Early this month I had the pleasure of sharing lunch with a prized friend and mentor. We talked of many things including family, our individual efforts focused on inspiring others, the future of our ongoing personal experiments, updates on some of our respective proteges, and finished with a philosophical conversation on boundaries. It was not a structured talk; there was no agenda. As is always the case, the conversation just flowed and we crammed as much as we could into what turned out to be 90 minutes. We were so caught up in conversation that we never left his office, we never made it to lunch. We had more important things to share.

As per the norm, I left the exchange with my mind going 100 miles an hour, inspired by the exchange and anxious to move forward on some of the ideas we pondered. Since then, I have not been able to stop thinking about the idea of boundaries and how differently people view them. More specifically, I am baffled by how mindful some of us are to the boundaries set by others. I am not talking about legal limits or ethical comfort zones, as I am not the least bit interested in pushing those boundaries. I am interested in boundaries as they relate to personal responsibility, position descriptions, and individual initiative.

I will freely admit that in my younger days, I was keen on compliance. I did what I was told and often nothing more. I suffered from “It’s not my job.” I am proud to admit that I outgrew that long ago. In fact, some in my profession may shake their heads wondering why (or how) I find a way to get involved in the things that I do. Things that are in no way related to my job description; issues on which I have no formal responsibility or positional authority; and initiatives that clearly belong to others. The friend and mentor with whom I shared “lunch” is wired the same way. I asked him if he thought people questioned our motives for being so involved; if people might perceive our level of interest as inflated self-importance; and if people understood that we remain advocates for what could be as opposed to critics for what is. Part of the reason I asked the question was to check my answer. I had long ago come to grips with my assessment that for many the answers to the first two were most certainly “yes” and the answers to the third was “no”. Does that bother me? Yes. Am I concerned about it? No. Do I wish the answers to each were reversed? Absolutely. Can I do something about it? I think so. And yes, my colleague validated my assessment.

What can those of us who care too much to color within the lines, simply do what we are told, and adhere to our job description do to help others perceive us as we are?

True leaders understand that one of our primary responsibilities is perception management. We have a responsibility to help others understand WHY we do the things we do and provide them with an opportunity to bear witness to HOW we go about creating value. It is that level of interest that makes many of us so self-aware and allows us to tailor the message (be it words or action) that informs the perceptions of others. I am not advocating that we lead by polls or that we blindly respond to the perceptions of others. I am merely offering that the more we share, the more familiarity with our WHY and HOW we afford, the greater the trust we enjoy and the more plentiful our partnerships become – enhancing our shared influence. And influence is leadership, nothing more, nothing less.

How can we make boundary-less leaders the rule vice the exception?

I have been attempting to crack this code for quite some time. To date, my approach has been three-pronged: examples through action, influence through writing, and growing what I refer to as “The Coalition of the Doing.” Though progress is evident, the pace continues to be less than impressive. I’d love your ideas on how WE can migrate from linear (additive) to exponential (multiplicative) progress. Please share your thoughts on how WE can get there. And by WE, I don’t mean those of us in uniform or those of us in the profession of our nation’s defense, I mean those of us who truly aspire to “making a dent”, leaving a legacy, and developing partnerships with other collaborative leaders regardless of our current boundaries.

  • How aware of boundaries are you?
  • Do you tend to allow them to constrain you or do you attempt to expand them?
  • How might you develop more boundary-less leaders?