Boundary Spanning Leadership: Horizontal

leadership horizontal

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This is Part Two of a five-part blog series that looks to define the five boundaries of leadership and navigate strategies for success in each.

 The second boundary we are discussing is one that you most likely experience but feel less skilled in being able to manage or intersect with. Horizontal boundaries refer to leading across functions, units, peers or expertise. Based on conclusions from the research introduced in Boundary Spanning Leadership: Vertical, horizontal boundaries proved to be the most challenging to span.

Before we move further with understanding horizontal boundaries and navigating tips for success, I’d like to highlight why those findings mentioned in Part One are so important. According to the white paper published by the Center for Creative Leadership:

  • A bottleneck occurs when middle managers fail to shift from within-group mindset to a cross-group mindset. Going from middle management to senior management requires you to look at things differently, and within a new lens, but not “forget” where you came from. According to the study, 92% of the executives stated the talent to span boundaries became more important as they progressed to senior management.
  • When asked where their organization is now and compare it to where it needs to be, the gamechanger and largest shift comes from capitalizing on cross-functional collaboration and open networked environments.

Coffee and Conversation

There’s an inverse relationship with the higher up you move in management compared to the amount of work you produce. At first you may laugh at that statement or perhaps be taken back, but let’s dive deeper. Your primary job in senior management, or perhaps even middle management, is not to be a practitioner but to be a people developer, motivator and coach. Your primary job responsibility is about relationships. It’s about finding opportunities to further the advancement of the organization and to support your colleagues and your employees. Perhaps the simplest way to put it is to hire great people then get out of their way.

Take for example a group fitness manager’s primary job responsibility isn’t to teach group fitness classes; it’s to recruit, train and develop world-class group fitness instructors. Now let’s dissect an associate director’s role. I remember when it was typical for a campus recreation department to have one or maybe even two associate directors. I now work for an organization where there are four of us. We sit on the executive team for the department, and we each lead and manage different areas. We have an obligation to represent the wants and needs of our respective team members and yet, we also have an obligation to represent the organization’s mission, vision, values, goals, and objectives and to work collectively as a unified department.

It’s a balancing act and many of you know it’s challenging. It’s one thing to master the art of spanning vertical boundaries, but when adding the horizontal boundary in, it becomes a complex dance incorporating multiple styles and, if done properly, can be an award-winning performance and show. For some of you in these positions, it may seem as if you are a negotiator who goes back and forth from your vertical boundaries then to your horizontal boundaries until you ultimately come to a solution where all parties can agree to. I’ve witnessed organizations where each year horizontal managers from differing campuses, facilities or areas are brought together, given a chance to plead their case, and then fight a death match to see who will get their wishes met or budgets increased for the following fiscal year. This is basically like watching a hockey fight break out but it’s members of the same team fighting each other. We are all on the same team. How do we reinforce we are on the same team? It takes humanizing each other. How do we begin to humanize each other? It usually starts with coffee and conversations, so pass the cream and sugar.

Collaboration Across Functions

One of the greatest ways to practice boundary spanning leadership with horizontal boundaries is to collaborate across functions. Collaboration across functions is more than important, it’s mission critical. According to the research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership, 98% of senior executives agree collaboration across functions is the No. 1 priority in the next five years of their organization. You may cringe at the word collaboration, but I encourage you to stay with me.

We often cringe at collaboration because it can be used improperly. Collaboration is more than slapping a logo on a T-shirt, giving another department $6,500 so they can run a program or assigning someone on a committee. Collaboration across functions happens when we can unite the raw and imperfect talents of individual members with each other to form a cohesive team designed to achieve success. One way to sharpen our collaboration skills is to look at challenges within our own organization. Start with your organization’s vision. If written properly, your vision should be this big, hairy, audacious goal that almost seems impossible to achieve. Bring colleagues together who are at the same managerial level yet represent different groups and task them with mapping out a plan to reach the vision. They will begin to realize very quickly they need each other’s talents to achieve this. If your vision is for your recreation and well-being department to be your alumni’s first choice in alumni giving or perhaps to be your students and faculty/staff’s Third Place, they will make it happen.

Developing Cross-Organizational Learning Capabilities

Developing cross organizational learning capabilities was identified as the No. 3 priority for the senior executive’s organization. In fact, 91% of those surveyed agreed it’s an essential outcome. David Shuster, EdD, is a former colleague in collegiate recreation, current client and most-importantly a long-time friend of mine. He is also the CEO of a non-profit organization.

A little over a year ago I was leading an organizational development workshop for his c-suite and executive team members. At the time this included 10 employees from differing backgrounds and experiences representing different divisions, locations and departments within the organization. We spent a lot of time learning about who each other was, what each person does, whatlens we view our work from and, most importantly, how we can work together to create the environment which was desired. On Day Two, David and I co-led a strategic planning day to map out the next few years for the organization. When we asked the group to describe what it would look like if they were wildly successful one of the ideas that headed to the top was to be the area’s first choice as an employer. One of the pathways for this to happen would be to develop those cross organizational learning capabilities.

I asked David to provide some advice to include in parts two through five. Here’s what he had to say about spanning horizontal boundaries:

“One strategy/approach is to create a culture where subject matter experts are open to receiving input, ideas and feedback from other areas without dismissing it out of hand, which is what you see all too often. While you may be an expert, you should also be open-minded. Some of the best ideas we have implemented in one operational area originated from an individual who works in another. You could also frame this as making sure organizational units don’t merely cooperate; they collaborate. There is a difference.”

All those group projects in school did have a purpose after all: to teach true collaboration. Grab a cup of coffee and conversate to collaborate and span your horizontal boundaries.


Yip, J., Ernst, C., Campbell, M. (2010), Boundary spanning leadership. Mission critical perspectives from the executive suite. [White paper]. Retrieved from

Trotter, Steven A. (2019, June). Living and working a strengths based life. [Workshop] Hagerstown, MD.


Steven Trotter, MS, is a consultant, continuing education provider, adjunct faculty member in health and fitness science, and principal for Globetrotter Wellness Solutions. He also serves as the associate director for wellness and fitness at East Carolina University. His expertise is rooted in university rec programs with a repertoire in leadership and organizational development, fitness facility design and management, behavior change, and program management. Steven is a 2017 IDEA Program Director of the Year finalist and presents at numerous conferences across North America each year. He is a subject matter expert and blogger for the American Council on Exercise and previously served a 3.5-year term on the industry advisory panel. Steven has a master of science in health in physical education from Virginia Tech and bachelor of science in exercise science from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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