General Archive

The mega-importance of micro-interactions – in Host Leadership and elsewhere

I’ve just published two posts on Steps To A Humanity Of Organisation about the mega-importance of micro-interactions. Part 1 deals with micro-aggressions and how seemingly small remarks can become intolerable for those at whom they are aimed. Part 2, on a more positive note, looks at micro-solidarity and micro-affirmations and how (different) small remarks can help build and sustain relationships.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Steps To A Humanity Of Organisation is free to read and subscribe to. Do it today!

Host Leadership in the ‘liminal space’ between professional and life worlds; Altogether Better

Host author Mark McKergow is writing a piece on Substack every week at the moment. Last week’s has caused some excitement – it’s about a new way of using Host Leadership ideas! Alyson McGregor and her colleagues at Altogether Better, a UK Nartional Health Service network, are exploring how to work in the ‘liminal space’ between the ‘professional’ world of the doctors practice and the ‘life’ world of patients – and Host Leadership is part of it. Read it now (and it’s free to subscribe for new ideas every week).

Host Leadership Hint #10: Choosing – and using – your boundaries makes ‘difficult’ decisions easier

There has been a lot in the British news recently about Nadim Zahawi, a cabinet minister who was sacked by prime minister Rishi Sunak at the weekend. Zahawi had been penalised by the UK tax authorities for errors which he had not revealed when asked at various stages. The final straw came when Sir Laurie Magnus, recently appointed ethics advisor to the prime minister, found that Sunak had clearly breached the ministerial code (a code of conduct which ministers are supposed to follow) no less than seven times.

From the perspective of a host leader, this issue is wound up in the Gatekeeper role and the negotiation of boundaries. In the Host book we talk about the negotiation and observance of boundaries as a key part of leading as a host. Host leaders are clear about where boundaries are, and what happens when people cross them.

One kind of boundary is around a space or container where things happen. ‘In this team/project/community we work like this and not like that’. When people join the team or step into the space, it’s the role of the host leader to introduce these boundaries and help folk get accustomed to them. This kind of ‘enforcement’ is more like a routine than a rule; something to be learned and habitually used than enforced with punishments. (Remember, host leaders prefer to work with the soft power of invitation than the hard power of coercion.)

Another related kind of boundary is choosing what is acceptable and encouraged within the space, and what is not. The ministerial code is just such one of these, and is quite clearly written. What’s the problem then? One problem is that in recent times, prime ministers have chosen to ignore it. When home secretary Priti Patel was found to have breached the code by bullying her staff, then-prime minster Boris Johnson announced that he had full confidence in her (prompting the understandable resignation of his ethics advisor Sir Alex Allan).  (Some pedants will point out that as the code is the pm’s to write and enforce, they can’t break it – as if such a flexible interpretation would build confidence rather than point out the essentially feudal authority of a British prime minister!)

However, there is another more subtle difficulty here. In all these cases the prime minister has relied on their ethics advisor to make inquiries and deliver a verdict. It seems to me that this means that the prime minister washes their own hands of making what might be a politically difficult decision by passing it on. And I am not alone; constitutional law commentator David Allen Green writes in his excellent Law And Lore blog that:

…it really should not be the job of an adviser, however independent or distinguished, to work out whether a Prime Minister should sack a minister.

A good host leader would surely take their own code and boundaries more seriously? Outsourcing such decisions is a sign that the code is not something that the leader takes seriously but rather will overlook until the evidence is damning from all sources. Rishi Sunak would be a lot stronger by taking his own boundaries seriously and using them decisively. Unless the Conservative government is a party of rogues who are all routinely stepping over the line… perish the thought.

One great example of a boundary making hard decisions easier (and one which is not in the Host book) is from mineral water company Perrier. In 1990 some bottles of the water were found to contain benzene, a toxic chemical. Although the contaminated bottles were found in Denmark and the Netherlands, Perrier withdrew every single bottle on sale everywhere in the world. Perrier’s chairman Gustave Leven said:

”I have built up this company over the past 40 years around an image of perfection, I don’t want the least doubt, however small, to tarnish our product’s image of quality and purity.”

Perrier took a huge financial hit and the damage to their reputation was serious. But the decision to withdraw all the stock from sale was easy.

Dates and mates

Join me at the Host Leadership Gathering 2023 in Vienna, Austria on 12-13 June 2023. We’re looking for interesting participants and (even better) people who’d like to bring along a workshop, a topic for conversation or some thoughts about leading as a host. Full details at

Host Leadership as a practical framework for dialogic leaders

Chris Corrigan, one of my long-time friends and inspirations, has just started blogging again. This is good news – his ideas and views from the western shores of Canada about hosting, facilitating, conversing and including are always worth catching.

Today’s blog is a list of 10 interesting things from his ‘parking lot’ – the place where he stores ideas and material pending making use of it. My eye was caught by a short video of Patricia Shaw on the characteristics of a good leader from a dialogic perspective. It’s only six minutes long and well worth a watch.

Patricia Shaw

I have summarised her characteristics, which are well-observed and very concisely delivered. She says leaders could do more of these:

  1. Think about convening conversations that might not happen otherwise. Opening spaces for reflective inquiry.
  2. Taking action visibly. Taking up a voice, speaking out, creating ripples where you don’t quite know the consequences.
  3. Leaders shift the conversational life of the organisation. Having the courage and skill to invite and sustain free-flowing conversation which is not simply following a highly structured agenda.
  4. Invent and improvise shifts in the configuration of speaking with each other – all together, in small groups, listening carefully. Work with conversation as an art.
  5. Encourage talk linking large-scale abstract concepts to the small-scale realities of everyday life.  Many leaders are excellent at giving accounts of the former and are unable to translate these to the latter.
  6. Know how to balance and move between written documentation with oral communication. The former leads to a narrowing and reduction of the richness of the latter.
  7. Leaders can be very good at explanation and yet very poor at description. They are too eager to move towards simple cause-and-effect linkages, where a descriptive-reflective capacity to inquire into the way circumstances happen and change.  
  8. Being able to evoke and notice ‘vivid moments of experience’, moments of common reference which have meaning for people in their everyday activity.
  9. Pay less attention to generating yet another action plan and more attention on what is opening up in front of us in terms of small steps.

Each of these nine micro-practices can be seen to be part of a host leadership stance, particularly when combined with the detail and descriptive work of Solutions Focus. My eye was particularly drawn to:

  • Using convening power – even when you don’t have formal authority to do so.
  • Work in different ways with language and conversation – all together, in small groups, individually and so on, using the Four Positions of a host leader.
  • Bringing people together to join forces to exchange, converse and emerge new ideas (rather than have a constraining agenda), in the same way that a good party is not scripted but flows this way and that.
  • Taking small steps (as in the User’s Guide To The Future framework) as a way of positively exploring and learning, rather than as part of a huge action plan.

Now take a look at Patricia’s video below. Enjoy!

Host Leadership Hint #9: Take time In The Kitchen

When we go into organisations and groups to help them learn about Host Leadership, we talk about our four positions for a host leader. These first appeared in the Host book by Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey.  Briefly, they are: 

  • In The Spotlight – upfront, public, talking to everyone, giving a speech or address 
  • With The Guests – still in public, talking to people one-on-one or in very small groups
  • In The Gallery – stepping back to take an overview of how everything is going and what might need to happen next 
  • In The Kitchen – a private space, where you can go behind-the-scenes and reflect, learn and recharge 

There is great value in taking all these positions from time to time. They all offer something different in terms of what you can discover and how you can interact with your people, your ‘guests’. What we hear again and again from real-life leaders and hosts is along the lines of…

  • “I would love to take time in the kitchen, but I’m just too busy!”
  • “There is always so much to be done, and I want to get time with the people out there”
  • “I try to find Kitchen time, but it gets pushed to the end of the day when I am too tired to really use it well”

We can sympathise with this – there is indeed always a lot to be done. And – it’s possible both to find effective ways to build in Kitchen time and use it well. 

Time in the Kitchen is time with the pressure off for a few moments. It’s time for: 

  • reflection, 
  • learning, 
  • talking to key advisors/mentors, 
  • sounding new ideas with colleagues
  • getting coaching
  • developing yourself  

The secret of getting the time for all this is – basically – to SCHEDULE it. Get it into your calendar and protect it. Value it so you don’t just take another meeting over the top of it. One good way to do this is to set aside a time (perhaps the same time) each week. An hour in the kitchen. It can take a few weeks to really get into the swing of this so you’ll very likely have to persist. 

As well as just scheduling your kitchen time, you can also effectively make the time yours by also including others. So for example you could: 

  • Make time with a coach or mentor – and put it in the diary
  • Keep a regular learning journal – say at the start and end of each week?
  • Organise away days or retreats for your closest team
  • Join a mastermind group, action learning set, supervision group or similar to meet and draw on ideas from others
  • Use mindfulness methods to create brief respites from the busyness of the day. 

It’s interesting to note that the word ‘busyness’ is so similar to business… 

Whichever way you do it, taking time every week In The Kitchen, away from the daily hubbub, will help you be a better leader and a better host.  Which way will you try next week? 

You can download a free 2-page pdf about all the four positions from this website to use and distribute in your team or organisation.

Host Leadership Hint #8: Using ‘Convening Power’

Here in the UK we have just had a set of city mayor elections. This is quite a new thing for us; these ‘metro-mayors’ are directly elected as figure heads for local government in their area. They have a certain amount of authority (while having to work alongside the various elected councils and other bodies, of which there are usually several) and some executive power. However, perhaps THE key strength they have is ‘convening power’.

The idea of convening power has been around for a decade or more. Harvard business guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote about it in 2011. The Commonwealth sees it as a key element of their mission. It’s about using what recognition and authority you have, which may or may not be a lot, to gather people together around an issue or cause. Essentially, it is the ‘power of the ask’ writ large. If you don’t ask, you don’t get – so not even asking is to give a No answer before anything has actually happened.

Convening power is mostly a form of soft power. You invite people to gather with potential positive consequences. You can also offer them an enjoyable time, the chance to meet others also interested in the issues, and a seat at the table. This is invitation on a grand scale. Organisations are often keen to be seen to be playing their parts in creating solutions and can be drawn in – with a compelling invitation and a good cause.

Hints for using convening power include:

  • Find a really good topic, cause or issue to gather people around. If it really matters to people, they will come (or at least start to get engaged)
  • Thing big. Find the best-known and most widely connected person you can, and start from there. Once the crowd starts to hear that key people and organisations are joining, they’ll soon get interested.
  • Think outside the box. Don’t just ask the usual suspects, get people together from a wider range of places and contexta. Invite those affected by an issue as well as those who can help resolve it. Invite people with parallel experiences, or from fields with analogous situations.
  • Get to action. Prompt public commitments and next steps – when folk make these in front of others, they are more likely to follow through. In particular, look to make things start happening in the 48/72 hours after your event.

Anyone can use convening power. It’s a great element of Host Leadership. And if you don’t convene and gather people around what YOU think is important, who will?

Andy Burnham was re-elected Mayor of Greater Manchester in 2021 (Photo Manchester Evening News)

Host Leadership Hint #7: Step back to move forwards

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…

Host Leadership Hint #6: The power of a positive No

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.

(Adapted from Host: Six new roles of engagement for teams, organisations, communities and movements by Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey

Host Leadership Hint #5: Step into, and out of, the six roles

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.

Leah is leading a free 90 minute webinar about Host Leading on Wednesday 27 January 2021 at 6pm UK time – register here.

You can see a short video about The Triangle, made by Leah’s grand-daughter Alia aged 11! It’s only one minute, well worth watching.

Host Leadership Hint #4: Listen out! What is your organisation calling for?

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.

Sign up on the right to get these tips direct to your inbox, along with news of new developments and events.