organizational partners who often are based in different countries. These leaders’ jobs are made easier by the technological advances that help to close gaps involving distance and knowledge. But the leaders also are confronted with entrenched boundaries such as residual bitterness between historical enemies, culture clashes, turf battles and generation gaps. Such boundaries invite conflict, impose limitations on performance and stifle innovation.

The Leading Question

What are the major boundaries faced by organizations and what kinds of practices may leaders employ to span them?

  • The boundaries are vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic and geographic.
  • The practices are buffering, reflecting, connecting, mobilizing, weaving and transforming.
  • Their use results in safety, respect, trust, community, interdependence and reinvention.

It is clear that a flat world requires a shift to new and more effective leadership strategies, especially as leaders move from middle- to senior-level management. But provocative questions must first be addressed: Which boundaries create the greatest challenges? What are the implications for those who manage and execute business strategy when boundaries are constantly changing? How do leaders span these boundaries, thereby potentially enabling groups to achieve results together that are well beyond what they could have done on their own?

Seeking answers to these questions, we and our colleagues at the Center for Creative Leadership developed a comprehensive database from some 2,800 survey responses and nearly 300 in-depth interviews with leaders across six global regions. We also surveyed an additional 128 CEOs, senior vice presidents and directors of some of the world’s most recognizable companies. In this article, we share these findings.



1. T. Friedman, "The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century" (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005).

2. This article is primarily based on C. Ernst and D. Chrobot-Mason, "Boundary Spanning Leadership: Six Practices for Solving Problems, Driving Innovation, and Transforming Organizations" (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010). For additional information, see www.spanboundaries.com.

3. The three outcomes are based on the leadership definition and philosophy developed by the Center for Creative Leadership. See E. Van Velsor, C.D. McCauley and M.N. Ruderman, eds., "The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development," 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010); and W.H. Drath, C.D. McCauley, C.J. Palus, E. Van Velsor, P.M.G. O’Connor and J.B. McGuire, "Direction, Alignment, Commitment: Toward a More Integrative Ontology of Leadership," Leadership Quarterly 19, no. 6 (December 2008), 635-653.

4. Previous work has focused on spanning structural and information boundaries. By contrast, we address the role of leadership in spanning social identity boundaries. See H. Aldrich and D. Herker’s classic article "Boundary Spanning Roles and Organization Structure," Academy of Management Review 2, no. 2 (April 1977): 217-230. More recently, Deborah Ancona and others at MIT examined how leaders and teams operate beyond traditional boundaries. See D. Ancona and H. Bresman, "X-Teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate, and Succeed" (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007).

5. International Labour Office, "Global Employment Trends Brief" (Geneva: ILO, 2008).

6. M.B. Brewer, “The Social Self: On Being the Same and Different at the Same Time,” in “Intergroup Relations: Key Readings,” eds. M.A. Hogg and D. Abrams (Philadelphia: Psychology Press, 2001), 245-253. For more background material on social identity, see D. Chrobot-Mason, M.N. Ruderman, T.J. Weber and C. Ernst, “The Challenge of Leading on Unstable Ground: Triggers That Activate Social Identity Faultlines,” Human Relations 62, no. 11 (November 2009): 1763-1794.

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