Host author Mark McKergow is writing a piece on Substack every week at the moment. Last week’s has caused some excitement – it’s about a new way of using Host Leadership ideas! Alyson McGregor and her colleagues at Altogether Better, a UK Nartional Health Service network, are exploring how to work in the ‘liminal space’ between the ‘professional’ world of the doctors practice and the ‘life’ world of patients – and Host Leadership is part of it. Read it now (and it’s free to subscribe for new ideas every week).
From the perspective of a host leader, this issue is wound
up in the Gatekeeper role and the negotiation of boundaries. In the Host book
we talk about the negotiation and observance of boundaries as a key part of
leading as a host. Host leaders are clear about where boundaries are, and what
happens when people cross them.
One kind of boundary is around a space or container where
things happen. ‘In this team/project/community we work like this and not like
that’. When people join the team or step into the space, it’s the role of the
host leader to introduce these boundaries and help folk get accustomed to them.
This kind of ‘enforcement’ is more like a routine than a rule; something to be
learned and habitually used than enforced with punishments. (Remember, host
leaders prefer to work with the soft power of invitation than the hard power of
Another related kind of boundary is choosing what is
acceptable and encouraged within the space, and what is not. The ministerial
code is just such one of these, and is quite clearly written. What’s the problem
then? One problem is that in recent times, prime ministers have chosen to
ignore it. When
home secretary Priti Patel was found to have breached the code by bullying her
staff, then-prime minster Boris Johnson announced that he had full
confidence in her (prompting the understandable resignation of his
ethics advisor Sir Alex Allan). (Some
pedants will point out that as the code is the pm’s to write and enforce, they
can’t break it – as if such a flexible interpretation would build confidence
rather than point out the essentially feudal authority of a British prime
…it really should not be the job of an adviser, however
independent or distinguished, to work out whether a Prime Minister should sack
A good host leader would surely take their own code and
boundaries more seriously? Outsourcing such decisions is a sign that the code
is not something that the leader takes seriously but rather will overlook until
the evidence is damning from all sources. Rishi Sunak would be a lot stronger
by taking his own boundaries seriously and using them decisively. Unless the
Conservative government is a party of rogues who are all routinely stepping
over the line… perish the thought.
One great example of a boundary making hard decisions easier
(and one which is not in the Host book) is from mineral water company Perrier. In
1990 some bottles of the water were found to contain benzene, a toxic chemical.
Although the contaminated bottles were found in Denmark and the Netherlands,
Perrier withdrew every single bottle on sale everywhere in the world. Perrier’s
chairman Gustave Leven said:
”I have built up this company over the past 40 years
around an image of perfection, I don’t want the least doubt, however small, to
tarnish our product’s image of quality and purity.”
Perrier took a huge financial hit and the damage to their reputation was serious. But the decision to withdraw all the stock from sale was easy.
Dates and mates
Join me at the Host Leadership Gathering 2023 in Vienna, Austria on 12-13 June 2023. We’re looking for interesting participants and (even better) people who’d like to bring along a workshop, a topic for conversation or some thoughts about leading as a host. Full details at https://sinnvoll-fuehren.com/hostleadershipgathering2023/.
Chris Corrigan, one of my long-time friends and inspirations, has just started blogging again. This is good news – his ideas and views from the western shores of Canada about hosting, facilitating, conversing and including are always worth catching.
I have summarised her characteristics, which are well-observed and very concisely delivered. She says leaders could do more of these:
Think about convening conversations that might not happen otherwise. Opening spaces for reflective inquiry.
Taking action visibly. Taking up a voice, speaking out, creating ripples where you don’t quite know the consequences.
Leaders shift the conversational life of the organisation. Having the courage and skill to invite and sustain free-flowing conversation which is not simply following a highly structured agenda.
Invent and improvise shifts in the configuration of speaking with each other – all together, in small groups, listening carefully. Work with conversation as an art.
Encourage talk linking large-scale abstract concepts to the small-scale realities of everyday life. Many leaders are excellent at giving accounts of the former and are unable to translate these to the latter.
Know how to balance and move between written documentation with oral communication. The former leads to a narrowing and reduction of the richness of the latter.
Leaders can be very good at explanation and yet very poor at description. They are too eager to move towards simple cause-and-effect linkages, where a descriptive-reflective capacity to inquire into the way circumstances happen and change.
Being able to evoke and notice ‘vivid moments of experience’, moments of common reference which have meaning for people in their everyday activity.
Pay less attention to generating yet another action plan and more attention on what is opening up in front of us in terms of small steps.
Each of these nine micro-practices can be seen to be part of a host leadership stance, particularly when combined with the detail and descriptive work of Solutions Focus. My eye was particularly drawn to:
Bringing people together to join forces to exchange, converse and emerge new ideas (rather than have a constraining agenda), in the same way that a good party is not scripted but flows this way and that.
Taking small steps (as in the User’s Guide To The Future framework) as a way of positively exploring and learning, rather than as part of a huge action plan.
When we go into organisations and groups to help them learn about Host Leadership, we talk about our four positions for a host leader. These first appeared in the Host book by Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey. Briefly, they are:
In The Spotlight – upfront, public, talking to everyone, giving a speech or address
With The Guests – still in public, talking to people one-on-one or in very small groups
In The Gallery – stepping back to take an overview of how everything is going and what might need to happen next
In The Kitchen – a private space, where you can go behind-the-scenes and reflect, learn and recharge
There is great value in taking all these positions from time to time. They all offer something different in terms of what you can discover and how you can interact with your people, your ‘guests’. What we hear again and again from real-life leaders and hosts is along the lines of…
“I would love to take time in the kitchen, but I’m just too busy!”
“There is always so much to be done, and I want to get time with the people out there”
“I try to find Kitchen time, but it gets pushed to the end of the day when I am too tired to really use it well”
We can sympathise with this – there is indeed always a lot to be done. And – it’s possible both to find effective ways to build in Kitchen time and use it well.
Time in the Kitchen is time with the pressure off for a few moments. It’s time for:
talking to key advisors/mentors,
sounding new ideas with colleagues
The secret of getting the time for all this is – basically – to SCHEDULE it. Get it into your calendar and protect it. Value it so you don’t just take another meeting over the top of it. One good way to do this is to set aside a time (perhaps the same time) each week. An hour in the kitchen. It can take a few weeks to really get into the swing of this so you’ll very likely have to persist.
As well as just scheduling your kitchen time, you can also effectively make the time yours by also including others. So for example you could:
Make time with a coach or mentor – and put it in the diary
Keep a regular learning journal – say at the start and end of each week?
Organise away days or retreats for your closest team
Join a mastermind group, action learning set, supervision group or similar to meet and draw on ideas from others
Use mindfulness methods to create brief respites from the busyness of the day.
It’s interesting to note that the word ‘busyness’ is so similar to business…
Whichever way you do it, taking time every week In The Kitchen, away from the daily hubbub, will help you be a better leader and a better host. Which way will you try next week?
You can download a free 2-page pdf about all the four positions from this website to use and distribute in your team or organisation.
Here in the UK we have just had a set of city mayor elections. This is quite a new thing for us; these ‘metro-mayors’ are directly elected as figure heads for local government in their area. They have a certain amount of authority (while having to work alongside the various elected councils and other bodies, of which there are usually several) and some executive power. However, perhaps THE key strength they have is ‘convening power’.
The idea of convening power has been around for a decade or more. Harvard business guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote about it in 2011. The Commonwealth sees it as a key element of their mission. It’s about using what recognition and authority you have, which may or may not be a lot, to gather people together around an issue or cause. Essentially, it is the ‘power of the ask’ writ large. If you don’t ask, you don’t get – so not even asking is to give a No answer before anything has actually happened.
Convening power is mostly a form of soft power. You invite people to gather with potential positive consequences. You can also offer them an enjoyable time, the chance to meet others also interested in the issues, and a seat at the table. This is invitation on a grand scale. Organisations are often keen to be seen to be playing their parts in creating solutions and can be drawn in – with a compelling invitation and a good cause.
Hints for using convening power include:
Find a really good topic, cause or issue to gather people around. If it really matters to people, they will come (or at least start to get engaged)
Thing big. Find the best-known and most widely connected person you can, and start from there. Once the crowd starts to hear that key people and organisations are joining, they’ll soon get interested.
Think outside the box. Don’t just ask the usual suspects, get people together from a wider range of places and contexta. Invite those affected by an issue as well as those who can help resolve it. Invite people with parallel experiences, or from fields with analogous situations.
Get to action. Prompt public commitments and next steps – when folk make these in front of others, they are more likely to follow through. In particular, look to make things start happening in the 48/72 hours after your event.
Anyone can use convening power. It’s a great element of Host Leadership. And if you don’t convene and gather people around what YOU think is important, who will?
Everyone knows that leading is about stepping forward, right? Leaders are visible, go first and attract attention. Well, that’s right some of the time. And some of the time, there are other possibilities… like stepping back to move forwards.
In Host Leadership we think that leading is a dance of stepping forward and back. Yes, sometimes it’s good to step forwards, for the reasons given above. And also sometimes, there are very good reasons to step back for a moment. Good hosts don’t hog the limelight or dominate proceedings – we are more inclined to encourage our guests to be visible, to share the stage, and to build engagement and participation.
When is a good time to step back? When you’re just finished stepping forward. You have a role to play in setting the context, building a framework and perhaps asking a question. That’s a great time to step back, look expectant, offer the space to someone else.
But isn’t that losing control? Not at all! You’re still there. You can hear what’s going on. You are getting something back – what the others think, how they are seeing the situation (which may be different) and also who wants to step in next. You’re still there and can step in again when the time is next right.
So, as a host leader, think about this key question:
Are you going to step forward or step back next?
Stepping back may be more of an option than you thought…
As a host leader, we look to be clear about boundaries, what is appropriate in this particular space and what is not. Occasionally, even with the best will in the world, we find ourselves having to say ‘No’ to someone or something. There are some ways to do it, however, which are better than others…
William Ury’s outstanding work on the power of a positive No10 gives some excellent pointers for this. Ury incisively points out the tension between the leader exerting their power on the one hand, and needing to tend to their relationship with the excluded person on the other. In real-life leadership situations, there is almost always a need to preserve and even build relationships for what may come next.
A positive No therefore maintains and builds relationship as well as getting the immediate need dealt with. It basically takes the form “Yes! No. Yes?”
1. Yes! Acknowledge the interest, contribution, enthusiasm or whatever else the person has shown. Be specific if you can – let them know you have noticed the positive and useful elements of the situation so far.
2. No. State what you need to have happen clearly and as a matter of fact. Giving a justifiable reason for your position can help here – it shows that this is perhaps not the situation you were hoping for, and that you have not taken your decision lightly.
3. Yes? Offer an alternative action, role or possibility to the other person. This will both achieve your goal and also offer another way for the relationship with the person to continue. This may be another way to be involved with the project, another contribution that they might make, a point in the future where this can be revisited, another route for the person to take.
This third phase offers something for people to agree with, and so be able to maintain and even build relationships. So this No is not the end of everything, but a point of punctuation along the road of a continuing and valued partnership.
Let’s look at an example. Laura is Gillian’s manager. Gillian can act as a host, even when she isn’t one, with a positive No.
Laura: I’m looking for someone talented to chair our ethics committee. It’s a sensitive position, with lots of conflicting interests and delicate emotions. It’s also ideal for someone looking to get more visibility with the Board. So I think it would be the perfect fit for you – I’ve seen you get great results from some very tense meetings, and I know how much you want to make progress up the ladder.
Gillian: (Yes!) Thank you, Laura. That’s lovely to hear. I guess you’re thinking of those Draycox meetings I chaired. Yes, I was pleased with how they turned out, and it’s lovely to hear you say so too. I’m also very grateful to you for thinking of me in this way. [Pausing to think]
It is a very good opportunity….. [Pausing again]
(No)… and I’m also thinking of the decontamination project. It’s getting me working seventy-hour weeks already, we’re two weeks behind on the deadline, and I really want to turn that around. The last thing I want is having you hauled onto the news at eight a.m. to explain why the beaches around here aren’t safe to swim in.
So I’m going to have to say no for n ow. (Yes?) If it can wait six months, I’d love to take up your offer. Otherwise, have you thought of John? I know he’s quite passionate in this area (remember all the extra research he did on Banyard; he was working Sundays for months). He’s brilliant at winning consensus too, don’t you think?
Notice how Gillian is genuinely pleased to receive the offer, and pauses to give the question genuine thought – which communicates how seriously she’s considering it. She is clear about her No, and offers not one but two possibilities.
Our next Host Leadership Hint comes from Leah Davcheva, a member of the Host Leadership Stewards group who has been using hosting ideas in her work as an educationalist, cross-cultural consultant and community builder. She writes here about the power of stepping into, and out of, the six roles of a host leader in her community work.
“On the left side of the street leading to the house where I live in Sofia, there stretches a smallish plot of land, triangular in shape. It belongs to nobody. Overgrown with bramble, and coarse grass, rubbish scattered all over, the place presented a graceless sight. An eyesore which bitterly contrasted with the well-trimmed gardens in our neighbourhood.
This had to change! In my mind, I could see this small piece of land transforming itself into a beautiful spot and making the neighbourhood proud.
A first small step was to share the idea with our next-door neighbor. She was keen and within less than an hour we initiated a small-scale gardening project and named it – The Triangle. Together, we composed a short text, inviting our neighbours to join. Not knowing their names, let alone any email addresses or phone numbers, we tucked the A4 pieces of paper into their mailboxes. Hoping to break the ‘silence’ of the neighbourhood, we opened the gates wide for contributions. Some neighbours responded, others ignored the message.
Within a month, we had the place cleaned and dug through. A gardener was employed to design the garden and plant the new trees and shrubs. Beautiful white stones frame the plot.
As the work unfolded, we got to know each other, shared news and simple stories. Something of a community started emerging. My neighbour and I hope that The Triangle might eventually turn into a space where neighbours gather together in – for a chat simply, and, why not, for initiating new projects.
Applying the lens of host leading, we can discern the stepping forward and back dance, as well the stepping into and out of the roles of initiator, inviter, space creator, gatekeeper, connector, co-participator.
One of the six roles of Host Leadership is the Initiator – the person who starts thing off, notices a priority and brings it into focus. Before you can do that, there is a necessary first step: listen out for what your organisation is calling for.
What’s coming over the horizon?
What challenges are starting to appear in the marketplace?
How are your distribution channels shifting?
How are people finding out about you?
How are you tracking your success with customers and user groups?
It could, of course, be any of these, all of them, or all kinds of other things. This month’s hint is to listen. Not rush in. Not jump to a snap decision. Listen. Listen to the conversation in the office and outside it. Listen to what you are hearing on social media. And most importantly listen to your own heart about what’s really important and that you want to take forward.
Our top tip for this is go somewhere quiet. Listening is usually best done with a little focus and a little peace. So why not go out at lunchtime and find a seat someplace, or take a moment on your way into work tomorrow. Take five minutes to see where you are and what’s coming along. And then park it, store it away, and see what happens next. If it just vanishes, it probably wasn’t that important. If it stays with you, and you start seeing other signs that this is important, then it probably is.
Listen. Listen again. Then act.
You can find a more detailed exposition of ways to listen for what is being called for in Mark McKergow’s chapter of the Host Leadership Field Book.
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Educator Nigel Gann has been an enthusiastic adopter of Host Leadership for some time, and was hoping to contribute to the Host Leadership Field Book last year. His piece arrived too late for that, but we are delighted to feature it now. This topic of welcoming strangers has never been more relevant, and the work in Lichfield is a beacon of hope and brave practice. The picture above shows a less picturesque side of the city seen by some arrivals.
One of the stories of the growth of civilisation is of the tension between the good of the individual and the needs of the community. Where the latter is disproportionately strong, we find tyranny and absolutism. Where the former is, there is the danger of anarchy. This conflict exists in every nation state, but also in cities and towns, and in organisations of all types. Where it is unresolved, people may look for a hero leader to sort it out, where the organisation seeks a single individual to articulate and embody it.
We may be at
that stage in a number of nations now. Despite the plain and disastrous history
of the model, the image of the hero leader remains seductive to many. Perhaps
it is no coincidence that Thomas Carlyle’s study “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and
the Heroic in History” was published in the exact same year – 1841 – as was
Charles Mackay’s catalogue of communal folly “Extraordinary Popular Delusions
and the Madness of Crowds”.
parties, businesses, schools and voluntary organisations have come spectacular
croppers over the last thirty years or so by becoming over-reliant on flawed “heroes”
who have refused to be accountable to their supporters, their shareholders,
their boards and their members. When the delusion of heroic leadership sidles
into politics – international, national or local – we need to find a coherent
So what has
the model of host leadership to offer to communities? Or rather – what might
community activism have to offer the development and implementation of host
leadership? One movement, initiated by a small group of concerned citizens in
Sheffield some 15 years ago, considers how, in an era of mass migration –
whether fired by need, political will or climate change – we can create a
culture of welcome to people who are displaced. The question they address is,
“How can a city, a town, a village, an organisation or institution celebrate
and host new arrivals?” Their answer was a new and at the same time age-old
concept – a City of Sanctuary.
community simultaneously “step forward and step back” like a host? Of course it
can. It invites, it welcomes and it embraces newcomers. It sets up the
possibility of new relationships, with existing guests and new arrivals, with
sources of help and support, and it offers help in understanding how to engage
with the community. And it allows, encourages, enables new arrivals to protect
and celebrate their own culture – the one they bring with them, with all its
richness and history, to share with us. Central to this is the ability to
encourage the less active members of the community to engage positively with
guests – this is where host leadership of communities takes on the role of
creating and maintaining a community-wide ethos of welcome.
now hundreds of cities, towns and villages of sanctuary. There are also
countless streams of sanctuary – schools, churches, businesses, organisations,
theatres and so on. Here, in a small city in the English midlands, we felt the
time had come to commit to the idea. In autumn 2019, some 30 leaders of
organisations met together to talk about their shared concept of the community
as host, not only to internationally displaced persons, such as migrants,
refugees and asylum seekers, but to all disadvantaged people who find
themselves challenged by a society where tolerance and understanding seem
increasingly endangered, among them people living in poverty, people with disabilities,
those with mental health issues, those without homes.
Between May and
October 2019,71% of people from ethnic minorities in Britain reported
facing discrimination (in January, 2016, the figure was 58%); in June of that
year, a Survey by BritainThinks showed that “Britain is a more polarised and
pessimistic nation than it has been for decades”; in September, the
Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner (the top anti-terrorism officer)
said: “Far-right terrorism is the fastest-growing threat in Britain.” In the
same month, a “Record number of anti-semitic incidents in first half of 2019 –
892, a 10% increase on the first half of 2018” was recorded, while according to
a HopenotHate survey “more than half of black and minority ethnic British
voters think a no-deal Brexit would worsen race relations in the UK”.
Many, but by
no means all, of those who gathered here represented faith groups from
Christian and Muslim communities.
is simple. Movement and change within and across nations is inevitable. It has
been going on for thousands of years, sometimes in strong and powerful surges,
sometimes in persistent streams. It brings, as it always has done, risks as
well as economic and cultural benefits, and it offers challenges. But history
shows that attempts to stem the flow at best fail, and at worst end in disaster
for would-be guests and reluctant recipients. Host leadership in Lichfield,
personified by the Cities of Sanctuary movement, has four key actions at its
support people in Lichfield, especially newcomers, who face discrimination or
exclusion due to displacement, immigration, racism, poverty, abuse, sexuality,
disability or violence
alongside individuals and organisations throughout the district of Lichfield to
coordinate welcome and support for those who need it
challenge visions of Lichfield that exclude any individuals and groups that
live and work here
events, exhibitions, campaigns and meetings to engage and inform about the
issues that concern us all.
We see the
participation element as particularly powerful – this is not about providing
people with things, but about working with them towards a fair and accessible
provision of what they need.
So those were
early days for us. What came next was recruitment – the need to address key
organisations and individuals face-to-face and explain the universal benefits
of a welcoming culture, reinforcing the values, addressing the adverse impacts
of much of current political British thinking – and reshaping the narrative of
the communities we inhabit.
has imposed on us time to think about our next steps. Next year, in partnership
with local arts organisations, community groups, schools and faith groups, we
plan a season of sanctuary in the city. It’s that stage in a social event when
you, as host, say – “May I introduce you to . . .? I think you’ll find each
other really interesting.”