The host – stepping forward and back, dancing between hero and servant

The metaphor of leader as host offers a view on leadership that is at once rooted in millennia of practice and at the same time is something new and timely.

Metaphors like this are very important – they offer a rich and broad set of ideas about leadership in a way which allows interpretation into many different real-life situations.  Rather than a prescription, such metaphors offer us a way to engage with often difficult situations and quickly alter our thinking to come from another place.   Building on the existing ideas of heroic and servant leadership, we hope you will find inspiration of a very practical kind in the metaphor and practice of the host.

This is a new yet ancient metaphor.  The key role of the host – someone who receives and entertains guests – is deeply embedded in human society worldwide.  In recent times we may have started to think of ‘hosts’ as either waiters or cheesy gameshow comperes.  However, the act of inviting someone, of welcoming them, of responding to their needs whilst taking responsibility for their safety offers a frame through which many dimensions of leadership can be viewed.

This is a very rich metaphor.  It is a role which we all have first hand experience – who has not been invited into someone’s home, or invited others?  And yet this role lies at the heart of many cultural and spiritual traditions.  It builds and expands on the ideas of servant leadership, while making quite clear the responsive and interactional nature of leadership in a complex and changing world.

The shortcomings of existing metaphors of leadership based on the leader-as-hero are becoming increasingly clear. A clear-cut alternative, leader-as-servant (from the works of Robert Greenleaf), also suffers from problems of misinterpretation and lack of apparent relevance.
HosttriangleA host is someone who receives or entertains guests. Host sometimes have to act heroically; stepping forward, planning, inviting, introducing, providing. They also act in service – stepping back, encouraging, giving space, joining in. The host can be seen encompassing aspects of both and the movement between them. Hosting has ancient roots and is found across all cultures. We all know good hosting (and good guesting) at an instinctive gut level, and his carries over into leading groups of all types and sizes – at organisational level (corporate, public, community), at team/group level and even at a personal level – how are you hosting your own life?

We have identified six roles which a host leader takes from time to time. Read about them in this article on HR Review.

In “Leader as Host, Host as Leader” Mark McKergow has done us all a great favour in reminding us that good leaders are human beings first, and leaders second. His revival of ancient wisdom is timely, as is the emerging dialogue around virtue and character in public life.
Roger Steare, BA FRSA FREC, Visiting Professor of Organizational Ethics
Cass Business School, City University, London

Mark’s original paper on host leadership in 2009 has helped to generate interest and use of this idea.  Since the paper was published, we have come into contact with many others working in similar directions and exploring related ideas.  This site is a place for pooling ideas, sharing know-how and building the profile of leader-as-host as a key idea for 21st century management.