Everyone knows that leading is about stepping forward, right? Leaders are visible, go first and attract attention. Well, that’s right some of the time. And some of the time, there are other possibilities… like stepping back to move forwards.
In Host Leadership we think that leading is a dance of stepping forward and back. Yes, sometimes it’s good to step forwards, for the reasons given above. And also sometimes, there are very good reasons to step back for a moment. Good hosts don’t hog the limelight or dominate proceedings – we are more inclined to encourage our guests to be visible, to share the stage, and to build engagement and participation.
When is a good time to step back? When you’re just finished stepping forward. You have a role to play in setting the context, building a framework and perhaps asking a question. That’s a great time to step back, look expectant, offer the space to someone else.
But isn’t that losing control? Not at all! You’re still there. You can hear what’s going on. You are getting something back – what the others think, how they are seeing the situation (which may be different) and also who wants to step in next. You’re still there and can step in again when the time is next right.
So, as a host leader, think about this key question:
Are you going to step forward or step back next?
Stepping back may be more of an option than you thought…
As a host leader, we look to be clear about boundaries, what is appropriate in this particular space and what is not. Occasionally, even with the best will in the world, we find ourselves having to say ‘No’ to someone or something. There are some ways to do it, however, which are better than others…
William Ury’s outstanding work on the power of a positive No10 gives some excellent pointers for this. Ury incisively points out the tension between the leader exerting their power on the one hand, and needing to tend to their relationship with the excluded person on the other. In real-life leadership situations, there is almost always a need to preserve and even build relationships for what may come next.
A positive No therefore maintains and builds relationship as well as getting the immediate need dealt with. It basically takes the form “Yes! No. Yes?”
1. Yes! Acknowledge the interest, contribution, enthusiasm or whatever else the person has shown. Be specific if you can – let them know you have noticed the positive and useful elements of the situation so far.
2. No. State what you need to have happen clearly and as a matter of fact. Giving a justifiable reason for your position can help here – it shows that this is perhaps not the situation you were hoping for, and that you have not taken your decision lightly.
3. Yes? Offer an alternative action, role or possibility to the other person. This will both achieve your goal and also offer another way for the relationship with the person to continue. This may be another way to be involved with the project, another contribution that they might make, a point in the future where this can be revisited, another route for the person to take.
This third phase offers something for people to agree with, and so be able to maintain and even build relationships. So this No is not the end of everything, but a point of punctuation along the road of a continuing and valued partnership.
Let’s look at an example. Laura is Gillian’s manager. Gillian can act as a host, even when she isn’t one, with a positive No.
Laura: I’m looking for someone talented to chair our ethics committee. It’s a sensitive position, with lots of conflicting interests and delicate emotions. It’s also ideal for someone looking to get more visibility with the Board. So I think it would be the perfect fit for you – I’ve seen you get great results from some very tense meetings, and I know how much you want to make progress up the ladder.
Gillian: (Yes!) Thank you, Laura. That’s lovely to hear. I guess you’re thinking of those Draycox meetings I chaired. Yes, I was pleased with how they turned out, and it’s lovely to hear you say so too. I’m also very grateful to you for thinking of me in this way. [Pausing to think]
It is a very good opportunity….. [Pausing again]
(No)… and I’m also thinking of the decontamination project. It’s getting me working seventy-hour weeks already, we’re two weeks behind on the deadline, and I really want to turn that around. The last thing I want is having you hauled onto the news at eight a.m. to explain why the beaches around here aren’t safe to swim in.
So I’m going to have to say no for n ow. (Yes?) If it can wait six months, I’d love to take up your offer. Otherwise, have you thought of John? I know he’s quite passionate in this area (remember all the extra research he did on Banyard; he was working Sundays for months). He’s brilliant at winning consensus too, don’t you think?
Notice how Gillian is genuinely pleased to receive the offer, and pauses to give the question genuine thought – which communicates how seriously she’s considering it. She is clear about her No, and offers not one but two possibilities.
Our next Host Leadership Hint comes from Leah Davcheva, a member of the Host Leadership Stewards group who has been using hosting ideas in her work as an educationalist, cross-cultural consultant and community builder. She writes here about the power of stepping into, and out of, the six roles of a host leader in her community work.
“On the left side of the street leading to the house where I live in Sofia, there stretches a smallish plot of land, triangular in shape. It belongs to nobody. Overgrown with bramble, and coarse grass, rubbish scattered all over, the place presented a graceless sight. An eyesore which bitterly contrasted with the well-trimmed gardens in our neighbourhood.
This had to change! In my mind, I could see this small piece of land transforming itself into a beautiful spot and making the neighbourhood proud.
A first small step was to share the idea with our next-door neighbor. She was keen and within less than an hour we initiated a small-scale gardening project and named it – The Triangle. Together, we composed a short text, inviting our neighbours to join. Not knowing their names, let alone any email addresses or phone numbers, we tucked the A4 pieces of paper into their mailboxes. Hoping to break the ‘silence’ of the neighbourhood, we opened the gates wide for contributions. Some neighbours responded, others ignored the message.
Within a month, we had the place cleaned and dug through. A gardener was employed to design the garden and plant the new trees and shrubs. Beautiful white stones frame the plot.
As the work unfolded, we got to know each other, shared news and simple stories. Something of a community started emerging. My neighbour and I hope that The Triangle might eventually turn into a space where neighbours gather together in – for a chat simply, and, why not, for initiating new projects.
Applying the lens of host leading, we can discern the stepping forward and back dance, as well the stepping into and out of the roles of initiator, inviter, space creator, gatekeeper, connector, co-participator.
One of the six roles of Host Leadership is the Initiator – the person who starts thing off, notices a priority and brings it into focus. Before you can do that, there is a necessary first step: listen out for what your organisation is calling for.
What’s coming over the horizon?
What challenges are starting to appear in the marketplace?
How are your distribution channels shifting?
How are people finding out about you?
How are you tracking your success with customers and user groups?
It could, of course, be any of these, all of them, or all kinds of other things. This month’s hint is to listen. Not rush in. Not jump to a snap decision. Listen. Listen to the conversation in the office and outside it. Listen to what you are hearing on social media. And most importantly listen to your own heart about what’s really important and that you want to take forward.
Our top tip for this is go somewhere quiet. Listening is usually best done with a little focus and a little peace. So why not go out at lunchtime and find a seat someplace, or take a moment on your way into work tomorrow. Take five minutes to see where you are and what’s coming along. And then park it, store it away, and see what happens next. If it just vanishes, it probably wasn’t that important. If it stays with you, and you start seeing other signs that this is important, then it probably is.
Listen. Listen again. Then act.
You can find a more detailed exposition of ways to listen for what is being called for in Mark McKergow’s chapter of the Host Leadership Field Book.
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Educator Nigel Gann has been an enthusiastic adopter of Host Leadership for some time, and was hoping to contribute to the Host Leadership Field Book last year. His piece arrived too late for that, but we are delighted to feature it now. This topic of welcoming strangers has never been more relevant, and the work in Lichfield is a beacon of hope and brave practice. The picture above shows a less picturesque side of the city seen by some arrivals.
One of the stories of the growth of civilisation is of the tension between the good of the individual and the needs of the community. Where the latter is disproportionately strong, we find tyranny and absolutism. Where the former is, there is the danger of anarchy. This conflict exists in every nation state, but also in cities and towns, and in organisations of all types. Where it is unresolved, people may look for a hero leader to sort it out, where the organisation seeks a single individual to articulate and embody it.
We may be at
that stage in a number of nations now. Despite the plain and disastrous history
of the model, the image of the hero leader remains seductive to many. Perhaps
it is no coincidence that Thomas Carlyle’s study “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and
the Heroic in History” was published in the exact same year – 1841 – as was
Charles Mackay’s catalogue of communal folly “Extraordinary Popular Delusions
and the Madness of Crowds”.
parties, businesses, schools and voluntary organisations have come spectacular
croppers over the last thirty years or so by becoming over-reliant on flawed “heroes”
who have refused to be accountable to their supporters, their shareholders,
their boards and their members. When the delusion of heroic leadership sidles
into politics – international, national or local – we need to find a coherent
So what has
the model of host leadership to offer to communities? Or rather – what might
community activism have to offer the development and implementation of host
leadership? One movement, initiated by a small group of concerned citizens in
Sheffield some 15 years ago, considers how, in an era of mass migration –
whether fired by need, political will or climate change – we can create a
culture of welcome to people who are displaced. The question they address is,
“How can a city, a town, a village, an organisation or institution celebrate
and host new arrivals?” Their answer was a new and at the same time age-old
concept – a City of Sanctuary.
community simultaneously “step forward and step back” like a host? Of course it
can. It invites, it welcomes and it embraces newcomers. It sets up the
possibility of new relationships, with existing guests and new arrivals, with
sources of help and support, and it offers help in understanding how to engage
with the community. And it allows, encourages, enables new arrivals to protect
and celebrate their own culture – the one they bring with them, with all its
richness and history, to share with us. Central to this is the ability to
encourage the less active members of the community to engage positively with
guests – this is where host leadership of communities takes on the role of
creating and maintaining a community-wide ethos of welcome.
now hundreds of cities, towns and villages of sanctuary. There are also
countless streams of sanctuary – schools, churches, businesses, organisations,
theatres and so on. Here, in a small city in the English midlands, we felt the
time had come to commit to the idea. In autumn 2019, some 30 leaders of
organisations met together to talk about their shared concept of the community
as host, not only to internationally displaced persons, such as migrants,
refugees and asylum seekers, but to all disadvantaged people who find
themselves challenged by a society where tolerance and understanding seem
increasingly endangered, among them people living in poverty, people with disabilities,
those with mental health issues, those without homes.
Between May and
October 2019,71% of people from ethnic minorities in Britain reported
facing discrimination (in January, 2016, the figure was 58%); in June of that
year, a Survey by BritainThinks showed that “Britain is a more polarised and
pessimistic nation than it has been for decades”; in September, the
Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner (the top anti-terrorism officer)
said: “Far-right terrorism is the fastest-growing threat in Britain.” In the
same month, a “Record number of anti-semitic incidents in first half of 2019 –
892, a 10% increase on the first half of 2018” was recorded, while according to
a HopenotHate survey “more than half of black and minority ethnic British
voters think a no-deal Brexit would worsen race relations in the UK”.
Many, but by
no means all, of those who gathered here represented faith groups from
Christian and Muslim communities.
is simple. Movement and change within and across nations is inevitable. It has
been going on for thousands of years, sometimes in strong and powerful surges,
sometimes in persistent streams. It brings, as it always has done, risks as
well as economic and cultural benefits, and it offers challenges. But history
shows that attempts to stem the flow at best fail, and at worst end in disaster
for would-be guests and reluctant recipients. Host leadership in Lichfield,
personified by the Cities of Sanctuary movement, has four key actions at its
support people in Lichfield, especially newcomers, who face discrimination or
exclusion due to displacement, immigration, racism, poverty, abuse, sexuality,
disability or violence
alongside individuals and organisations throughout the district of Lichfield to
coordinate welcome and support for those who need it
challenge visions of Lichfield that exclude any individuals and groups that
live and work here
events, exhibitions, campaigns and meetings to engage and inform about the
issues that concern us all.
We see the
participation element as particularly powerful – this is not about providing
people with things, but about working with them towards a fair and accessible
provision of what they need.
So those were
early days for us. What came next was recruitment – the need to address key
organisations and individuals face-to-face and explain the universal benefits
of a welcoming culture, reinforcing the values, addressing the adverse impacts
of much of current political British thinking – and reshaping the narrative of
the communities we inhabit.
has imposed on us time to think about our next steps. Next year, in partnership
with local arts organisations, community groups, schools and faith groups, we
plan a season of sanctuary in the city. It’s that stage in a social event when
you, as host, say – “May I introduce you to . . .? I think you’ll find each
other really interesting.”
As a host leader, we seek to meet people at the threshold. There is a key moment as people arrive when we want to be in a position to welcome them into the space, say hello, make a direct connection and perhap explain any house rules or routines. This is in contrast, of course, to the hero leader who keeps themselves hidden away to maintain the mystique, or the old-fashioned teacher who shows up last into the room and expects everyone else to leap to their feet.
This is true in online meetings as well. In fact, there are all kinds of good reasons to be first online in meetings you are hosting. You get to say hello as people arrive, have a quick catch up, sort out any technical problems and e available for quick exchanges on emerging issues.
There are two other options, neither of which are as good. You could make everyone wait until you arrive at the appropriate time, which sounds efficient but actually encourages the others to come along late (not wanting to hang around for you). Or you can allow people to join the meeting without you, and give them a space to talk about you behind your back. (Zoom, for example, has a setting for this in the unlikely event that you want to do it.)
So be the first person in, and perhaps also the last person out. People will feel welcomed into your space, and be encouraged to give of their best.
What are your top tips for getting productive by welcoming people at the threshold online? Please add comments below and we’ll share them (with acknowledgement, of course).
This second Host Leadership Hint in our new series comes from Dr Mark McKergow, co-author of the Host book.
As I write this, people around the world are starting to emerge
from a strange time of physical separation combined with high levels of mutual
interdependence. We have to stay separate, and yet we may be even
more reliant on others – to bring supplies, to connect for conversation, to
stay clean and safe, to contain the virus. In such a world, acting as a
Initiator – making the first move – is even more important than usual.
I live in a rather splendid street in central Edinburgh. I and
my wife Jenny had met a few neighbours once a couple of years ago, but nothing
since – people largely seemed to keep themselves to themselves. When
the lock-down came, Jenny thought to dig out the email addresses she had, write
to everyone and suggest that we might keep a note of each other’s contact
details in case of emergencies, anyone needed shopping or whatever. There was
an immediate and enthusiastic response; good idea, great to hear from you,
adding new people, and so on.
A Whatsapp group then started. Information was shared about local greengrocers
and fishmongers who were delivering. One brave neighbour even requested that
Mark might play his saxophone in the street, which has developed into a weekly
performance for eleven weeks. And all this started because
forward to get it moving.
This is the Host Leadership role of the Initiator
– the role of seeing that something needs to happen, could be a priority, might
be important. SOMEONE has to make the first move. And that move, in Host
Leadership, might lead to an invitation to others to get involved.
There are opportunities out there right now with things needing to happen, and
people wondering who might do something. What can you start? How can
you make the first move? How can you give other people something to notice and
This is the original version of the Village In The City concept. Due of the very large interest in this topic, we are continuing the project at a dedicated website, http://villageinthecity.net. Please go there for the latest news, manifesto, village-building resources, calls and how to Put Your Village On The Map.
As the post-pandemic ‘new normal’ emerges and develops, the usefulness and resilience of very local connections has become increasingly clear. The levels of local can be seen as house; street; village; town; district; city. The potential for connection at the village level – even in much bigger settlements like towns and cities – is clear. Architect Richard Rogers (2017) identified over 620 ‘High Streets’ in London alone, each of which is central to its own village.
Village-level activity can:
improve all our lives in the short term and long term. Both building an active community and being part of one are positive experiences
build inclusive cross-generation and cross-demographic community, to expand our awareness of how the world is for those around us
build resilience and mutual support with people right there on the doorstep, continuing and expanding the positive developments seen during the COVID pandemic
connect businesses, support groups, families, churches, secular groups and everyone else with an identity and local participation
act as a necessary counterbalance to the recent amazing developments in online communication; access to global communication produces a space for micro-local in-person interaction
help citizens become more empowered and purposefully connected than they have been in recent years.
This manifesto sets out the village-in-the-city concept as a way of consciously building on this in ways which expand on the best of micro-local. Villages (in this sense) have:
A name – usually this already there
Recognisable, distinctive, widely known and used
Everyone who lives there is a ‘member’
Addressing multiple hopes, needs and interests
Drawing on the ‘treasure within’ – skills,
resources, desire to participate
Meeting places (accessible to all and
within walking distance)
Indoor – halls, pub rooms,
Outdoor – public spaces, green places
Places for chance encounters as well as planned
Connection within the village
Papers, newsletters, emails, Facebook groups,
Whatsapp available to all
News and updates which go to everyone
Fostering two-way communication (not just ‘us’
to ‘them’ or ‘hub’ to ‘rim’)
Has a way to reach out to newcomers and engage
This role should be shared around – multiple
hosts make for wider participation and less burn-out
Can be an informal role (people just doing it)
as well as more structured
Not just ‘organisers’ but also co-participants,
joining in along with everyone else
Milestones in the year to bring people together
– summer garden party, Hogmanay, Christmas Fayre, music weekend,
Regular inclusive opportunities to meet, build
community and reflect – perhaps including churches, teas/coffees, drop-ins,
perhaps a Sunday Assembly
Open community events like homeworker meetups,
film club, play streets, quizzes etc etc
The more specific and locale-relevant the better
And… an ‘identity’
What makes this a special place?
Note that this is not:
A formal administrative unit
Somewhere with a formal leader/governance
A rules-enforcement body
Something with a budget or funding (when the funding stops, the activities stop)
Build your village – balance your life
This is almost certainly going on already in some ways where you are; find it, build on it, engage others, reinvent old traditions and start new ones. Interested? Join the Facebook group. Post on social media #VillageInTheCity. Then download the Village Builder Worksheet and start your local conversations.
2 June 2020: Draft 1, 4 June 2020 Draft 2 including more detail, Facebook group and worksheet, 12 June 2020: Draft 3 with expanded preamble 18 June Draft 3.1, expanded preamble. 14 July, Draft 4, expanded preamble and opening statements.
(This is a draft which I want to develop with your help – please leave comments below or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Many thanks to Dr Wendy Ellyat (Flourish Project), Jim Mather (Heriott Watt University), Adrian Hodgson (Berlin) and Lara Celini (Willowbrae) for their initial support and ideas.)
Rogers, R., Brown, R. (2017). A Place For All People: Life, architecture and the fairer society. Edinburgh: Canongate Books
Peter Roehrig and Mark McKergow led an online webinar for SFiO about applying the ‘User’s Guide to the Future’ (from Mark’s book Host) as a coaching tool. The webinar is now available online, and is packed with useful ideas.
Mark explains the concept and framework of the Users’ Guide, which helps people to take huge ideas and quickly bring them into focus as coherent small actions. Peter has added a couple of very useful elements to the framework to make it even more useful as a coaching too. Peter demonstrates this by coaching one of the webinar participants. We then hear feedback from the coachee, and there is a discussion. This is a valuable resource for any coach working with people who want to translate ideas into focused action.
Power gradient, as David writes, is how much more authority
or power does a person higher in the hierarchy feel like they have compared to
someone lower in the hierarchy. A steep power gradient is where the senior
person ‘bosses’ folk around, speaks a lot, marks themselves as different, doesn’t
listen much, and encourages people to do what they are told and shut up. A flatter power gradient, by contrast, has
the senior encouraging others to speak up, listening more, reducing the
differences and engaging with their people.
Steep power gradients are vestiges of the Industrial Age where thinking
was separated from doing, and cultures of control and comply ruled the day.
There are many examples in Marquet’s book of how steep power gradients are suboptimal, ineffective and even downright dangerous in today’s world. Some of these are in operational settings such as airplane cockpits or ships bridges. Others (close to home here!) are about corporate settings – Marquet writes entertainingly about Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin, under whose rule the Royal Bank of Scotland collapsed – huge offices, thicker carpets, security guards preventing access to the Executive Suite (also known as the ‘Torture Chamber’… The UK Government bailed the bank out to the tune of £45bn, and Goodwin (as I have discussed here) infuriated all concerned by ignoring the norms of host/guest relations and keeping his huge payoff and pension.
Marquet is quite clear that he is not advocating zero power
gradient – that would lead to confusion, ambiguity and uncertainty about
responsibilities. However, flattening
the power gradient is a key piece of engaging your people and building shared commitment.
It’s up to the senior person /leader to do this, as it’s very difficult for
your team to initiate such moves (particularly if you’re not looking!).
One effect of embracing a Host Leadership style is that
power gradients are flatter. Whereas the hero boss is looking for one-way
communication (“Do this! Yes, sir.”), a host leader is seeking to look after
their team as well as taking responsibility for them. Three very practical ways you can make flatter
power gradients are:
Step back and invite contributions from your
team members. In meetings, in briefings, in one-on-one chats, take time to be
quiet and let them say what’s important.
Ask what they need – to do their jobs, to
improve their work, to connect with customers and colleagues better. (You might not like the answers – but at least
everyone will be better informed.)
Co-participate! Take time at the sharp end
occasionally – you’ll see how things are, how it’s working and what are the
challenges faced by your people from day to day.
What other ways are there you can flatten the power gradient?