Proceedings of the 53rd Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2009, Brisbane, Australia, Proceedings of the 53rd Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences

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Alice MacGillivray


Many leaders, organizations and communities wrestle with complex problems, where work needs to span boundaries. Those boundaries can be external and socially constructed around administrative units, jurisdictions or cultures. They can also be internal, segmenting leaders’ roles and identities so that they feel they need to shift behaviours in different environments. For leaders who have chosen to work horizontally and span boundaries, such identity management can be challenging.
This paper draws from a recent, larger study that explored ways in which respected, boundary-spanning leaders understood and worked with boundaries. These participants were selected through a referral process in which nominators described how nominees fit the study’s criteria. In addition to being respected for their work in complex, boundary-spanning environments where they had relatively little or no positional authority, participants needed experience as formal leaders in hierarchies so they could compare the two types of environments. Participants came from fields including environmental sustainability, counter-terrorism and knowledge management.
Midgley is one of the authors who has described boundaries as fundamental to systems thinking. One of the findings from the larger study was that participants collectively used 10 inter-related strategies for their work with boundaries in complex environments. These strategies were presented through a lens of Midgley’s theory of boundary critique.
This paper adds to that study by exploring key informants’ perspectives about internal boundary work and identity management. It assesses whether there were links to the overall strategies used for external boundary work. Although this exploration is preliminary, it appears there are many parallels between external and internal boundary work. These parallels can be understood as turning leadership outside in: using leadership strategies suited to work with external boundaries in order to learn and develop as a person and leader through the management of multiple identities.

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