Boundary Work: Missing Link in Ethical Leadership Development?

Alice MacGillivray, boundaries in ethical leadership

This is guest post is by Alice MacGillivray is a Fellow with the Institute for Social Innovation at  Fielding Graduate University and based in western Canada. She help people in organizations and communities gain new insights, adapt to changing environments, lead and learn through the concept of an ecosystem-like work environment. Please join us on the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz, this Friday, April 12 at 5pm GMT/12pm ET/9am PT as we focus on Boundary Work: the MIssing Link in Ethical Leadership Development

In Human Systems Management, the brilliant systems thinker C. West Churchman wrote a thought piece called “Poverty and Development.” It is as difficult to convey insights of this piece through excerpts, as it is to convey the richness of a tapestry through threads pulled from its fabric. But I will try to illustrate with Churchman’s words:

I have on my desk two pictures. One is of a young boy who is crying; behind him is his mother lying on the ground…The other is of a woman, nicely dressed, wearing a handsome necklace. My own face, which I cannot see, probably has that strange academic curiosity, the can-I-write-an-essay? look. Of course, we cannot see the photographers’ faces, or the magazine editors’ faces. Or even you, the reader’s face…

Let us turn now to the first word of the constitution of the United States, and the Charter of the United Nations. It is “we” (“We the people of…”)…consider the UN and other organisations’ estimates of baby mortality caused by poverty around the world: 35,000 daily, or one million each month that die of poverty…Where is the “we” in these figures?…

I have been talking about a wide world “Weltanschauung”—a (WWW) in Internet language—in which poverty is created out of wealth. In this case wealth produces necklaces, roads, temples, large corporate headquarters and smooth-running ships, planes and autos; is there a “Therefore”? That is, is the real story that once upon a time a lady owned an eleven-million-dollar necklace and therefore a boy in Rwanda was crying for his supper, and that therefore his mother could not feed him?

Where do we draw boundaries?

Churchman is speaking to a fundamental leadership challenge.  A decision may seem successful and ethical within one boundary, yet damaging and unethical within another.  Creation of jobs in India may parallel job losses in the U.S.  Profit for an oil company may link to spills that destroy food sources for Indigenous communities.  Praise for a charismatic leader may discourage employees who did the work.  A decision for efficient clear-cut logging in North America might lead to boycotts of products by European customers. We must be reminded that we construct boundaries socially, even if we think of them as real (Richardson and Lissack).  And that social construction comes with built-in values.

Are boundaries bad? 

The concept of boundarylessness became fashionable via Jack Welch of GE and others.  We often complain about silos, communication barriers and knowledge gaps.  Yet, there are times when boundaries are useful. Do leaders invest enough effort in thinking about the value of different boundary approaches?  Do they think about the power implications of boundaries?

How do power and boundaries relate?

In his Theory of Boundary Critique, Midgley (2000) describes how powerful groups form bounded, influential cores. Each core group can value or devalue anything on its margins. Citizens can be valued or devalued by government; immigrants by longer term residents; visible minorities by visible majorities; field staff by headquarters and so on.  If these boundaries and value choices are not attended to, dynamics between the core and margins can consume considerable resources.

Which way do we face?

Once boundaries are drawn, we tend to face inward. Our dominant focus is on governance, structures and processes within [fill in the blank: our country, or department, our race, our firm, our school, efficiency, financial profit…)  The Harwood Institute is one organization that helps groups shift focus from inward to outward. Through this shift, organizations learn much more from communities, customers or clients and can better serve them.

Gerald Midgley is an internationally recognized systems theorist and practitioner who has worked with intractable community challenges. He considers “boundary” THE central concept in systems thinking. Can we ignore it?

Suggested questions for dialogue:

  1. Where have you seen boundaries hinder effective work?
  2. Where have you seen boundaries enable effective work?
  3. How might shifting from facing inward to outward change work in your organizations or client groups?
  4. What do we currently emphasize in leadership development?  Is boundary work on the current menu?
  5. What might change if leaders actively worked with the ethics of boundary choices?

About the author: Alice MacGillivray has a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University, where she is a Fellow with the Institute for Social Innovation. Her interest in boundaries began as a child, when she noticed the richness of intersecting natural systems. Alice’s dissertation explored ways in which respected leaders understand and work with boundaries. She lives on an island near the 49th parallel in Western Canada.

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3 thoughts on “Boundary Work: Missing Link in Ethical Leadership Development?

  1. Pingback: Do you think about boundaries?

  2. Pingback: Do you think about boundaries? | Alice MacGillivray

  3. The general meaning of ethics: rational, optimal (regarded as the best solution of the given options) and appropriate decision brought on the basis of common sense. This does not exclude the possibility of destruction if it is necessary and if it does not take place as the result of intentional malice..”

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