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Home Run or Foul Ball: Boundaries of an Unexpected Act of Leadership

Have you seen an Unexpected Act of Leadership? See if it fits within these five boundaries.

January 07, 2019

The play-by-play caller on TV raises his voice in anticipation of a home run. His excitement shows as he yells, “It’s going back, back, back … high and far … it’s, it’s, … oh no, they’re calling it a foul ball. Wait a minute, the umpires are gathering to talk about it. Hold on. They’re changing their minds. They’re now calling it a home run!” 

Boundaries are useful, but not always clear. Even still, without a foul pole, how would one decide about something, even something that we can all see? Boundaries are necessary evils, but necessary none-the-less.

We have been talking about Unexpected Acts of Leadership (UAL) to anyone and everyone who will listen over the past year. It’s not uncommon for these people to offer examples from their own experience, eagerly waiting for us to nod our heads and agree that theirs was a great example of a UAL. Half the time they are right on (home run)! Half the time, they miss the mark (foul ball).

Not every act of leadership fits our definition of a UAL, and some are really not leadership acts at all. How do we decide? We use a set of boundaries. I’ll cover them briefly below, but you’ll quickly note that each boundary is not a physical reality (like a foul pole), but a less-than-perfect representation of conditions that, when taken together, help us understand the concept of an unexpected act of leadership.

There are five boundary conditions in total:

  1. Action. A UAL is about real leadership. Too often we see people who are excited, angry or just worked up and ready to highlight some issue that is very personal to them, but do little to actually lead meaningful change. Raising awareness of the issue is not the same as addressing the issue. Real leaders take action, and often work with others to achieve a desired result. Even when they are not successful, they will have worked to produce meaningful change, when others chose to do nothing.
  2. Disruption. Changes resulting from a UAL, by definition, will disrupt the status quo in some way. Even if initially small and local, the changes are visible. Sometimes they create resistance from those who prefer the status quo. To that extent, unexpected acts of leadership may be risky, but they may also inspire others and thus create ripple effects.  
  3. Positive change. It is a cause that people take up out of the most positive of human motives – compassion, caring, love, respect and service. The leader’s actions are evidence of an outward mindset, in which he or she becomes more concerned for others and less specifically for themselves. These acts help people and situations improve, move something forward, right wrongs, give voice to the silent, make the invisible visible, and so forth.
  4. Unexpected. Few people really expected anything to change. The very act of trying to create change is not only surprising but often seen as undoable. The status quo has been accepted for so long that when someone steps up to create change, it catches everyone’s attention. This lowered expectation that change could occur is also a reflection of change having never occurred previously.
  5. Beyond duty. It was not the leader’s responsibility to address the issue. All too often we find ourselves in situations that should be changed, only to discover that those with the formal authority, power and resources choose to do nothing. In these circumstances, nothing will change until someone else steps up to the challenge. Their leadership is not in their job description – it is in their hearts.

Taken together, (a) if it was not real leadership, (b) if the change was not disruptive in some way, (c) if the change was not positive and produced out of selfless motives, (d) if addressing the issue can be expected in the normal course of business, and (e) if a leadership expectation was part of that person’s role, then it does not constitute a UAL.

Think of these boundary conditions as five sides of a pentagon. Together, they become a receptacle that defines the space for an Unexpected Act of Leadership. They make it simpler to identify what is inside the receptacle (fair ball) versus outside (foul ball). We think all five conditions are important, but we recognize that some acts of leadership may have differing degrees of these criteria (e.g., it may not be universally regarded as a positive change, or not fully unexpected, or not very disruptive). In sticking with our baseball metaphor, such cases would reflect a single or extra-base hit rather than a home run. Our point is that there must be some evidence that each of these five criteria exists to some degree. All of the boundary conditions are necessary; the complete absence of any one of them defines something else – some other kind of leadership or maybe even a counterfeit type of leadership – something that looks and sounds like leadership in the beginning, but falls short when played out. 

Your Turn

  1. Think about unexpected acts of leadership you’ve seen, or maybe, one you were engaged in. Consider each of the boundary conditions in this discussion and put a mental checkmark next to those conditions your example reflects. Fair ball or foul ball? If not a fair ball, what was missing?
  2. How do you feel when you see or produce a real unexpected act of leadership that meets all of the boundary conditions? We find those examples to be exciting, uplifting and inspiring; the kind of leadership that captures our hearts.
  3. Do you see challenges that go unseen, unaddressed and taken as part of “just how things are around here”? What might you do to address them and create change? Remember, a true unexpected act of leadership is one that most people either don’t see or don’t act upon. What will you do?

Puzzle Pieces 

The link to the body of knowledge is at a high level here. All concepts need to be defined and all definitions need to indicate “what they are” and “what they are not.” We address this in what we call boundary conditions. Our boundaries are connected specifically to each word (Unexpected, Acts and Leadership), as follows:
Unexpected: Boundary 4 and 5
Acts: Boundary 2
Leadership: Boundary 1, 3
Can you imagine an unexpected act of leadership that doesn’t fit into this five-sided space as being a true Unexpected Act of Leadership? What are your thoughts? Share them with us here.