Blog Archive

The dialogic mindset and host leadership

gervaseI was recently delighted to be contacted by Gervase Bushe (pictured right) and Bob Marshak, widely known for their work on ‘Dialogic Organisation Development (OD)’.    They have made a key distinction between ‘diagnostic practice’, which is about diagnosing and curing problems, and dialogic work where the focus is on convening and generating change in conversations.  My own work over the past two decades in building Solutions Focus work in organisations is a part of this general dynamic, and has been listed alongside more than 30 other schools of dialogic work on the website.  Bushe and Marshak have also published a new book on Dialogic OD – a must-read for those interested in this topic.  I will be reviewing it soon.

Gervase was in touch as he had been thinking about what ‘dialogic leadership’ might look like recently.  He was very excited to discover our work on leading as a host, and was immediately excited at the possibilities offered by this metaphor.  Hosts focus on bringing people together around a topic of joint interest and making sure that the conversations/interactions are supported in ways which help everyone to give of their best, so the connection is a very apt and useful one.

Gervase and Bob have produced a very interesting paper this year on The Dialogic Mindset:  Leading Emergent Change in a Complex World (pdf download).  It’s very well worth reading.  They start from the ‘visionary’ leadership tradition, where someone (usually a ‘great man’) shows the way and sells their vision to the organisation.  They connect this model with a Performance Mindset – the idea that leaders provide targets, resources and motivation to others to move their organisations forward.  They comment:

The Performance Mindset isn’t necessarily opposed to a Dialogic Mindset. It recognizes that organizations cannot continue to perform without learning. Stuff happens, things change, and people have to adapt, yet in the dominant leadership narrative, learning depends on experts, wise teachers, and heroic leaders who can show us the way.  It does not know how to deal with situations where no one knows the “right” answers or where ”best practices” are not applicable.  The Performance Mindset knows very little about how to inquire into collective experience in ways that catalyze the emergence of new ideas, processes, and solutions by aligning with and amplifying the untapped wisdom in the organization.

They then contrast this with the Dialogic mindset – the idea of a leader who focuses on the power of narratives and conversation as the fabric of social and interactional change.  Particularly in complex and VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environments, nobody – not even the leader – can know enough to solve all the problems.  Rather the leader’s role is to bring together those involved, so they can make better progress than they would have done separately.

This leadership works to enrich social networks so that people with similar motivations and ideas can find and support each other in order to take on complex conditions and adaptive challenges through self-initiated actions and small experiments.  Rather than vet ideas, manage projects, check implementation plans, and so on, the Dialogic Mindset wants to encourage the emergence of new ideas and possibilities fostered by different narratives and meanings that challenge the status quo.

In this rich and carefully structured paper, Bushe and Marshak look not only at seven key elements of a dialogic mindset, but also at the key element of holding anxiety in uncertain environments and also the ‘ego development’ needed by leaders to embrace this concept in practice and set aside their need to be the controlling centre. They quote research on this which aligns with the work of our own Stephen Josephs (co-author of Leadership Agility) that show that only 15-20% of adults develop to a stage where they may be prepared to work in this way.  I propose that the powerful-but-everyday metaphor of leading as a host may offer a mindset expanding route not only for those already at such a level, but also those on the way.

The paper is very well worth careful study – download it now.  I am hoping to get together with Gervase Bushe on his next visit to the UK – it will be very interesting to see what further connections and possibilities we can produce in our dialogue.



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?


Move forward by stepping back – Host Leadership in the NHS

sarah_morganSarah Morgan, Director of Organisational Development and Strategic Lead for Leadership for Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, has been writing about her explorations with Host Leadership.  Not only is Host Leadership a good response to the challenges of leading in a VUCA world, it’s also a way to help her achieve her overall aim of bringing more love into the workplace.

Sarah’s blog series is proving very popular both inside the NHS and with those interested in new ways to enhance effectiveness. Read the full post now at:

Host Leadership at the Game Changer Global Summit – starts 7 March 2016

GGS MARK MCKERGOWWe are very excited that Host Leadership has been selected as one of the topics for the Game Changer Global Summit 2016!  The event is online and starts Monday 7 March.  Many of the world’s top human potential and development speakers will be presenting online sessions – and it’s free to register.  Mark’s session on Host Leadership will be online on Saturday 12 March.  And in the meantime you can hear from the likes of Jack Canfield (himself a big fan of host leadership), Marci Shimoff, Martin Rutte, Roger Hamilton, Arjuna Ardagh, Michael Neill (who taught Mark some NLP decades ago) and many more – in fact over 100 speakers are lined up.

You can check out the speakers and the schedule, and register free for the event, at  Check it out now!


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!