Why Great Leaders Are Ditching Boundaries and Embracing Values

Leaders must have the courage of their convictions. What they really need are core values.

BLOG POST | Oct 29, 2019
By Nick Kittle, government performance and innovation coach, Cartegraph

The fundamental nature of leadership is having a vision, knowing where you’re going, and painting that vision for others to see and join. If you can help people see the beauty of your concept, you will sing to the hearts of others a siren’s song of possibility. A vision and a future worth fighting for. And, if you can do that, people will respond.

As a result, leaders must also have the courage of their convictions. This means they stand for something. So, I want to ask, what do you stand for? What defines the core of who you are? We’re not talking about paragraphs, just a few choice words that speak to who you are and what you stand for. Write yours down and reflect on these words. These are the core of your values—the core of your vision. As leaders, we should all have these values and this vision.

Values vs. Boundaries

As a government performance and innovation coach, one conversation I’ve been having with leaders involves this concept of values versus boundaries. I know that much of the modern psychological talk advises us to develop boundaries in relationships—it’s a softer way of saying “find common ground”—wherever that ground might lie. Unfortunately, I think this term and concept is leading to a great deal of unhappiness and a crisis of leadership. Let me explain why.

When we think of boundaries, we naturally think of lines that can be negotiated with others. This is partially true. Boundaries are areas where we negotiate our behaviors with another person and find common space to operate. However, this concept doesn’t work well with people who have trouble establishing or understanding boundaries to begin with. People will think of all interactions as a negotiation when sometimes they’re not.

In my experience, when people who are trying to lead do so from a place of boundaries, they almost always fail. I find many people are looking in the rearview mirror at their “original boundary” when they encounter someone who is a “taker” and is willing to violate their boundaries with impunity. There is then an erosion of belief in the leader, and a crisis of confidence that goes beyond the bad acting individual and pervades the team. That’s why I’d like to reframe it.

What leaders really need are core values. These are inviolable concepts that allow us to know in an instant whether something at the core of who we are was sullied or denigrated. Violations of our values are never to be tolerated. These are what define us. They are the thing left behind as our legacy. These are the compass by which we operate.

The decisions we regret are oftentimes because we weren’t acting in accordance with our values and allowed our core to be negotiated upon. Boundaries give us the impression that we should wait for someone else to push up against our boundaries before reacting—giving away control to others. When values guide our actions, we know who we are and what we stand for and can make proactive decisions about life and our work. It’s what leaders do.

By recognizing things that violate our values are not the same as “someone disagreeing on boundaries,” decision-making is made easier and we’re allowed to know when we might face real regret by inaction—or by taking the wrong action. Leadership is not about avoiding confrontation or chasing universal popularity, it’s about standing for something and meaning it. Even if it requires confrontation or disagreement. That’s how we can tell the difference between a value and a boundary.

For example, excellence is expected, and “good is not good enough” is a value. It’s worth fighting for. Whereas the timeline for a specific project might be a boundary for you because it's negotiable. Leadership is about knowing where we’re going and what we stand for, having the courage of our convictions to guide us through the hard calls, and painting a vision so we can invite others to join us in believing as we believe.

So, what is your vision? What do you stand for? It’s time to lead.

About the author

Nick Kittle mentors and empowers public servants as a government performance and innovation coach for Cartegraph. He has managed 17 government divisions, served as a chief innovation officer, implemented more than 65 first-of-its-kind pilot projects, and has written extensively about government innovation. For more information, visit www.sustainovation.us.

Connect with Nick on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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