Blog Archive

A great invitation – from nearly 2000 years ago!

Vindolanda inviteChristmas time is always a time for parties and gatherings, and so it’s also a great time to practice your inviting skills.  Jenny and I spent last weekend in the Scotland/England Border region – an amazing place, very sparsely inhabited, now a Dark Skies park area (the low artificial light levels make for excellent stargazing conditions).  In the midst of all this, we stumbled on one of the earliest surviving written invitations in the world.

Some of you will know that this area is crossed by Hadrian’s Wall – the Vallum Hadriani, as they called it – which runs for 73 miles across the island of Britain.  Construction started in 122AD, and it’s the largest Roman artefact anywhere.  What is less well known is that the Romans were in this area for several decades before they built this wall, building forts and encampments which were inhabited not just by soldiers but also by their wives, families, traders and so on.  The best-preserved of these places is Vindolanda, built initially around 85AD near what is now the town of Corbridge.

Vindolanda has proven to be a rich source of archaeological discoveries, not least the Vindolanda tablets. These fragile wooden sheets were used for all kinds of written records, from inventories to personal communications, and date from the last decade of the first century, around 92-102AD.  When the first garrison at Vindolanda were given orders to move on to with is now Romania (what a march that would be!), orders were apparently given to destroy the records and a bonfire was constructed to burn the tablets.  However, a rain shower intervened and many of the tablets survived.  They then fell into boggy wet ground which preserved the fragile wood in anaerobic conditions, until being uncovered by archaeologists in recent decades.

The most famous tablet is the ‘birthday party invitation’ (above), written by a woman to her friend around 100AD.  The wording is beautiful and striking even today:

“Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival… Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings. (2nd hand) I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail. (Back, 1st hand) To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.’

As you can see from the image, the writing is in a scribe’s shorthand rather than spelled out in conventional lettering, and so is not easy to read directly.  The part in ‘2nd hand’ is where Claudia Severa has added a peroration herself, in her own hand, before giving the tablet back to the scribe.  This is the oldest knowingly female handwriting in Europe.  It’s amazing that this everyday document has survived for us to read.

The wording of the invitation bears close examination, even 2000 years later.  “Make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival…” is a powerful sentiment.  “I shall expect you, sister” is perhaps even more assertive, particularly given that Claudia has added this in her own hand.

The invitation is a fine display of our three elements of a great invitation from the Host book.  These are:

  • Make it attractive – to what are we being invited?
  • Make it personal and acknowledging – why is our presence particularly important?
  • Make it optional – it’s an invitation after all, and in order for an authentic ‘Yes’ response there must also be the possibility of ‘No’.

Is it attractive? It’s a birthday party!  Is it personal and acknowledging? Absolutely – it’s personally addressed, and we are told that our presence will ‘make the day more enjoyable for me’.  Wow.  Is it optional? Well, just about… the invitation is clearly a strong one, but an invitation it is, not an instruction or a demand.

These three facets were in use 2000 years ago and they still hold good.  Next time you are inviting people to get engaged in a project, business or activity, invite them using these three elements and see what response you get.  All the very best for a peaceful and engaging 2018 from us at Host Leadership!


Host Leadership, jazz and freedom: Mark McKergow talks to Andrew Paine on Lush Player

Check out this excellent interview with Mark McKergow online – listen and enjoy.

“Sun Ra, the jazz composer, bandleader, poet and philosopher is the starting point for a conversation on Leadership and the art of Hosting. Lush’s Andrew Paine and Dr Mark McKergow, co-director of sfwork – The Centre for Solutions Focus at Work – and author of Host talk about creating space for experimentation, finding new frontiers, throwing out the rule book, co-participation and the emerging need for Leaders to take on a hosting mindset in an increasingly unpredictable and changing workplace.

A tip for the Gatekeeper: “We don’t do that here”

Gatekeeper colOne of the six ‘roles of engagement’ in Host Leadership is the Gatekeeper – the negotiator of boundaries and the welcomer at the door.  Very often the Gatekeeper role is about setting expectations, encouraging people to get involved, helping to decide what’s appropriate here and encouraging people to play along nicely and co-operatively.  Sometimes, however, it can be about letting people know that they are overstepping the mark, exceeding the boundary, and need to rethink their behaviour.

I cam across a very nice blog about this recently, entitled “We don’t do that here“.  The author talks about how this simple phrase, “We don’t do that here”, has helped her in her professional career in pointing out quickly and clearly to folk that they have overstepped the mark.  So, if someone is getting too close or taking too much personal space and someone else is getting uncomfortable, you can step and say “We don’t do that here”.  The person may push back, saying something like “I was just trying to be friendly!”. This gives you the chance to affirm their intention, and also rule out their behaviour all in one sentence – “Yes, being friendly is great. And we don’t stand that close here.”

Notice that I put ‘and’ in that last sentence.  It’s tempting to say ‘but’, but… the but tends to de-emphasise everything before it and minimise the affirming.  So best stick to ‘and’.

I think this simple phrase can be a real gift to host leaders.  It’s so brief, it’s so to-the-point, and it helps us build and reinforce ‘house rules’ and expectations in a very nice and yet firm way. Now please go read the blog, which gives more examples.

PS the blog featuring the post about “We don’t do that here” is called Thagomizer.  It’s named after one of my very favourite Gary Larson cartoons:



Host Leadership and Solutions Focus

Niklas TigerAs many of you will know, Mark McKergow (the co-author of Host) is also a global expert and pioneer in using Solution Focused (SF) ideas with organisations and in coaching.  Mark runs a 16-week online course in SF with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee – the course runs twice a year and attracts people from all over the world, often experienced consultants, coaches and managers who want to make even better use of the power of SF in building positive change in tough situations (and get a university certificate at the end of it!).

One of the topics we consider on the programme is – of course – Host Leadership and the connections with SF thinking.   On the most recent course, Niklas Tiger (CEO of Hi5, a software development company based in Sweden) produced this answer about the connections between Host Leadership and SF.  I think it pulls together a great deal of wisdom and so I’d like to share it with you.  Niklas writes:

“In SF practice it is all about managing and amplifying change that is already happening in a complex and unpredictable system. We do this in order to take steps in a desired direction towards what’s wanted. We also realise that we can have some impact on the outcome, but also that there are many other forces in play that will have impact on where we end up. Since we are constantly expecting this to happen we are responsive and adapt quickly to the changing circumstances keeping a clear (and sometimes updated) idea on where we are heading. Direction and velocity is much the focus.

“With the Leader as Host metaphor it’s much the same. There’s a general idea on what’s wanted and how to get there, but there is also a responsiveness to the complexity in hosting and that there are many other forces in play (the guests and the space for example) that will constantly change over time and require different types of actions in order to keep moving forward towards the desired direction. Sometimes new possibilities or constraints will present themselves and this will require the host to adapt, take action and even change the direction when needed.

“The Host can in some respect be compared to the coach in SF. But a difference from SF is that the Host will both be the coach and the customer since one aspect of hosting is also taking part as one of the guests. Acting in a complex and constantly changing environment and trying to have some impact to move towards to what’s wanted seem to be very similar in both worlds. Also being responsive to what is happening and taking actions that are appropriate to this rather than following a predefined plan from A to B.” 

I love the way Niklas connects the flux and complexity assumptions of the SF paradigm with the responsive skills of a great host leader!  And of course the wonderful thing is that by learning more about SF we can become better hosts (and host leaders) too.  The next SF Business Professional course starts 22 October 2017 – check it out. Perhaps it’s your next development step as a host leader?

The VALUE of a great invitation – super blog from Chris Corrigan

Chris Corrigan 2My friend and colleague Chris Corrigan from Canada has proposed an excellent model for thinking about how we use the power of invitation.  He offers five key points to consider:

  • Verb: ‘Invite’ is a verb, and it requires action and responsiveness to do it
  • Attractors and Boundaries: Invitations should have an attractive purpose at their centre, but also give a sense of the ‘container boundaries’ into which you are inviting people. What’s NOT part of this?
  • Leadership: To invite is to lead, and following through on an invitation requires great leadership.
  • Urgent: What’s the zeitgeist to which you are responding? What’s needed right now?
  • Embodied: Invitation are person-to-person, and inviting is a whole-body sport where people see your enthusiasm and reactions close-up (so they’d better be congruent and convincing).

This all adds up to the VALUE of a great invitation!  Here at Host Leadership we’re right behind this way of thinking and acting.  We might add the importance of making the invitation Acknowledging of the person being invited, bringing out not only the attractiveness of the purpose but also the reasons why THIS particular person is being invited – what are we hoping they can bring to the ‘party’ in terms of experience, strengths, outlook or whatever.  And remember, all invitations have an element of Choice about them – in order for there to be a heartfelt ‘Yes’ in response, there has also to be the possibility of ‘No’.

I particularly admire Chris Corrigan’s work on containers and boundaries, and it’s very interesting to see this kind of language included in the vocabulary of an invitation.  Great stuff Chris!

Chris is coming to Scotland soon to run a two-day workshop on ‘Working In Complexity’ in Glasgow with our own Bronagh Gallagher later in the year (perhaps November 2017) so there is a chance for UK folks to experience his excellent and skilful work in person.  Now please go check out Chris’s blog if you haven’t already –

The Kgotla – group decision making in Africa

P1000029I recently returned from the ‘Solution Focused Safari’ conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was a marvellous event, the first large-scale international SF meeting there, with presenters from all over the world and a good contingent of South Africans eager to learn and join in. One particular workshop which stood out was my good friend and colleague Stanus Cloete (pictured on the right during a trip to Soweto along with his wife Riekie and my wife Jenny) presenting on his experience with the Kgotla.

The Kgotla – pronounced ‘hotla’ to our Western ears (the K is silent) – is a form of participative leadership process developed by African tribal groups. It has survived in some places, particularly in Botswana, and it’s this example which Stanus presented to us. If there is a question concerning the whole community, then a Kgotla may be called. Stanus started from the African concept of ubuntu – “I am who I am because of who we all are”. This stance is about the importance of connection and social process, and sits very well alongside a host leadership perspective.

The Kgotla is a group meeting to which the whole community is invited. (OK, so in the traditional form only the men are invited, but this is about learning from ancient wisdom rather than criticising it. (Nowadays woman also partake though there is still some criticism about the role of women in the Botswana community.) There are five key principles for a Kgotla:

1. Neutral ground – it’s held in the open air, and is open to all, with an expectation of mutual honesty.
2. No time limit – any one may speak, but everyone has a chance to speak before the same person can speak again. All points of view are listened to.
3. Focus on the now and the future – the discussion is about where we are and how to move forward helpfully, rather than a recounting of the past (as seen in western legal courts, for example). The focus is on reconciliation, restorative justice and reintegration.
4. Collective responsibility – the focus is on how to do things together rather than separately, building consensus and compromise.
5. Proverbs – there are some wonderful sayings which help to connect and understand the way of the Kgotla which are used as reminders for those present, including:

• All words spoken at the Kgotla are beautiful
• Everyone is entitled to their own views no matter what they are
• The king is king by the grace of the people
• The chief is the shepherd of the people
• The chief is a tree branch on which every bird seats (sic – not sits. This gives a different meaning)
• The wealth of the king is in the affections of his subjects.

One important aspect is that the chief and elders sit somewhat outside the discussion. Their role is not to speak in the first instance – it is to listen and understand. When all has been said (and remember, that can take a while) then the chief and elders will come forward to summarise what has been said. Then, they reach a conclusion, in front of everyone, about what might happen next

From a host leadership perspective, there are a number of interesting aspects to the Kgotla.

  • Attendance is invited rather than compulsory and is open to all. This means that those with an interest are free to come, rather than only certain representatives.
  • Everyone can speak, and there are mechanisms for allowing all voices to be heard.
  • The neutral ground also reinforces that the process is open to all.
  • The proverbs set an atmosphere and expectation of constructive and future focused contributions.
  • The role of the chief and elders is most interesting. Rather than chair or lead the discussion, they are expected to listen and then summarise. This means that any summary must be seen to be a fair reflection by those present, which itself brings the need for appreciative and constructive listening from the elders.

It would certainly be interesting to use this form of dialogue in difficult and confrontational situations here. There are echoes of circle practices (with everyone given the opportunity to speak) and also reflecting teams (with the chief and elders listening to the whole discussion before responding). I hope that Stanus can continue to share and develop the ideas of the Kgotla more widely in South Africa and beyond.

Use a Visitors’ Book at your trainings or workshops – better than feedback forms!

VisitorsbookPautI was contacted by Paut Kromkamp, a Dutch colleague, last week.  Paut is a keen follower of Host Leadership ideas, and had started with the idea of using a Guest Book (in Dutch Gastenboek, or in French le livre des invités) in her trainings, to allow participants to leave their names and record some comments about their experience.  I had never heard of this idea, and on reflection I think it’s a fantastically useful development.

A Guest Book – we might call it a Visitors’ Book in colloquial English, though terminology varies – is traditionally found in country houses or perhaps at some museums.  It’s a book available to the public to sign their names and therefore record their visit, and perhaps add some words about their stay and experience.  Often, of course, these words are positive and enthusiastic – not many people want to go publically on the record expressing their distaste.

I have been thinking about the possibility of using a Visitors’ Book as part of the furniture at training courses.  As part of the host leadership philosophy it’s nice to respect guests and offer them a chance to ‘make their mark’ in some way.  And of course it’s a very different way to solicit remarks than the traditional way after a training course or workshop – the dreaded ‘feedback form’ or evaluation sheet.  These are popular with trainers (though usually not with trainees) as a way of gathering comments and feedback about what people liked and what they didn’t, ostensibly as a way to improve things next time.

Let’s compare and contrast the way these two options – the Visitor’s Book and the Feedback Form – work in practice.

Visitor’s Book Feedback Form
An optional invitation to write something Usually compulsory or at least expected
A public space – other people’s names and comments can be seen Confidential – only the writer and the receiver know what’s said
A free-form invitation to record one’s presence and (if desired) a comment or reaction Usually structured by the trainer or organisation
A chance to ‘make your mark’ in a way that is visible to future guests or visitors No public trace remains afterwards – your comments disappear into the ether
Written in the knowledge that the contents will be potentially seen by all Written in the expectation of a private communication to the organiser/trainer


These two forms clearly have different purposes and possibilities.  If one really wants to get feedback and criticism, then having a private Feedback Form is clearly one way to go about it.  (Another might be to quietly ask people about their experience, and be genuinely interested in what they have to say!) A Visitors’ Book, on the other hand, is a very different offer – the chance to publically record one’s presence and reactions, in the knowledge that they can (and will) be read by future visitors.  This is less about gathering comments about the shortcomings of the chairs or the temperature of the room.  It’s much more about inviting people into a kind of community of those who have passed this way, want to acknowledge that and stand up to recognise the efforts of their hosts in the process.

Once upon a time I visited the training centre of systemic coach Sonja Radatz in Vienna.  Piled up at one end of the room was a series of red cubes, perhaps 35cm on each side, each of which was signed by guest trainers who had delivered seminars there.  Ms Radatz had entertained many of the greats of systemic thinking and management – Peter Senge, Diana Whitney, Humberto Maturana, Matthias Varga von Kibed… (these are household names in the world of systemic thinking, if not perhaps in wider society).  And imagine my delight, as a relative newcomer to that field, to be asked to add my own signature to my own cube, to be placed on the pile with the rest!  This is a form of Visitors’ Book in that it’s a lasting reminder of who else has been this way, and sets an exciting extended context for what might happen next.

So, imagine going onto a training and being able to leaf through and see who has joined in the past, what they thought, how long it’s been going, what kind of people have been here, how things have evolved… All this is possible with a Visitor’s Book, but not at all with a Feedback Form.  Of course, it’s quite possible to use both these methods.  It would be amazing to see in years to come that the Visitor’s Book might become just as much part of the training/workshop scene as the Feedback Form – perhaps a more loved and treasured part?  In some ways that wouldn’t be difficult.

VisitorsbookLaurentTo start using a Visitor’s Book or Guest Book, here are some tips from our French colleague Laurent Sarrazin, who has also started experimenting with the idea in his trainings:

  • Be led by local terminology and tradition. In France a ‘livre des visiteurs’ does not resonate with people, but a ‘livre des invitées’ does.
  • To help people get going, it might be worth inviting them to write something like a reflection or invitation for those who might come on future events, and will therefore see the written ideas.
  • As hosts for an event, we can also use the book to record our own reflections, thoughts, gratitudes, and as part of our own history and connection with our work.

Get started today.  Laurent did – you can see one of his trainees completing their book on the right.  This is a great way to build learning, refection and communication with your learners and customers.

Encouraging people to create their own space helps productivity

I’m a big fan of economist and writer Tim Harford’s work.  Tim has a column every week in the cleardeskFinancial Times as the ‘undercover economist’ and has written several excellent books about how economics applies in the real world. 

His recent piece on ‘Why every office should scrap its clean desk policy’ for TED caught my eye.  Most of us have experienced a clean desk policy at some point – where the company insists that everything is removed from desks at the end of the day and personal effects like photos are limited or even banned. Harford reports on experiments at the University of Exeter in the UK which study the connection between productivity and workspace. 

It turns out that people who are allowed to decorate and personalise their workspaces can be some 30% more productive than those where a clean desk policy is enforced.  That’s a HUGE figure – like an extra day-and-a-half a week!  Harford writes about the difference between ‘hard’ spaces where clean standards are rigorously enforced and ‘soft’ spaces where personalisation is permitted encouraged. 

This connects with the Host Leadership concept of the Space Creator role.  One of the key elements of leading as a host is to take care in creating spaces which support the kind of interactions you wish to encourage between people.  The work reported by Tim Harford shows not only how environment and space really makes a difference in how people work, but that an giving them a role in creating it, decorating it and maintaining it can add to its effectiveness.  

The importance of space and creating an effective space is hardly ever discussed in most leadership work – but from the Host Leader perspective, it’s clearly vital and a key element for the leader to consider.  Now – read Tim Harford’s piece and even get hold of his book ‘Messy: The power of disorder to transform our lives’ from which this work is taken.   


Acting WITH people: Host Leadership and Restorative Practices

I was contacted recently by Sonia Mayor, who was interested to combine host leadership ideas with her work in the area of restorative practice.  I wasn’t familiar with that field, and have been investigating – and it looks like a very interesting connection with great potential. 

I had heard of restorative justice – my friend Lorenn Walker in Hawaii uses Solution Focused therapy ideas in the furtherance of this, which is about getting offenders to get involved in repairing the harm done and building relationships with victims and others, rather than simply being punished.  These ways of working echo practices from many indigenous traditions, including native American, African, Asian and many others. 

In an extension of this philosophy, restorative practices are about applying similar thinking proactively rather than simply reactively – acting before offences are committed, to build community and connection in ways that reduce offending. 

One key element of restorative practice is shown by the ‘social discipline window’.  This model reflects the work of Australian criminologist John Braithwaite, who argues that conventional punishment stigmatises offenders and pushes them out of the community, rather than drawing socialDisc_windowthem in.  The social discipline window (right) shows four different ways of acting with offenders (and indeed with people in general) based on varying levels of control and support – not acting, acting for, acting on, and acting with.

Restorative practices are very focused on doing things WITH people – combining high degrees of support and control.  It’s easy to see how there are dangers of slipping into the neighbouring quadrants – by acting paternalistically and ‘doing things for’ people (attempting to support them, but in your way rather than theirs), or slipping into punitive mode and ‘doing things to’ people (where they become the object of action rather than an active subject). 

I see Host Leadership as working towards a very similar objective.  Hosts and host leaders strive to reach out and engage people with their active co-operation, rather than compelling participation.  Once engaged, though, the developing relationship allows structures to be used which help all involved to know where they are with each other.  In the same way, accepting an invitation to visit someone may mean using their ‘house rules’.  These structures can serve a controlling purpose, but they are entered into as part of a bigger process rather than as a means of obtaining submission. 

This idea of acting WITH people, rather than for them or on them, is central to host leadership.  And yes, occasionally we might want to do things for people (when they can’t do them themselves) – but with their permission and agreement, rather than from our own assumptions.  It’s nice to help an old lady across the street, but first check that she wants to go! 

I look forward to building on this initial connection with restorative practices in future blogs and articles – it’s an exciting prospect.  Please add your reactions, comments and connections below, as well as thoughts on particular angles and connections between these fields. 

Host is turning into a favourite leadership book!

On our twitter account @thehostleader recently we had a tweet from Barry Overeem. Barry has listed his six favourite leadership books – and Host is one of them!  Thank you Barry.

My 6 favourite leadership books. Thanks @james_m_kerr @ldavidmarquet @thehostleader! What are your favourite leadership books?

Barry’s six favourites also include!

What are YOUR favourite leadership books?  Host author Dr Mark McKergow is a fan of Obliquity by John Kay – not totally a ‘leadership book’ but a very good look at what to focus on and what to approach sideways.   Add your suggestions and comments below – and we’ll tweet about it!