Why Leaders Need to Set Boundaries in the Workplace

Boundaries for Leaders

What do boundaries for leaders look like at work? They are made up of two essential things: what you create and what you allow. A "boundary" is a property line. It defines where your property begins and ends. If you think about your home, on your property, you can define what is going to happen there, and what is not.

As a leader in the workplace, you are in charge of the vision, the people you invite in, what the goals and purposes are going to be, what behavior is going to be allowed and what isn't. Leaders build and allow the culture. You set the agenda, and you make the rules. And what you find there, you own. It is your creation or your allowances that have made it be. Simply stated, the leaders' boundaries define and shape what is going to be and what isn't. In the end, as a leader, you are always going to get a combination of two things: what you create and what you allow.

I (Dr. Cloud) was leading an offsite for a health care company recently about a range of leadership issues, and the director of HR asked a key question. "So, how can you know if the problem is about the leader, or the follower?"

He went on to talk about "problem employees," who don't perform or who are difficult. "There is such a thing as a 'follower' who isn't getting it, right?" he said.

"Sure," I said. "But on whose watch? In whose culture? Who built the team that allows that? Who is over that employee that is a 'problem'? And who is over the employee that allows employees like that to be that way? And if that employee is confused about the strategy or direction, who is it that sets that strategy and direction for their team or the organization? In the language of Apple, 'who is the DRI, the directly responsible individual?'" Who owns it?

It is a central principle of boundaries: ownership. Ultimately, leaders own it. They are the ones who define and create the boundaries that drive the behavior that forms the identity of teams and culture and sets the standards of performance. Leaders define the direction and are responsible for making it happen. And they are responsible for the accountability systems that ensure that it does happen. It always comes back to leadership and the boundaries they allow to exist on their property. Leaders define the boundaries, and successful leaders define them well in several key areas:
  • The vision, the focus, the attention, and the activities that create forward movement are defined by leaders.
  • The emotional climate of the organization and its culture is created and sustained by leaders.
  • The unity and connectedness of the organization and the teams are built or fragmented by leaders.
  • The thinking and beliefs of the organization are sown and grown by leaders.
  • The amount and kinds of control and empowerment that people have are given and required by leaders.
  • The performance and development of their teams and direct reports are stewarded by leaders.
  • The leadership of oneself, which entails establishing one's own boundaries and stewardship of the organization, is required by leaders.

By applying essential boundaries for leaders, you make sure certain things happen, prevent other things from happening, and keep it all moving forward. Leaders are a positive force for good and a negative force against bad. You know what they are for and what they are against.


Why does a company flourish under one leader while it declines under another capable individual? Why do some teams outperform other teams within the same company? Find out in Dr. Henry Cloud's transforming book, Boundaries for Leaders.

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