General Archive

Brexit: An opportunity for host leadership

brexit hand-holding-brexit-sign-eu-referendumWell, what a week it’s been with the UK voting narrowly for Brexit following a confused and heated campaign generating more heat that light from both sides.  So many things have changed at a stroke – aspects of live which were formerly assumptions have been brought to uncertainty, taken-for-granted freedoms like the right to love and work anywhere in the EU are in question.  Sadly, racist attacks are reported to have increased by 500% since the vote.  As I write this on Friday 1 July both main UK political parties are having leadership crises, the winning Leave campaign has no plan, and the only British politician coming out of it with any credit is Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon.

Nicola Sturgeon seems to me to be showing excellent host leader qualities. She knows which direction she wants to go (Initiator role).  She has reached out to others in the EU and gained important meetings and conversations (Connector role).  And above all she is stepping forward with confidence at a time when most other British politicians are acting like rabbits in headlights, knifing each other in the back and generating huge uncertainty. Acting confidently – even when you don’t know what’s going to happen – inspired confidence in your ‘guests’ and followers.

It has been said that the result of the Brexit vote came as a shock to both sides, and may even be generating a mental health crisis as people have their realities rocked.  What can we do at this time?  It seems to me that wherever we are in the UK or in the wider world, this is a moment for small acts of kindness and reaching out to others in ways great and small.  This excellent list arrived in my inbox from Sunday Assembly founder Sanderson Jones. Sunday Assembly is a network of secular congregations that meet to celebrate life, and this list could be used by anyone – of any faith or no faith – in the days ahead.

  1. Smile at someone in the street. They probably want to know they’re in a world of love and kindness.
  2. Don’t hate people who have different opinions. They’re just humans who want the best in a complicated world.
  3. Create connections outside of your tribe. Tribalism enflamed the passions we’re feeling now.
  4. Hearing people that agree with you is great but more important to listen to those that don’t.
  5. Remainers, if you’re feeling pain after the vote, remember this is the pain that many of the Leavers felt before.
  6. Leavers, the result has shocked a lot of Remainers, don’t kick them when they’re down (and out).
  7. If there’s going to be a ‘culture war’ it is better to find peaceful solutions than to take up arms.
  8. Be grateful: you live in one of the richest, most peaceful, most advanced countries the world has ever known. 
  9. Be positive: we got through two World Wars, the Suez Crisis and losing Eurovision. We will get through this too.
  10. Sure, get politically active but you can be apolitically active too. The new knitting group can be more powerful than the sword.
  11. Find spaces where you can be with difference, live with difference and listen to difference without judging. #JudgyMcJudgeFace
  12. In every borough, county and street in the country there are people who disagreed with you. Make their world better however you can.
  13. Come up with a new cultural, social and economic vision for Britain that everyone can get behind (this last one’s a biggie).

And for those of a more activist bent, Host author Mark McKergow has started a campaign and website at  He is asking questions, looking for answers, holding people to account and trying to find ways forward in the emerging confusion.  Please check it out and on Twitter at

Invite and share: Jeremy Nicholas hosts better speaking

jeremynicholasI first met Jeremy Nicholas at a Professional Speaking Association London meeting at the end of last year.  The PSA brings together speakers and those who (like me) make their living on their hind legs, and the meetings are a packed mix of great and would-be great speakers, business and marketing tips and networking.  Jeremy, whose business tag line is ‘Keeping conference delegates awake since 1994’, was the host of the meeting, linking everything together in a relaxed yet very skilful way.  I happened to sit next to him at lunch, and we swapped business cards as one does in this kind of setting.

The following week, I received Jeremy’s email newsletter.  Reaching for the delete key, I started to read and discovered that rather than a hard-sell, this email was packed with interesting, topical and practical tips on speaking.  It really was a masterpiece of thought-provoking content, with several sections and inspired by talks and TV interviews, some recent and some less so, with Jeremy’s comments about how the speakers achieved (or not) their desired impact.  It also mentions his workshops and coaching services, of course.  Over the months I have come to eagerly look forward to Wednesday morning, when the next instalment arrives.

A few weeks ago, Jeremy offered an invitation to his readers – “Buy me a coffee and we can talk about speaking.”  Being in London and with an hour or so to fill, Jeremy invited the first four respondents to join him at London’s funky Groucho Club and ask questions about speaking and speaker-biz.  I responded instantly, and last Friday Angie, Cyril, Sean and I went along to the Groucho.  Jeremy was excellent – he was interested in what we did, shared his experiences, gave us insider tips, responded to all our questions, and actually even bought the coffees as well.

I took a couple of minutes to describe Host Leadership to him, and between us we figured out that he was being an excellent host leader!

  • He has stepped forward and initiated an opportunity for this discussion to happen
  • He had invited us, let us know where to be and when, and been clear about what we could and couldn’t do in the club
  • He had found a nice space where we could all sit together and talk without interruption
  • He was the most experienced (and so shared that experience) but was also interested in us and our experiences – all in a generous way, with few preconceptions or conditions
  • He introduced us to each other, got us talking, sometimes let us take a lead and then bringing the discussion back together
  • And he joined in as ‘one of the group’ as well as being the leader.

I was rather surprised when Jeremy told us that this was the first time he’d done a meeting like this with four people – his previous forays had been to invite one person, but it was clear to me that having a small group meant that everyone benefited from a variety of views, that other people’s questions were just as interesting as your own, and that the time flew by.  I had to leave after an hour and three quarters, but the others were still going.

So, I would rate Jeremy as a good host leader as well as a very skilful speaker and speaking coach!  If you are interested in speaking, so sign up for his weekly newsletter at  Who knows where it might lead?  And thanks to Jeremy for an excellent morning in London.

Solution-Focused practice: links to host leadership

sol_logo_liverpoolI am just back from organising the international SOLWorld 2016 conference in Liverpool.  This is the annual gathering of Solution-Focused (SF) practitioners who work in coaching, management and organisational contexts.  The SF tradition derives from the work of Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg in solution-focused brief therapy, and offers a powerful and energizing way to build progress, even in tough situations, by focusing on what’s wanted and what’s working.

As part of the conference I hosted a discussion on the connections and links between SF practice and host leadership, particularly around the relationship of host and guest (which in the host leader metaphor is leader and others). The group produced lots of great ideas – here they are:

  • The host metaphor is an excellent source of resources for leaders and would-be leaders – we already know at some level what a host does, and can start to put that into action right away
  • A good host will want to please their guests – so finding out what the guests want is a key piece of this.  (Note, simply giving the guests what they want is not necessarily possible, but it’s an important piece of the equation.) And it’s very good to have an idea of what the host wants too – they are also participants in this interaction.
  • A host can get good at ‘being lazy’ – in other words, stepping back and allowing others to act, work etc.
  • A link with teachers who work with students in helping them to learn when they are comfortable and stretched at the same time.  This means moving in and out, adjusting all the time (and is connected with the ideas of the 20th century educational pioneer Vygotsky).
  • Host as facilitator – making connections, with a focus on the interactions in the group.  A good question to ask all the time is “How does this contribute towards our goals?”
  • The six roles of a host leader give a nice route to leadership development.  In particular the role of the ‘Space-creator’, focusing on the space and environment, offers a new and relatively overlooked angle on leadership.
  • The roles are quite easy to link to behaviours, and therefore to put into action.  They are also dynamic – there are possibilities for action in any situation, and the development of leadership is all about getting better at choosing.
  • Attention to detail! Good hosts focus on detail, and good SF practice is all about discussing and noticing details.
  • “What you invite is what you get.”  There is a bigger picture here in terms of how we live and develop our own lives.
  • Hosts focus on the resources which the guests are bringing.  These may not be obvious at first, but getting better at noticing, inviting and engaging will help to tap into these resources when the time is right.
  • The guest has a role too!  Steve de Shazer always used to say to his therapy clients that ‘there are not guarantees – I’ll do my best, and I hope you will too…” (and would look to see if they were nodding at that point).  Good hosting is about developing guests expectations about their role and how they can help create a successful interaction.
  • Clear invitations are a key part of creating expectations – and as such are a very useful tool for leaders and anyone else wishing to engage people.

Perhaps you are a solution-focused practitioner?  What do you think?  Which of these is particularly important for you?  And what else could you add?


From Board to the Ward: Engaging nurses in leadership White Paper

Two experts from the fields of nursing and leadership have joined forces to produce a whitepaper to help educate leaders at all levels in the NHS on the importance of moving away from traditional forms of leadership in favour of a more host-based approach.

Nursing white paperDr Mark McKergow is an international leadership speaker and consultant. He is co-author of Host: Six new rules roles of engagement for teams, organisations, communities and movements (Solutions Books, 2014). Annessa Rebair MSc BSc(Hons) RMN is Senior Lecturer of Mental Health at Northumbria University, Trustee of UK charity PAPYRUS (prevention of young suicide) and leadership coach.

In the whitepaper, McKergow and Rebair discuss the various issues surrounding leadership and nursing and provide practical suggestions on how to move away from the traditional leadership styles that are simply not compatible with the evolving requirements of 21st Century nursing management.

Download the white paper (pdf)

Mark and Annessa decided to produce the whitepaper after a number of recent reports and statements from within the industry cited better leadership at all levels of the NHS as being a crucial point.

The Kings Fund report ‘No More Heroes’ (2011) specifically challenges the notion of how leadership is used in a contemporary National Health Service:

‘The old model of ‘heroic’ leadership by individuals needs to adapt to become one that understands other models such as shared leadership both within organisations and across the many organisations with which the NHS has to engage in order to deliver its goals.’

This suggests that the idea of individual leadership appears to be unfit for purpose in the current climate of health care and rather there is a requirement to ‘focus on developing the organisation and its teams, not just individuals, on leadership across systems of care rather than just institutions, and on followership as well as leadership.’

Mark McKergow says:

“Modern leadership writing shows a broad distinction between ‘hero’ leaders who get results by authority, hard work and expertise, and post-heroic leaders who see their role as being about getting results though bringing others together in a way which allows maximum contribution from the others, not treating them as foot soldiers.

This is a journey of development and increasing awareness. Most people start out assuming that hero leadership is the way to do it – after all, the idea is woven through our culture, our movies and our stories. The nursing context reinforces this starting point.  However, leaders who want to succeed at higher levels will need to learn to develop their style, to get the most out of others in terms of creative and constructive input, as well as hard work.”

Annessa Rebair adds:

“It is necessary within the nursing profession for us to move forward from a heroic leadership style to one where the leader is responsible for their team’s success. The long-term challenge is for the NHS is to build engagement throughout all levels of nursing, and the development of nurses capable of such a shift is therefore even more vital given the prevailing promote-from-within culture. Host Leadership offers an accessible yet rich and flexible notion to help leaders to quickly expand their skills and mindsets in this direction.

The need to be able to take command in an authoritative way is clear – the wider question is whether that is always the best thing to do, and how this option can sit within a wider coherent set of leadership behaviours.”

The full whitepaper report “Host Leadership from Board to the Ward” is available to download here.

Building connection – with your eyes! How to do a proper ‘Skål’ (Cheers!) in Sweden

Building connection and relationship is a key part of every leader’s role.  But how to do it, and when are the opportunities?  In the UK (and indeed around the world) we have a routine of clinking glasses and saying ‘Cheers!’ when we have a drink with others.  In my experience, this is usually done in a perfunctory way, with a quick clink and on with the drinking.  But what’s this all about, and what does it tell us about connection?

There was an idea, now generally debunked, that in medieval times the clinking of glasses was about sloshing liquid from each vessel into the other to show that none of the drink was poisoned and that everyone could relax and be friends.  Whatever, it’s a moment when there is a general pause in the general chat whilst everyone focuses on the others present.

On a recent visit to Sweden I noticed that when a group of friends gathers for a meal, the observance of the ‘Cheers’ is carried out in a more meaningful way.  Agneta Castenberg, a colleague from the world of Solution Focused coaching, explained how it works.

  1. The host/hostess raises their glass. Everyone else does the same
  2. Everyone says ‘Skål!’
  3. You then raise your glass to drink
  4. While you do this, you make eye contact with everyone
  5. Then you drink
  6. Then you look around again and make eye contact again
  7. And you all nod together, like a mini-bow to the others
  8. And you wait for the host/hostess to put their glass down – then and only then can you put your own glass down.
Next time you find yourself saying ‘Cheers!’ or whatever, take time to make eye contact with everyone.  It adds to the connection and the idea that this is an important moment for us all to be together.  Perhaps not everyone will respond – the first time.   Keep it up!  And let us know your experiences below.
By the way I will be back in Sweden doing a Host Leadership session for the Clues centre in Karlstad soon – do check out their website.
Now watch Agneta explaining it all to me (in a rather dark bar on a sunny day).


Host perspectives key in developing new relations with ‘the Enemy’

commondish“When We Eat from a Common Dish, We Have No Enemies”  African Proverb

Samuel Mahaffy’s recent article for the Peace and Collaborative Development Network, Georgetown University, presents host ideas in a contemporary and frighteningly relevant perspective.  In ‘The Co-Construction of “The Enemy”‘. Mahaffy examines how in the current situation and in history, the discourse we have and accept about our enemies may be an important part of sustaining them.

Mahaffy start from the African proverb above – a key step in resolving conflict is to meet people as people, rather than as ‘the Enemy’.  This is a controversial area, of course.  Nobody wants to see violence and intolerance triumph.  And yet time and again, history shows that in the end, we end up talking to ‘the enemy’, as part of a step to building a better future.  Mahaffy writes:

An African proverb provides a germinating seed for an alternative narrative about the enemy:  “When we eat from a common dish, we have no enemies.”  It is the wisdom of Africa that the world is never clearly black or white.  There may be the friend ontologically nestled and residing within our construct of the enemy.  In the presence of the enemy is the potential for the friend with whom we can break bread.  The work of Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey (2014) in Host Leadership suggests that the notion of hosting or breaking bread together has historically served to disrupt the construct of the enemy.  The one we share a meal with is no longer faceless.

Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s chief of staff in the late 1990s and spent a lot of time in clandestine discussions with the factions in Northern Ireland.  In his subsequent books Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts, Powell shows again and again the inestimable value of getting people around a social situation like a dinner table, as opposed to across a negotiating table.  Both these books are well worth reading for practicalities of getting people around a ‘common dish’.

And yes – the person who brings the people together and provides both the dish and the setting where it’s all possible is the host.  That’s why we think Host Leadership matters today.

Read Samuel Mahaffy’s article in full.

Improving School Governance – with host leadership

gann governanceThe second edition of UK eductation expert Nigel Gann’s book Improving School Governance has just been published. Since the first edition appeared in 1998 this book has become a keystone of school governance discussions in the UK and overseas. Nigel’s experience as a teacher, head, governor, chair of governors and consultant really comes through in what is both a practical and thought-provoking work.

We were particularly excited to see host leadership taking its place in the book. As part of the chapter on leadership and management, Nigel Gann seeks to debunk the idea of ‘superheads’ or ‘hero heads’ who arrive to turn around failing schools. He writes about the narrative of a school which is a ‘victim’ (or the pupils are victims and the school is the perpetrator) being saved by the lone superhead riding into town and rescuing everyone, as discredited – though it remains popular with the press, politicians and some of the self-declared superheads themselves. This is not to say that strong and good leadership is not important of course – it’s just that there are other models.

Gann then goes on to look at ‘antihero’ leaders – servants and hosts. He quotes from Host, saying that

The basis of the [host leader] metaphor is that leadership is not an activity conducted by an individual so much as a relationship between leader and led: ‘If heroes step forward and servants step back, then the host does both’ (McKergow and Bailey 2014, p23).

He then reviews the six roles of host leadership and relates ways that head teachers might act like host leaders. He then offers some ideas of how non-hero heads, working collaboratively with students, staff, governors and parents, might work with their governors:

  • Don’t always be right – other people wondey why they’re there if you can do it all by yourself
  • In fact, don’t always know. The words “I don’t know” used by someone in authority open doors for others
  • Give two or three alternatives when asked for suggestions with the pros and cons
  •  Don’t always sit in the same place at meetings, to avoid establishing a ‘power-place’
  •  Try not to sit behind a desk at small meetings
  •  Explain things so that everyone can understand them, without being patronising
  •  Remember that the school doesn’t belong to you – long after you’re gone, the community will still be there
  •  Listen in a supportive, not an adversarial, way, and don’t always feel you have to defend yourself
  • Above all, don’t be super! You’re not supposed to be doing it all by yourself.

(From Nigel Gann, Improving School Governance, 2nd edition, Routledge, 2016)

This is all very sound advice for any post-heroic leader seeking to engage others!

Build routines for higher performance – Harvard Business Review

clockThere is a fascinating article in Harvard Business Review this month about the power of ‘routines’. Todd Warner writes about research into leadership effectiveness, which for once has come up with something both unexpected and interesting. Warner’s work is showing that high performing leaders don’t focus on competences and capabilities (or at least don’t do it using those words, which are the province of the HR department). Rather, they work hard at establishing and using routines – regular ways to engage people in conversations about making things better. Warner writes about his time leading the learning function at mining company BHP Billiton:

“Our best leaders were defined by the execution of a collection of very discrete day-to-day routines, such as how they planned for meetings. We made leadership development discussions about application, not abstraction.”

Warner is clear that it’s not about defining particular routines which every leader should implement – that’s part of the context of the organisation and will differ from place to place. What is important, according to the article, is keeping the focus of these routines practical, regular and frequent. So, this isn’t about a once-a-year 360 appraisal or employee survey, it’s more about simple daily and weekly routines to get everyone talking about ‘how to be better’.

Here at Host Leadership, we are big fans of simple and everyday ways to work. In our book Host, one of the roles (the ‘Gatekeeper’) is explicitly about helping people understand and use routines as part of a regular way of working. This both helps everyone know what’s going on, when are the moments to raise issues or deal with certain topics, and it helps all to be confident that those opportunities WILL come along regularly. It also, perhaps even more potently, helps to define who ‘we’ are – this team, this organisation – by the way we use routines in ways which newcomers learn, old hands appreciate and everyone joins in with. From page 142 of ‘Host’:

There are all kinds of rituals and routines which help give coherence – these can range from the very simple (an operational meeting for the management team every day at nine a.m. to set priorities) to the bizarre (all new members must survive a ritual rolling in a filthy barrel – the traditional initiation for newly qualified whisky-barrel makers, or coopers, at the Speyside Cooperage in Scotland). Some make excellent operational sense; some act as defining the organization; some are rooted in history; some show a purpose in reminding people of why things are how they are.

Beginnings and endings are good times to set up routines and rituals. Even a simple process of starting a certain meeting by asking everyone what they are most pleased with at work at the moment can both produce valuable sharing of information, lift the energy of the room (people enjoy talking about their successes, and they sometimes get little enough chance), and announce that we are here again and that things are running as they “should.” Perhaps there are enough surprises in the world already, so we don’t need any more than really necessary in the workplace?

So, a couple of small actions to get going with your routines:

1. What kind of conversations would you like to have more of, in your workplace?
2. What is the smallest routine you can start to have the conversations with your people and colleagues?

(Remember, a routine isn’t a routine till you have done it three times – the first is an action, the second may be a coincidence… it’s number three that moves your small conversation into a routine!)

Host Leadership – “at last, what I do is a ‘thing’”

I was delighteUH picd to be asked to join a discussion at the University of Hertfordshire a few weeks ago – a ‘management book club’.  Organised by the University’s Head of Leadership and OD Kevin Flinn, the group is a forum for informal management development and support.  Like any book club, the format is choosing a book, everyone reads it and then they meet for a conversation.  The group had chosen Host as their read, and (knowing that I have connections with the University thanks to my HESIAN research hub) invited me to join the discussion.  People enjoyed the book and got a lot from expanding on the metaphor of leading as a host.

After the meeting, Rachel came up and told me her story.  She has a role in academic development at the Royal Veterinary College, which involves making lots of connections, organising large group session and doing coaching, which she loves.  However, she had struggled in the past to explain what she did – particularly to some of her managers.  She is very keen on coaching and helping people find their own solutions, but had struggled to connect this kind of work with leadership.  She had tried metaphors based on building bridges, but her colleagues were not convinced – “what happens if you take the bridges away – does the communication stop?” was one comment, implying that this was work of a temporary and uncertain nature.  Rachel says she wasn’t comfortable with that metaphor from that point – it didn’t describe the essence of what she did.  Rachel takes up the story…

“I told a colleague about my favourite role at work which is less about bridges and more about bringing people together. This involves two annual staff training days where I invite staff and students from across the College to come together and talk about current issues in teaching and learning (usually arising from my sessions with students). She said it sounded a lot like ‘hosting’ and that I should go away and read about it. Of course I went straight home and googled ‘host leadership’ and found your site and blog. I was so excited to have found something that described what I was beginning to see was my real skill!”

“When I heard about your session I was so excited and you didn’t disappoint. The new understanding I got from it was that my hosting goes on both in work and at home (the working me is the same person as the home me at long last). I have started to understand why I love the symbiotic stresses and pleasures associated with throwing a huge party/conference – and it might be ok that I am the only person around who thrives off this kind of thing.”

“I have been very protective of the ‘space to think and talk’ ethos of my INSET days without knowing why this is – I have learnt over time that if you set things up right, with good topics, spaces, timings, groups of people….you can trust that the participants will bring the rich conversation. So I am a host and the guests provide the conversation – we no longer need to be talked at by experts.  I now need to make this much clearer for some the facilitators who are still keen to demonstrate their own expertise rather than encourage others.”

“I also really like the fact that in hosting, the hosts might actually contribute something. In my pilot coaching sessions I am very aware of the temptation to use expertise but have always felt I was doing wrong… now I can see a framework to potentially use my expertise alongside hosting the other.   I think I gave myself permission to be myself – someone who likes to host people (builders, postmen, butcher, teachers, friends, colleagues) and that this is something I can use to help other people become un-stuck in an enjoyable way.  Thanks so much Mark for the inspiration and for helping me find my ‘thing’.”

Host Leadership has really helped Rachel both to clarify for herself how she likes to work, and to explain and demonstrate why she is doing it this way to others.  Now the Host Leadership is becoming a ‘thing’, we can all draw inspiration and explanation together.

How has Host Leadership helped you to clarify and expand what you do?  Please write a few lines below – we’d love to hear from you. 

The power of being ‘with the guests’ pays off for Target

target logoOne of the key aspects of being a great host leader is spending time ‘with the guests’.  This is not the moment of being in the spotlight, standing up, being important and speaking to everyone.  It’s the time when we can go around, meeting people individually, hearing what they have to say, connecting with them.

One CEO who knows the power of this kind of activity is Brian Cornell of Target.  On a recent blog on, we discover this:

“Target CEO Brian Cornell makes frequent visits to stores around the country, often going alone and unannounced, shaking hands and getting to know people, as well as using his astute powers of observation to see how effective Target team members are in connecting with their guests. 

These visits have given him a clear understanding of his new organization and what needs to be improved. It also led to what he termed “the most difficult decision of my career” — to close his predecessor’s ill-fated foray into Canada.

Not only did Cornell have multiple business analyses prepared to search for a way forward, but he also visited nearly empty stores the week before Christmas and realized that Target’s efforts should focus entirely on the lucrative U.S. market.”

A great idea from Brian there – host leaders know how to ‘get out’ of their offices and ‘get under’ the hood of what’s really going on in their organizations.