What comes to mind when you think of ‘boundaries’? Perhaps…limits, rules, margins, restrictions, constraints? Whilst all these are true, boundaries do not have to mean – “severely hemmed in”, “narrowly confined” or “negatively restricted”. It can actually refer to allowing one to experience an activity to its furthermost limits before any constraints begin.
Think about the freedom that exists when we have boundaries in sport. Without these boundaries and rules, the game would not necessarily flow as an engaging and challenging activity. A Netball analogy of ‘freedom within boundaries’ offers a perspective that may help us to achieve a better balance between the necessities of both structure and flexibility. It offers an insight into how we may maximise our skills, talents and creativity, whilst remaining within the allowable rules, without fear of consequence or punishment.
Netball is quite unique in the way that the player’s position is clearly labeled on their match uniform during the game. Furthermore, their position also determines the areas on the court that they are permitted to play in and those that they are prohibited from entering. Essentially their role and the way they contribute to the team is defined by their court boundaries.
Initially I was quite perplexed as to how this works, especially for someone who played many years of Australian Football where players have access to all areas. However, I came to appreciate this system as one that concurrently enables both structure and flexibility. By clearly defining the bounds of each position, the players are offered the opportunity to interpret the requirements of their position in order to play to their strengths, i.e., they are free to define HOW they play within the bounds of WHAT they need to deliver, that best suits their own skill, abilities and talents. Importantly it also provides the players with a clear understanding of how they need to interact and exchange in order to carry out the game strategy and meet the team goals.
So now it is Monday morning and you are at work. You’ve swapped your sports gear for business attire. Where do you start in terms of balancing the boundaries of your position and the freedom to act? How do you define the WHY and WHAT, whilst allowing the HOW to emerge by leveraging the team’s skills, talents and abilities?
More than any other time in history, we are better informed, we are more educated, we are more networked, we readily have open access to information and we have a strong mandate to innovate. We desire greater freedom of choice and have the intellect to make decisions for ourselves, along with an ability to contribute in the decision making process through empowerment, consultation and partnership. However, there still remains a strong prevalence of the command and control style of leadership, focusing heavily on positional authority in preference to relational skills. This can inhibit us from being able to play to our strengths.
Given the uncertainty and ambiguity in this constantly changing and evolving world, we need to constantly adapt to unexpected situations that we cannot plan for. Consequently, we have reached the effective limit of the command and control style of leadership. The rigidity of this style of leadership hinders creativity and autonomy through a mindset of compliance, and people aren’t always able to give their best when they feel overly constrained. This can often lead to underperformance that reinforces the perceived need for even greater controls…and the vicious cycle continues. However, there are some benefits to this style of leadership. Namely you know where you stand, goals and targets are well defined, and there are crystal clear expectations. Creating freedom within boundaries offers a balance between the structure offered by the command and control style of leadership, whilst leveraging the sense of freedom and flexibility through involvement and participation through distributed leadership, ultimately leading to improved performance.
I offer 7 simple rules that I use to help the leaders and managers that I coach to empower themselves and their teams by leveraging the notion of ‘freedom within boundaries’:
In practice, following these simple rules does not dilute power nor does it create chaos. Rather, the rules offer greater freedom to create and innovate within boundaries that define what is allowable and safe. This enables us to leverage our skills, education, knowledge experience and talent, but without the team descending into anarchy.
I hope that these simple rules are useful to you. If you have any of your own then please feel free to share!