Julia Middleton: Cross-Boundary Leaders

Many of the contributors to the Big Lottery Fund’s Doing Good campaign so far have touched upon an important theme: partnerships. I firmly believe that, in the future, to aspire to ‘do good’ will be to aspire to work in partnership. In a world that is complex and fragmented, partnerships (especially partnerships formed across boundaries) can mean resources are better used, solutions stick, and people—citizens – benefit.

But to get partnerships right (to get any form of collaboration right) is not easy. More than just the will to do so, we need leaders with the ability to cross boundaries – sector, specialization, geography, generation, background and belief. Cross-boundary leadership skills are not a million miles away from traditional leadership skills but they are different. And unfortunately, many great leaders, who lead so effectively within their own space, crumble when they attempt to lead across boundaries and form coalitions. For nearly 30 years now, the mission of Common Purpose has been to develop this type of cross-boundary leader. Here are some of the skills I think are important:

Courage – Important to traditional leadership, yes, but vital when it comes to leading across boundaries. Unlike in your own space, your legitimacy will constantly be questioned. By what right are you here? What’s in it for you? To lead in different sectors or geographies means you can’t rely on your usual safety nets. It takes courage to keep going.

Cultural Intelligence – The struggle for most leaders who cross boundaries is not necessarily that the space is different but that cultures are different. People think and behave in very different ways. It’s a challenge to find consensus and develop ways of working together. The leaders who do this well have what I would term Cultural Intelligence. They have worked out what their Core is—the things about them that will not change—and they have worked out what their Flex is—the behaviours and beliefs they are willing to let go—and they are constantly examining the line between the two.

A heightened ability to communicate – And not just to communicate but to resonate. Many leaders base their approach in their experience. But when you cross boundaries you will meet people whose experiences vastly differ from your own. Their frame of reference is different—perhaps inverted—to your own. You have to become a fierce listener so that what you say resonates rather than clashes. I often see leaders whose passion gets in the way. You have to learn to communicate your passion so that it doesn’t become a barrier.

Networks. For my generation, networks were what kept people out; which is why it’s so interesting is that the trend with millennials is to see networks as empowering. I think the best cross-boundary leaders take the latter approach; networks shouldn’t be a self-serving collection of business cards but real relationships. I think the idea of the turbulent network is a pertinent one; relationships with people who can challenge you, show you things you can’t see and present you with opportunities you never knew existed.

This list is by no means exclusive. Indeed, leading across boundaries is no exact science. But it’s important to consider that cross-boundary leadership is an ability; one that can be honed and developed. So when we look to ‘do good’ in partnership, we should be acutely aware of the skills needed in ourselves and those around us.


Julia Middleton is the Founder and CEO of Common Purpose Charitable Trust, a leadership development organization that specializes in cross-boundary leadership. This November, Common Purpose is launching the streetwise mba in London, a programme for leaders who want to be more inclusive: to lead diverse teams, serve diverse customers and work with diverse stakeholders.

Tweet@JuliaMiddleton and  and #FutureGood


One thought

  1. Great blog and agree with all these points, although I would also add that one of the key skills that cross-boundary leaders need to have is the ability to articulate their values – personal and organisational – both in what they say but also, critically, in how they behave.


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