Creating Boundaries to Build Trust

By Kyle Sandford  |  January 15th

Have you as a leader ever struggled with teams that are chronically underperforming? Maybe there's a toxic element of your school's staff culture that everybody knows about, but nobody talks about. Is there something that is "just the way things go around here" that makes you cringe even now as you read this? 

“As a leader, you are always going to get a combination of two things: What you create and what you allow.”  - Dr. Henry Cloud

Reading this quote from Dr. Henry Cloud's book Boundaries for Leaders was both inspiring and convicting for me. Think about all of the things that we celebrate and the things that we struggle with in our leadership. How many of these things do we have control over? Dr. Cloud suggests to us in his book that we are “ridiculously in charge” of what we lead: many of the things that we lament about the teams we lead are actually things that we can, and should, do something about. We, as executives, must help with the executive functioning of our teams: "a) to be able to focus on something specific, b) not get off track by focusing on or being assaulted by other data points or toxicity, and c) continuously be aware of relevant information at all times." The situation we find ourselves in with our teams is a combination of what we create and what we allow. The routines, rhythms, and expectations that we create are these boundaries; they help us to "let the good things in and keep the bad things out" of our teams' functions.

When I reflect on this, I immediately think of the importance of and need for trust. Many speakers, authors, and leaders (Lencioni and Groeschel come to mind immediately) talk about the importance of trust as the essential building block for successful leadership, and that it starts with you. It’s not something that can be earned quickly or easily, but it’s something that takes hard work, dedication, and intentionality to develop. When I think about that within the context of what we create and what we allow as leaders, I’m burdened with the responsibility that we have to take the first steps to be vulnerable in order to build trust and to instill hope for the future in our teams. 

For example, if we want our staff to give us feedback and to be open with us to think positively and excitedly about the future and what the school could do for the kids that it serves, then we need to model those things in our own conversations. Are we constantly sharing the negatives of our day? Are our conversations burdened by the tyranny of the urgent? Even more important, are we inviting feedback from our teams about ways in which we can improve? What focus are we providing, what are we not allowing to distract us, and are we providing constant communication and reminders of the vision?

For this to not come across as artificial and manipulative we need to be vulnerable, ready to admit our areas of inexpertise, invite others who complement our own skill sets to join our teams, and give them the structures and authority needed to use their gifts. Sometimes that means that we also need to apologize when we have made mistakes or take a step back and reevaluate a decision that we may have made confidently, and yet we realized after the fact wasn't the best. Leading in this way positions us to be able to have the difficult conversations that we need to with staff who are not working within the boundaries that we have set in order to fulfill that vision that we are championing at our schools.

Those boundaries, as Dr. Cloud would tell us, don’t create more control, they create more freedom. When our teams know all of the rules of the game, they can play with passion! If they're constantly unsure of what will or will not fly, they'll fail to take risks and reap the rewards. We have expectations that are not just communicated, but that are actually demonstrated, discussed, and valued, not just for the staff but for ourselves as well. This level of accountability, although it takes time, will yield benefits far beyond what we might think. The opposite is also true: if we fail to set up boundaries, clear expectations and structures, then what we "allow" starts to set in as acceptable and may permeate our schools with a silent toxicity that will undermine great work in the future.

Our most important teacher, Jesus, demonstrates this type of leadership by holding himself to the same standards and expectations that he shares with his disciples and with the people that he’s ministering to. Whether it’s his temptation in the desert, his arrest prior to his crucifixion, or protecting his time away, Jesus functioned during his time on earth with clear boundaries around his values and his time, and he had the same expectations of his disciples. What boundaries do you need to set? How do you need to protect your time and your expectations so that your team can experience the freedom that comes from clarity? 

At the end of the day, we get what we create and what we allow. If we allow staff members to live outside of our boundaries and outside of the vision that we have set for our schools, we are not doing all that we can to provide the best experience for our students and for our families. We are instead communicating that we are willing to settle for less than what we claim we're aiming for. 

We wear many hats as school leaders, and it’s critical to know that we don’t have to have every answer for every situation. This is why it’s important that we set clear boundaries around what we can do, what we should do, and in some cases, what we shouldn’t do. This will allow others to flourish in their work by belonging to a culture of trust, lived from the top down. By modeling what it means to be open, vulnerable, and clear we bring others on board while we instill hope for the future as we work together.

Kyle Sandford is the Bluewater Region Cohort Leader for Edvance, and Principal at Strathroy Community Christian School.