An invitation to celebrate: Host Leadership in Australian schools

Maria SerafimNew South Wales Director of Public Schools Maria Serafim is a keen exponent of both host leadership and solution-focused approaches. She has been inviting school principals to take the role of host, with some marvellous results.  Here is Maria’s guest blog for Host Leadership. 

“I can get a better grasp of what is going on in the world from one good Washington dinner party than from all the background information NBC piles on my desk”

“Lend an ear, give a hand, provide assistance to the weary, generosity makes a gracious host.”

Imagine being invited to host a ‘dinner’ with your choice of guests, to celebrate and highlight what you have achieved in your leadership of a school over the course of an academic year. In 2017 a group of more than 30 principals engaged in this co-designed approach to reflect on their professional goals based on Mark and Helen’s metaphor of leaders as hosts (Host: Six new roles of engagement for teams, organisations, communities and movements, 2014). The idea came from my experience of applying a solution focused approach complete with a toolkit of treasured strategies to engaging with colleagues.

This led to learning about the leader as a host. Moving from being the hero or the servant as leader to the host – learning the ‘dance’ of knowing when to step forward and when to step back, how to keep the conversation flowing and create the right atmosphere for celebration and growth. As a metaphor it provides a doorway into building quality, trusting relationships. It sparked in me the idea of sitting amongst people, being invitational, being a co-participant.

So began the sharing of this novel idea of hosting a ‘dinner party’ and all that entails for it to be memorable, pleasurable, a psychologically safe environment for conversation, connecting with others and leaving people feeling and thinking ‘what a great and authentic experience that was’. The invitation to participate was co-created by the principals so that they were empowered to ‘host’ in the way that suited them best. The invitation below was what we co-authored:

Invitation sent to Principals:


Host leadership, a leadership style alternative developed by Marc McKergow and Helen Bailey, where the leader behaves as a host would where they receive and entertain guests. 

In keeping with our co-designed approach to working together, I am writing to invite you to engage in an innovative approach to our discussion about your goals.  I invite you to apply the notion of host leadership as a way of creating a purposeful space for us to share successes and reflections of your goals for 2017.  Consider the leader as host in the context of hosting a dinner party. As a dinner host we put thought into who to invite, how to cater, topics of conversation and setting the scene for everyone to enjoy themselves. This is your opportunity to host, or for me to host you, to celebrate and share the end of year reflection of your leadership. The dinner party is a metaphor for a leadership style so you certainly aren’t expected to cook up a storm…in fact, you are not expected to cater, rather create the space and atmosphere for us to talk in a purposeful, refreshing and supportive way. Like all great dinner parties, let’s create a space that is relaxed, can allow for plenty of conversation and an opportunity for your invited guests to share stories and/or artefacts that affirm their reflection of your goals. The duration of our time together is 90 minutes.

So, what could this look like? In keeping with the ‘dinner party’ metaphor you could, or request that I, host:

  • A ‘dinner party’ for two – you and me meeting to discuss your goals.
  • A ‘dinner party’ with invited guests – you may choose to invite staff, students, community members to support and reflect your perceptions and evidence towards your learning goals. For instance you may involve administrative staff if you had a goal around finance, members of your leadership team if you were building capacity in others, students for your focus on enhanced student voice.

Consider what type of ‘meal’ this will be – another metaphor for the approach you want to take for instance you may want guests to join us at different ‘courses’. It could be a degustation meal with many different ‘tastings’ and so it goes. You can be as innovative as you choose.

My experience highlighted that when colleagues are trusted and backed to apply their own approach to leading, to sharing and collaborating the results can impress and amaze. Our host leadership experience led to incredibly creative ‘dinners’ including degustation menus that had tastings of achievements and highlights, a buffet meal that included a smorgasbord of feedback and reflection from students, community members and staff, a Hollywood Star Highlights meal, Mad Hatters Tea Party, Chinese Banquet complete with giving guests the name of Gods and a Thanksgiving dinner that included students, staff and a neighbouring colleague principal.

Many meals included a menu that guided the conversation. During our Thanksgiving ‘meal’ the host principal was our guide, stepping forward and asking ‘What are we thankful for in our school?” smoothly stepping back to hearing the reflections from her guests. When we came to ‘The Stuffing and the Gravy’ our host asked what was hidden and what the school showcased well. What I experienced was that the atmosphere set the scene for honest reflections with suggestions for future and ongoing improvement and all the while there was feedback and acknowledgement of what was working well. This was true for every ‘dinner party’.

One reflection I received via text from a colleague after our discussion that I hosted at a nearby café spoke volumes to me about never underestimating the way we can use our influence as leaders to harness new and even more valuing ways to connect with colleagues:

Maria PDP cropThe inspired idea of being a host leader has opened a new door to the empowerment of others. To see myself through the lens of a host and apply this in the way that I interact has led to giving myself permission to affirm and say, “I’m really impressed with what you’re doing.” In a coaching context, I previously thought that was more of a judgement, and what I’ve realised now, affirm, affirm, affirm and build that positivity. It’s built trust in ways that I don’t believe I have ever have experienced before. From these collaboratively developed ways of working together we have been able to change the way we connect as leaders.

There’s more to do and even more exciting possibilities to be had from this approach. If leadership is about inspiring and influencing, then sustainability is in what you leave behind when you’re not there and that’s what we want for the children and people we impact on. So, for me every conversation is an opportunity to model and have someone experience what it feels like … because we know that’s what people remember … for them to have come away feeling better off as a result of the interaction. Did I leave them better off? Did I leave them feeling valued? Did I leave them feeling like they were in a place where they could continue to inspire? Do they want to host me or for me to host them again?

“It’s not what’s on the table that matters, it’s who’s in the chairs.”

Maria Serafim is a Director, Public Schools with the New South Wales Department of Education in Australia. Her work involves collaborating with colleagues at a school and system level to ensure that principals are positioned and supported and challenged to successfully lead their school communities. Maria is recognised for her capacity to develop leaders through a positive, solution-focused approach to educational and transformational leadership. She is focused on enhancing the potential for leaders to apply an agile and innovative approach to leading their learning communities. Maria’s leadership is defined by an unwavering approach to applying a positive, growth mindset to change and future focused approaches to coaching and mentoring for success. She began her work in education as a primary school teacher having wanted to be a teacher from an early age and is a proud student of public education. 

Maria is on Twitter @mserafim1 and well worth following.  Below is a selection of photos taken at some of the different events hosted by school principals in New South Wales, Australia.  If you look closely you can also see some of the ‘menus’ for discussion and celebration- click on the individual images to be able to see the details better.

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