Leadership as a discipline can apply to a variety of roles these days, and certainly isn’t limited to traditional leadership roles like C-suites and executives. Leadership is present in practically every day-to-day function: parent, student, teacher, manager, caretaker… To some degree, everyone must exercise leadership capacities that are critical to generating peak performance.
The great leadership themes of vision, strategy and execution will always be priority, but at the end of the day leaders must achieve those themes through other people (including peers, teachers, co-workers, kids, etc.). It is the personal and interpersonal sides of leadership that ultimately determine how successful we are in producing next level results.
So, what is the #1 interpersonal leadership skill for driving high performance?
Defining and enforcing boundaries.
In his latest book, Boundaries for Leaders, Dr. Henry Cloud explains that boundaries are made up of two essential things: what you create and what you allow. According to Cloud, “A “boundary” is a property line… If you think about your home, on your property, you can define what is going to happen there and what is not. You are “ridiculously in charge” of the vision, the people you invite in, what goals and purposes are going to be, and what behavior is going to be allowed and what isn’t,” (p.14).
Effective leaders, through a handful of essential boundaries, make sure certain things happen, prevent other things from happening and keep positive momentum moving forward. Whether you lead personally or professionally, in order to generate higher performance in yourself and those around you, here are three boundaries Dr. Cloud recommends defining and enforcing:
Boundary #1: Where to Focus
For the brain to accomplish any goal, it must do three things: attend, inhibit, and establish a working memory. What this means is that for people’s brains to reach a goal or bring a vision to reality, they must attend to what is relevant to making it happen, inhibit what is not, and create a flow of memory so that the brain is not starting over again and again.
For example, when you drive from your home to Starbucks, you have to attend to the relevant data, such as oncoming traffic, your speed, what turn is next, what lane you’re in, etc. You must also inhibit everything else, like not texting or watching a video while you drive. And, you must know which turn you made last so you don’t drive around in circles, i.e. working memory. Your focus is specific and you are able to take steps towards achieving your goal.
This is what the great leaders do. In a multitude of ways, they get themselves and their people to attend to what actually drives results, inhibit everything else, and they keep it in front of them on an ongoing basis to create a working memory from which to draw invaluable lessons. Leaders who let their people know what to focus on and what to ignore are quite literally making people’s brains function at higher levels: the executive functions of the brain are better able to leverage critical skills like creativity, problem solving and perseverance, ultimately driving peak performance and greater results.
Boundary #2: Cultivate Connection
Effective leaders set a firm boundary against disconnection and fragmentation because connection is critical to high performance. When we are emotionally and relationally connected to others, stress levels in the brain diminish, making it easier to overcome barriers and tackle challenging tasks.
Cloud argues that the first element necessary for unity and connection to occur is simple but profoundly missing in many leadership scenarios: the right kinds and the right amounts of time together.
Just getting together does not bring unity, as bad meetings and awkward family dinners have shown us. But neither does not getting together. For deep connections to take hold, certain ingredients have to be present that address the three executive functions previously mentioned: attention to things that connect us, inhibition of things that cause us to disengage, and repetition of processes that work to keep the working memory alive.
We know from neuroscience that certain kinds of relational and emotional interactions build connection based on patterns of the brain’s functioning. Here are some of those ingredients that build connected unity:
- Shared Purpose: Unity grows around a specific objective or shared problem, so identify and define a focal point for everyone to invest in
- Collaboration: Create a climate where problems and challenges get shared openly and solved through engagement with others
- Emotional Reflection: Examining thoughts, feelings and observations with others creates greater mindfulness that leads to further insight and openness, which in turn breeds greater connection
- Listening: Before trying to influence someone to follow you, make sure they feel heard and understood in order to foster a high-quality connection
Boundary #3: Think Productively
Pessimism is the kryptonite to high performance thinking. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, explains that pessimism can be seen in the ways that people interpret events. A pessimistic mindset interprets distinct events in three predictable ways: personal, pervasive and permanent.
It works like this: someone is working on a deal and it does not go through; he or she wasn’t able to close it. Then, the three P’s kick in to “interpret” that event in a negative way:
Personal: “No wonder it didn’t close… I am not a good closer or dealmaker. I don’t have what it takes.” The event is interpreted to mean something “bad” about their personhood.
Pervasive: “And it is not just this deal… all of my business is going bad. In fact, our whole company is lagging behind. And, the industry is horrible too. And, when I really think about it, my whole life isn’t that great.”
Permanent: “And the truth is that it is not going to get any better next month, or next quarter, or next year, either. It won’t ever change. It is just going to be like this. Nothing is going to make it any different. This is the new normal.”
Negative, unproductive thinking causes the brain’s drive toward goal attainment to shut down and performance plateaus. Leaders can reignite high performance by helping their people to first notice pessimistic thinking, then observe it, challenge it, and change it.
Leadership tactics are a dime a dozen, but those that genuinely enhance performance are few and far between. Drawing and enforcing boundaries is the secret strategy effective leaders use to define a set of standards that increased accountability and raises the bar on personal and professional achievement.