Boundaries and Leadership

By Chris Chittenden

Us and them
And after all we're only ordinary men
Me, and you
God only knows it's not what we would choose to do
Forward he cried from the rear
And the front rank died
The General sat, and the lines on the map
Moved from side to side.

… “Us and Them”, Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

The human use of language is powerful, very powerful. Through it we have been able to create complex societies and intricately shape the resources of the planet. One of the key aspects of our use of language is that we separate one thing from another. We can distinguish an atom from a molecule, a molecule from a cell, a cell from an organ, an organ from a body and so on. These distinctions are done in language by naming things. The power of this use of language is that we can then treat one object as distinct from another and intervene in some way. If we were not able to distinguish a cell from an organ, then we would not have been able to create some of the wonderful medical interventions we see today.

However, this ability of our language to distinguish has a darker side. Whenever, we distinguish something from something else we create a boundary. Some things may lie within the boundary and others outside the boundary. So fundamental is language to the human condition that we usually do not see we do this. Yet it shapes the very essence of what we do all the time. These boundaries always create opposites – what is something and what it is not. For example, if we take a simple chair, we can say that within the boundary of the chair is the chair and outside that boundary of the chair is not the chair.

Not only do we create boundaries around objects, we also create boundaries around ourselves and others. We create a boundary around what is “me” and “not me”. We also create a boundary around who are “us” and those who are “not us” who become “them”. We use this type of distinction so often that we are mostly blind to the boundaries we are constructing with others. Consider the senior management in an organisation. It is the norm for there to be a “senior management team”, which refers to “their organisation”. Although this distinction may seem innocuous, we find that senior managers can sometimes transition their way of thinking to speaking about the organisation as something they control rather than something of which they are a part. This often leads to an “us and them” mentality where the “them” includes other members of the organisation. Such boundaries are the place of conflict and lead to breakdowns in organisational coherence as the management team seeks to fix the organisation that does not include themselves. How does this show up? Culture change exercises are for the employees not for the senior managers; certain rules and expectations only apply to the employees not the managers; employees are seen as a resource not as people – the list is seemingly endless.

To address situations where inappropriate boundaries exist, the key is to recognise where boundaries exist and to change the language to expand where those boundaries sit. In doing so, we bring more people into the “us”. This approach is the basis of the expansion of our view of life from egocentric to ethnocentric to a global or world view. Consider for yourself where you draw your boundaries in life and the conflict this creates. Such awareness can be the beginning of a more fulfilling life.

More articles on Leadership

© 2006 Chris Chittenden