Leading in-between boundaries: Rachel Christensen’s Leadership Philosophy

Building off of her recent TedX Tijuana presentation “Beyond Your Border,” we connected with Rachel Christensen, Assistant Director of the Center for Peace and Commerce at the University of San Diego, to learn more about her philosophy of leadership in-between boundaries. In a climate where racial, political, and ideological divisions seem to be growing, understanding how leaders can work in the “in-between” spaces and bring people together is an important global conversation. Below we share Rachel’s perspective:

What does it mean to enact a philosophy of leadership and education that crosses boundaries? First, I think it is important to highlight what I mean by boundaries. While I often refer to myself as a “borderlander,” having spent most of my adult life in the San Diego-Tijuana region, the idea of crossing boundaries extends far beyond the geographic U.S.-Mexico border to include boundaries between ideologies, cultures, and experiences. Boundaries can also be emotional and psychological. A leader who leads “in-between”  is able to handle conflict, manage a diversity of perspectives and beliefs, and visualize these differences as a source of richness and of add value to the team they are leading. They do not buy into the idea of the zero-sum game where one person’s gain is equivalent to another person’s loss; they rather embrace generative processes and nuance. 

One example of this type of leader came from one of my students years ago as we were having lunch. I was anxious about an upcoming event and she noticed. She said, “Rachel, you know our organization is a work in progress, right?” I didn’t. I hadn’t grown enough yet to realize that I was a leader tending a garden for a certain amount of time, helping people who came into contact with us “cross over” to a deeper understanding and then hopefully continue on with a greater ability to live into ambiguity and complexity- to live fully “in-between.” One CEO I know has “work in progress” tattooed on her forearm. We sometimes call these leaders “adaptive“. Sometimes, too, this kind of leadership can be transformational, focusing on leading through change and turning followers into leaders by helping them realize the imperfections and uncertainties of leadership roles and lean in any way. 

My own approach to leading in-between has also been a work-in-progress, as it has been crafted through my exposure to different leadership theories and experiences. For example, threshold learning theory shares that people learn through troublesome, disruptive experiences. Over time, they learn to integrate and be of both sides, reconstructing their understanding of reality with new inputs. It draws from a concept of “liminal space”- crossing as if through a rite of passage with a clear distinction between the way of seeing “before” and “after”. My understanding of living in between also draws from the concept of third spaces-– neither home nor work or school, safe spaces to explore, and third culture people, people not from here or there, but from here and there. 

However, leaders are not always aware of what it is that will make them successful in the in-between. For example. In a study outlining why global leaders succeed and fail, Johnson and colleagues (2006) interviewed international business CEOs as well as human resource (HR) staff asking them “what are the greatest challenges individuals face in being successful leaders outside of their home country?” As the table shows below, CEOs discounted the role that cultural competency and adapting their practices to the local context play in their success.

For the full study please see here

As you can see in the diagram below, cultural competency has been cited as one of the 10 most important work skills for the future according to outlets like Medium and Forbes.

As these articles outline, cross-cultural competency is a key enabling factor for the diversity of thought which often drives creativity. If you are interested in what is meant by “cross-cultural competency” I have found a good example from the growing diverse context of Ottawa, Canada, which I am happy to share here.

So why do these ideas of cultural-competency and the commitment to leading “in-between” drive my work? I have my parents to thank for constantly modeling cross-cultural learning and humility while I was growing up. As we traveled between San Diego and Tijuana regularly, I was exposed to many boundaries and “in-between” experiences which I continue to engage with and expose my students to today. One thing I have found is that much of scholarship and press focuses on the migration dynamics of this region but often fails to highlight all of the other boundaries that people living on both sides of the border interact with and cross on a regular basis. I have tried to draw attention to these more invisibilized experiences which have greatly influenced my own personal journey towards leadership and change. I hope that these ideas might help spark discussion for others and motivate leaders across spaces to consider how they can be changemakers in the “in-between.” I believe this approach is more needed now than ever. 

Rachel is a San Diego-Tijuana borderlander who spends lots of weekends and work trips in Mexico. During the workweek, she spends her time helping social entrepreneurs get started at University of San Diego. When she’s not doing that, she eats good food with good friends in good places. Follow her on Instagram @transfronterista. 


“Gap between knowing and doing”  cited in Johnson, James & Lenartowicz, Tomasz & Apud, Salvador. (2006). Cross-cultural competence in international business: Toward a definition and a model. Journal of International Business Studies. 37. 525-543. 10.1057/palgrave.jibs.8400205. 

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