Boundary Spanning Leadership: Bridging Differences in an Interconnected World


Boundary spanning leadership is a critical need in our interconnected and diverse environments. It refers to a process by which leaders can bridge gaps and foster collaboration across various organizational, hierarchical, and social divides. By effectively navigating these boundaries, leaders can create more inclusive, innovative, and adaptable organizations and coalitions that can better handle complex challenges.


A significant challenge in getting things done in organizations and communities relates to collaborating across boundaries. Boundary spanning leadership is an approach to foster understanding and collaboration across lines of difference to create more integrated, collaborative, and innovative cultures and solutions.  The benefits of boundary spanning leadership include enhanced interdependence and co-creation, knowledge sharing, and the ability to maintain effective external alliances and partnerships. It also promotes organizational unity, efficiency, and adaptability. Some examples of how boundary spanning leadership can be applied to enhance collaboration, innovation, and organizational effectiveness include:
  1. Cross-functional collaboration: Leaders encourage and facilitate collaboration between different organizational departments or functions to solve complex problems or develop new products. 
  2. Hierarchical Communication: Executives and managers actively engage with employees at all levels of the organization to share information and gather feedback.
  3. External Partnerships: Forming strategic alliances, joint ventures, licensing agreements, mergers, and acquisitions with other companies or organizations to enter new markets and create new solutions. 
  4. Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging: Implementing programs that engage employees of different ages, genders, cultures, and ideologies to advance inclusion and leverage diverse perspectives and capabilities.
  5. Global Teams: Managing and integrating teams across different geographical locations to ensure effective communication, coordination, and collaboration.
  6. Innovation and Problem-Solving: Creating innovative solutions via cross-functional teams to forge fresh ideas, support, and impact.


Boundary-spanning leadership is the capacity to connect and collaborate with individuals across positions, backgrounds, and locations. There are five common boundaries:
  1. Horizontal boundaries across divisions or groups
  2. Vertical boundaries between different levels of hierarchy
  3. Stakeholder boundaries with external groups such as customers or suppliers
  4. Demographic boundaries across age, gender, culture, ideology, etc.
  5. Geographic boundaries across different locations
The boundary-spanning leadership process involves a structured approach to navigating and connecting across various organizational boundaries. This process is essential for leaders aiming to foster collaboration, innovation, and adaptability within and outside their organizations. The process can be broken down into several key steps and practices:
  1. Managing Boundaries: The initial step involves recognizing and establishing boundaries by differentiating and clarifying roles, purposes, and areas of specialization. This step is crucial for building psychological safety and respect among team members.
  2. Forging Common Ground: After establishing clear boundaries, the next step is to bring groups together to achieve a larger purpose. This involves building trust, engagement, and shared ownership across those boundaries. 
  3. Discovering New Frontiers: This step focuses on the intersection of different groups, where their differentiated expertise, experience, and resources can be linked with an integrated vision and strategy. It's about leveraging the unique strengths of various groups to support breakthrough innovation, transformation, and reinvention. 

Sample Activity

There are several tools for exploring and developing boundary-spanning leadership. One process is to help the group surface boundaries, discuss them, and share existing practices for transcending them. A process that can be used is as follows: Set-up: Ask participants with a show of hands to express if collaboration is important. Next, ask them if they find collaboration to be easy. Ask what makes it hard. Use the conversation to surface the idea of differences and boundaries – silos, identity differences, geographic differences, etc. Ask what they think about when they hear the word boundaries. Next, ask what they hear when they think of frontiers. Explain that the words represent two views of the same situation and we’ll do an activity that will help us explore how to move from boundaries that restrict collaboration to frontiers and expand possibilities.   Reflection:  Ask participants to individually draw a spider or radar map (see example: Have the 5 boundaries listed on the poles and a scale running from 0 at the center to 10 at the outer end of each line. Briefly explain each boundary. Ask them to assess how important each boundary is to them with a mark on their chart and to make a second mark (using a different symbol or color) to indicate their level of capability.  Surfacing:  Next, calling out each boundary in turn, ask the participants to raise their hands if a boundary rates a 7 or above (or high) in terms of importance to them. Make a note of the most significant boundaries.  Exploration:  Starting with the most important boundary to the group, ask them to stand and form a horseshoe-shaped line-up representing their capabilities to manage that boundary, with one end representing the lowest self-ratings and the other the highest. They will need to talk with each other to share scores to determine where to stand.  When the line-up is complete, ask people at the low end to share what makes that boundary a great challenge. Invite 3-4 people to share. Then ask people at the high end of the spectrum to share what they may be doing to address that boundary so it isn’t a great challenge.  Repeat this process with the top 3-4 boundaries and the sharing. The practices can be debriefed.  Explanation: Ask people to return to their seats and then explain how boundaries can be addressed using the framework.
  1. Managing Boundaries
  2. Forging Common Ground
  3. Discovering New Frontiers 
These videos by Chris Ernst help explain the concept:


The Boundary Spanning methodology is derived from research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership and was encapsulated in the book Boundary Spanning Leadership by Christopher Ernst. Several related tools and approaches have also been developed to help leaders and organizations navigate and connect across various organizational and community boundaries.

Target Audience:

  • Leaders
  • Facilitators
  • Conflict-resolution professionals
  • Community organizers

Got feedback or input? Please share!