The “toe tap” is one of the most artful plays in football. As the receiver secures the catch and taps his toes, he knows that slight contact with the field is the difference between staying in bounds to the sounds of a roaring crowd and falling out of bounds to the sounds of a collective groan. When executed well, the toe tap is poetry in motion. When executed poorly, it’s like a newborn colt struggling to find its walking rhythm.
As leaders, we face toe-tap moments too, but unlike a receiver who plays on a field with clearly marked boundaries, the boundary lines on our playing field may be harder to distinguish, and that makes it difficult to execute the toe tap correctly. Maybe a few examples would help.
- It’s 8:00 pm on a Wednesday night, and your family just started your kids’ bedtime routine when you get a text from a peer. Do you read and answer that text, or do you stay focused on the sandy-haired boy brushing his teeth?
- It’s Monday morning, and you are working on one of five important projects you are leading when your direct supervisor enters your office and says they want you to take on another project. Do you immediately say “yes” knowing that will require weekend work, or do you ask if someone else can take the lead this time?
- It’s pay-day, and you notice that you have accumulated more vacation hours than you are allowed to carry over into the next year, but your calendar is stacked with meetings and deliverables until year-end. Do you forego that time you’ve earned, or do you start looking for opportunities to schedule a few days off?
If you were conflicted about how you’d handle those situations, then it may be time to set clearer boundaries and share them with others. Here are a few approaches we think can help.
Revisit Your Values
We frequently talk about values because, as Jan Stassen says, they are “situationally independent decision helpers.” In other words, they serve like the boundary lines on a football field. They give us a sense of our playing field and help us know when we may be getting close to out-of-bounds. Interestingly, our playing field changes as we progress through life because our values change. At one point in her career, Becky valued “professional advancement,” which means she would have taken on that 6th project if asked. Today, that concept doesn’t appear on her values list, which means she is willing to ask David for help or even turn down projects (and, consequently, clients) when she’s overloaded.
Communicate Boundaries Transparently and with Vulnerability
Once we know the boundary lines of our playing field, it’s important to paint them for others. For instance, David has a clear boundary every Thursday night—he will be on a date with his beautiful bride. When David entered the Ethos partnership, it’s one of the things he shared with the expectation that the boundary would be respected. But David didn’t stop with communicating transparently about the boundary. He explained why the boundary mattered to him and even shared how difficult it might be for him to honor his own boundary at times. That level of transparency and vulnerability led to a deeper understanding and commitment on Becky’s part to help David live within that boundary. Did you pick that up? When we share our boundaries and the depth behind them, most people will help us live into them.
Remember, It’s a Toe Tap
With boundaries set and communicated, it may be tempting to OVER enforce them. For example, you decide that you want to use some of your vacation days despite your heavy workload, but rather than being content to take a few days here and there to ensure you don’t lose your hard-earned time, you request off two weeks in a row at the busiest time of the year with a proverbial wave of the hand at the thought that someone else will have to pick up your work. That’s not a toe tap, that’s dragging up 10 yards from the sidelines and the pass falling incomplete. Remember, the beauty of the toe tap is that you catch the ball first, and then you get your feet in bounds. As leaders, we must be willing to catch the ball, knowing that we may be teetering on that thin line between in-bounds and out-of-bounds.
From Reflection to Action: Identify one of your boundaries and a person with whom you need to share it. Take five minutes to plan that conversation.