Boundary-Spanning Leadership: Trends in Leadership Development

    • July 1, 2012

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has invested in the development of health and health care leaders since its inception. In the past, most of its work on leadership development has focused on growing the talent of and boosting the career trajectories for health and health care professionals (e.g., clinical scholars or health policy fellows) or building and strengthening specific fields (e.g., epidemiology or nurse educators).

In order to deftly navigate today’s shifting and highly charged policy and health care environments, and address the complex challenges they present, we realized that leaders will need new skills, approaches, and allies.

What models exist?  

The Foundation asked the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) to scan and summarize the field of leadership development. CCL reviewed the research, interviewed experts, and investigated case studies, identifying six emerging trends in leadership development.

Among these was the concept of “moving toward ‘across group’ versus ‘within group’ leadership”—an approach that dovetailed directly with the Foundation’s interests and goals. CCL described this concept as “boundary-spanning leadership,” defined as the capability to create direction, alignment and commitment across boundaries, fields, or sectors to achieve a higher vision or goal (Ernst & Yip, 2009). To RWJF, boundary-spanning leadership emerged as a key way to develop the leadership capacity of its grantees to do their work and solve pressing health and health care problems most effectively.

CCL reported that researchers have identified five boundaries that impede the effectiveness of organizations and systems:

  • Vertical boundaries: the hierarchical barriers within organizations.
  • Horizontal boundaries: the barriers across organizations and, within a given organization, across disciplines, products lines, or departments.
  • Stakeholder boundaries: the different needs, outlooks, and roles of an organization’s customers, business partners, regulators, and other involved parties.
  • Demographic boundaries: divisions arising from gender, race, age, religion, and education, as well as age, culture, personality, skills training, educational background, and life experiences.
  • Geographic boundaries: the impact of different locations, cultures, regions, and markets.

The strength of each of these boundaries, CCL continued, is determined by such factors as:

  • The number and type of opportunities emerging leaders have for cross-sectoral or cross-organizational work.
  • The existing leadership culture within an organization (e.g., whether its leaders see leadership as derived exclusively from authority or instead view leadership as an activity that requires mutual learning and collaboration).
  • The extent to which emerging leaders receive challenging assignments that teach them how to manage and adapt to change.

Any boundary-spanning leadership development effort, therefore, must incorporate concepts, methods, and tools that make cross-sectoral work more successful, increase the recognized value of collective leadership, and provide leadership development opportunities grounded in the complexities of real world experience.