How do leaders set boundaries?

There is a disastrous idea that leadership is about being in charge, giving orders, saving people, or trying to “keep the family together.”


Leadership is primarily about self definition, which means setting boundaries. Why?

Because you cannot control anyone’s relationship to anyone else. And you cannot control anyone’s relationship to any issue, goal, mission or value. That means you must be completely clear about your own relationships to people, issues and goals.

So here are some rules of thumb to start. Say no when you mean no, and say yes clearly when you mean yes. Never believe gossip and never use gossip to try to influence anyone’s opinion of anyone else. If you find it hard to set this boundary, then you can take the boundary a step farther: refuse to even have a conversation about another person unless that person is present.

Never complain or blame. Never ask someone to keep a secret and never keep secrets yourself. Say no when you mean no and accept it when someone else says no to you.

Why is all of this so critical in leadership? Let me start with two simple examples.

Example number one. Let’s say I’m hanging out with a woman and her boyfriend. The boyfriend is being a jerk. I tell him to be less of a jerk. What will happen?

They both will react to me based on their perception of the role I am playing. For as long as the three of us are emotionally connected, we essentially become a little family. And if I tell the boyfriend to be less of a jerk, I’m acting like Dad. I’m acting like the authority figure.

There are a lot of ways things could go, but none of them are particularly good. If the woman and her boyfriend accept my authority, then I suddenly become responsible for their relationship. That means each of them has less responsibility for their own relationship! On the other hand, if they rebel against me, then we just have a lot more stress, anger and anxiety. He will probably become more of a jerk, honestly.

Either way their relationship does not improve, and my relationship with each of them also gets worse.

Here is example number two. Let’s say I’m hanging out with my alcoholic friend and he starts drinking. I don’t like it when he drinks. So I tell him he needs to go into treatment. How will he react?

Well, again, I’m acting like an authority in our little family. The most likely result of my attempt to control his relationship to alcohol is that he will just rebel against me. We will both become angry and anxious. The next most likely result is that he will try to keep his drinking secret from me, which will slowly destroy our friendship by destroying trust.

The worst possibility of all is that he will actually go into treatment because I told him to. Now, guess what? He’s not responsible for his own treatment. I am, because I “made” him go!

It is a frustrating truth that you cannot make someone else more responsible. The very act of trying takes the responsibility from them and puts it on your shoulders.

Now the fact that I cannot control his drinking is exactly why I must be so inflexible about setting my own boundaries around his drinking. I can’t control his relationship to his drinking. But I can control my own relationship to his drinking!

I can do that by simply saying, “I won’t hang out with you when you drink.” Notice the use of the word “when”, not “if”. Notice that the statement starts with the word “I”. That’s a boundary. It’s self-definition.

And I have to stick to it. If I waffle, it may very well end our friendship.

It’s always hard to set boundaries at first. But doing hard things early on leads to an easy life later on. Taking the easy way out, when it comes to boundaries, leads to an impossibly hard life later on.

As a leader in any group, failing to set or respect boundaries will set off emotional waves that will destroy the group you are trying to lead. If you complain, blame or gossip, you will end up with a family that is constantly at war with itself. If you fail to say no when you mean no, you will end up with a family that is constantly manipulating, sabotaging and getting generally burnt out.

The difficulty in being a leader can best be explained with a concept called “emotional triangles.” The idea here is that any emotionally connected group of people can be thought of like a family. And you can draw the relationships people have to each other like lines in a shape.

An emotional triangle is formed by any three people, or any two people and an issue. Of course the shapes can get more complicated, but it’s easier to explain if I stick with triangles.

The most difficult part of emotional triangles is that everyone carries around their triangles everywhere they go.

Let me use an example from my ministry to explain. It involves a young woman and her mother. The mother has spent her whole life looking for a sugar daddy. It hasn’t worked out, of course, but she hasn’t changed her behavior. What will happen if I become close to them both? Well, they carry their emotional triangles with them, so where do I fit in their triangles?

The answer here is uncomfortable. I will be seen as the sugar daddy figure for either the young woman or her mother. And that’s how my words and actions will be interpreted.

There’s this meme that says that what people say about you has less to do with you than it does with them. Actually, it sometimes doesn’t even have anything to do with them, either. It has to do with the family triangles they are carrying around with them, and your perceived position in their triangles.

This is absolutely critical for any leader to understand. Because it means that when you step into a new situation, you are stepping into all the unresolved triangles that whoever held that position before you was a part of.

In any family, when someone leaves, everyone looks for a replacement. They are not necessarily even aware that they are doing it. So when you step into a leadership position, people tend to react in the same way they would react to anyone who stepped into that position. This means that you are going to have to be creative and willing to try to form new triangles in order to get anything done.

The problem is that emotional triangles have a tendency to try to return to their original shape. So when you are a leader who is trying to lead, by making decisions or working towards growth, you will be resisted. Not so much by people, as by relationships that are becoming inflexible.

In other words, if I am actually leading, something somewhere in the emotional system I am a part of is going to change. That will put stress on the system itself, and people will react.

When the triangles that people are in start changing, people will experience internal stress. And they might not even be aware of why they are reacting the way they are. They may react with anxiety, anger, paranoia, or even depression. This is a problem because emotions are more contagious than any virus.

My job as a leader is to make absolutely certain I do not participate in the emotional contagion of anger or anxiety. And I do that by being absolutely clear about my relationship to the mission. I also stay connected to everyone involved, without spreading the emotional contagion. How do I do that?

I do it by refusing to take sides in other people’s conflicts, by refusing to play favorites, by refusing to participate in cliques, and by refusing to defend my friends. I do it by refusing to try to control in any way, shape or form, implicitly or explicitly, anyone’s relationship to anyone else, or anyone’s relationship to any issue. In particular, I do not attempt to control anyone’s relationship to the mission or the organization itself.

I listen. And when I speak, I say “I” when I mean “I”. I avoid the blaming “you” and the manipulative “we”. Instead of speaking for people, I connect with them. Leadership is not always about being in charge or even making decisions. But it is absolutely about stating your values, goals and ideals clearly. You must define your self.

In fact in simplest terms, your job as a leader is to define yourself as clearly as possible, and yet stay connected to everyone else. It is impossible to be 100% effective. But that’s the goal.

Now here are the rules of thumb for leadership boundaries.

Here is an excellent post about how emotionally connected groups operate.

If you need a refresher on saying no, here it is.