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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 #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)

New video: Mark McKergow on Hosting Generative Change

Mark McKergow’s new book on Hosting Generative Change: Creating Containers for Creativity and Commitment is out now. In this video, Mark is interviewed by Prof Gervase Bushe, leading dialogic OD expert and co-founder of the Bushe Marshak Institute, about the book. Mark reveals some of his own back story here along with the single most useful thing hosts and facilitators can do to tip the scales in their favour when organising a dialogic event.

You can find more videos featuring Mark speaking about the power of hosting and host leadership in our Video resources page.

The Producer Competences: The art of the impossible

How do you like diverse groups of creatives and managers, build connections, help everyone to do their best work and produce something amazing that nobody’s ever seen before? Be a Producer! That was the message from producer Suzy Glass and Graham Leicester of the International Futures Forum at a fascinating workshop in Edinburgh.

We are at the start of the wonderful Firestarter festival, which has grown from 2016 to be an annual treat of workshops, presentations and learning opportunities to celebrate and build creativity and innovation in public services with a focus on Scotland. There is a packed programme of events over the coming weeks – all free to attend (if you can get a ticket – many are now sold out).

The event on the ‘Producer Competences’ was a new and interesting take on how create and build new things – ‘climbing the mountain that isn’t there’, as Suzy Glass put it. Around 50 people gathered at Whitespace in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle for an instructive and inclusive morning of talks, discussions and sharing. Graham Leicester led off by recalling Jacques Delors’ report from the last century on learning in the 21st century (now!) being about learning to Know, to Be, to Do and to Be Together. He positioned producing as the last two of these, connecting the role to his Three Horizons model.

The Producer has a role in linking up with could be (in the future) with what is now in the present. This role is widely understood (I think) in the arts and creative industries, but it’s relatively new (to me and others in the room today) in terms of organisational initiatives and community development. The Producer is often an outsider who makes connections to allow something – an event, a display, a performance, an exhibition – to be created. Suzy Glass is just such a person, and was lively and generous in sharing her experiences, freewheeling as she sometimes grappled for the words to talk about something she does but less frequently discusses.

Suzy was very clear that producing is NOT ‘project management’ (although project management skills are very useful). It is about finding a vital idea (with life and agency) which often means working with mavericks (not the easiest people sometimes, by definition). Then the idea takes shape, and the producer builds a team, helping everyone to feel comfortable as this shared space appeared and then to (we hope) learn to speak something like the same language. This is a gradual process! Often there are contradictory priorities like artistic coherence and financial accounting in the team, and the producer helps to bridge gaps, bring people together (and occasionally, I sensed, keep them apart). Helping everyone to take the next step confidently is vital – there is no existing map, and possibly not even an existing step to stand on, as the whole endeavour is ‘making it up’.

If the Producer does all this right, then the implementation of the project becomes obvious. We discussed how this means that good Producers are rather invisible, as they are deliberately shining the light onto those out front. Discussions emerged from the group about the challenges of all this in the organisational world, with some finding ‘high people’ who were blocks to change while others had supportive ‘high people’ but immobile middle managers. Suzy picked up an important point when she said that “getting the right people in the room isn’t a diary scheduling problem, it’s a leadership issue”. Graham came back to innovation, saying that there was ‘innovation driven by desperation’ which was about propping up the (failing) current system, and ‘innovation driven by inspiration’ which was about moving to something new.

From a Host Leadership perspective, it seemed to me as if there is a lot of good hosting involved in producing, perhaps rather more extreme than usual, with a very diverse group and apparently divergent priorities being brought together, perhaps initially against their better judgement, to do something not only new but never seen before. This surely requires both a tongue of silver and balls of steel! And a lot of patience, boundary-spanning, connecting, container building and inviting (at the right moments). This was a really fascinating start to Firestarter 2020 – many thanks to the organisers and to Suzy and Graham for putting themselves out front to give voice to some new ideas and possibilities.

There are some new developments coming soon in this area. Graham Leicester has produced a downloadable pamphlet on the Producer Competences, and a Producer Competences programme is planned by IFF based on the Watershed (Bristol) creative producers programme to tease out further learning for outside the arts sector. Contact Graham at the IFF if you’re interested! I’m hoping to keep an eye on these new developments myself as Edinburgh once again appears at the heart of innovation, the arts and community.

Acknowledging others in Denmark – ‘tak for sidst’

I was in Copenhagen, Denmark last week for a very enjoyable conference with the Public Funk consultancy.  I have a keynote and some workshops about Host Leadership, and was talking about how hosting is universal for humanity but it sometimes looks different depending on the culture. Public Funk’s Jens Kristian Pedersen mentioned that there is a very specific way of acknowledging people in the Danish culture – ‘tak for sidst’.  This happens after a party or some other gathering; when people see each other the following day or whatever, they say ‘tak for sidst’ to each other as a kind of acknowledgement that they were both present.

It’s like ‘I saw you and acknowledge you’ – said by both parties. What a lovely way to give and receive recognition and respect!  Now watch Kristian describing it on the video below.  What other ways do we have of mutually acknowledging people briefly and effectively?

Expanding, growing, building… Host Leadership Gathering 2016 report

gathering-1September 2016 saw leaders and leadership developers from around the world congregating in London for the very first Host Leadership Gathering.  What emerged from the three days was an exciting air of new growth and development.

Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey opened the proceedings on Wednesday 14 September with a one-day Meet Host Leadership workshop to introduce the concepts developed from their book Host: Six new rules roles of engagement for teams, organisations, communities and movements.  Mark and Helen quickly had the participants connecting the ideas to their own situations and contexts.  They also took the opportunity to trial a new versiongathering-mm of their Host Leader self-assessment questionnaire. Developed by Jonathan Bowyer, this simple tool is a great way to provoke insight and reflection, initially into how people perform in the six roles of a Host Leader.  Mark and Helen are working with Jonathan to further expand their suite of tools, to look at the four positions of a host leader and also to build a 360 online version of the tool for use with client organisations.

gathering-hmThursday 15 September saw the main conference day of the Gathering opened by Harry Murray MBE.  Harry has a lifetime’s experience at the top of the hospitality industry and really knows what great hosting looks like. In conversation with Mark, Harry recalled his experiences – about the key role of empowering staff to look after guests. of the importance of attention to detail, about ‘always start with a question’ when talking to staff.  His memories of meeting Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 1994/5 were clearly very moving, as he recalled how Mandela would always pay great attention to the backroom staff and even the bell-boy: returning to the hotel, the South African president nodded to the young man by the lift and said “You must be doing something right – you were here last week, and you are still here!”  What excellent attention to detail and connection with people.

gathering-4The programme moved on to look at ‘Why Host Leadership now?’.  Annessa Rebair (Northumbria University) looked at the challenges facing nurses in the NHS and how the host metaphor fitted well with the rising profile of nurse leadership.  Pierluigi Pugliese, an Agile consultant from Munich, shared his positive experiences of helping Scrum coaches connect with hosting as a leadership practice, with the help of some very effective and simple drawings (see his slides on Slideshare).  Helen Bailey looked at how hosting combines feminine and masculine aspects, and offers a route towards valuing more feminine traits than the simplistic ‘more women on Boards’ route.  Ashridge Business School’s Mike Brent shared the latest research about what ‘Generation Y’ and millennials want from their jobs, workplaces and leaders – friendship, as well as support, featured prominently.

img_2347The keynote was given by Professor Elena Antonacopoulou from Liverpool University School of Management.  Taking the room by storm, Elena produced a series of dazzling connections and ideas in support of the idea that the biggest challenge facing leaders today was indeed to cultivate friendships with Generation Z.  Using imaginative word-plays, she deconstructed everyday phrases to give them new meanings –for example ‘Impossible’ becomes ‘I’m possible’ with the simple addition of an apostrophe and a space.  Elena said that one challenge was to ‘put the man back into management and the ship back into leadership’, referring to the leader’s role in developing the vessel in which the whole community sank or swam.  She offered many sources and ideas, including using a rubber band to illustrate how tension and ex-tension worked and also pointed us to Jorge Munoz’s video An Angel In Queens to illustrate extraordinary leadership by ordinary people.

After a lateish lunch, we continued with two parallel workshops.  Mike Brent drew on his book The Leader’s Guide to Influence to share different ways that host leaders could bring their influence to bear, while in the other room Leah Davcheva from Bulgaria provoked a fascinating discussion about hosting in online contexts with her personal experience as ‘steward’ of an online community in the educational world.  She helped us to tease apart some differences between steward and host, and had us looking at how we used language in online contexts and how to invite people into participation in particularly effective ways.

gathering-5The last part of the day was given over to some short inputs about the experience of using host leadership ideas in different settings.  Executive coach Stephen Josephs joined us from the USA by Skype to talk about his work with Silicon Valley senior executives, who certainly seems to be finding ideas about roles and positions helpful in tackling their often-overloaded lives.  Housing association CEO Angela Gascoigne shared her story of leading her organisation through a particularly tough patch, and how rethinking her position as a host had helped her to tackle these difficulties in a way which helped others to engage.  Laurent Sarrazin and Géry Derbier talked about using and teaching the concepts and roles with in the world of software development, particularly in France.  They asked us to consider dropping the ‘leader’ from host leader and simply refer to the people concerned as ‘hosts’ – an interesting and potentially significant development.  Leah Davcheva gave us all some final reflections before we wrapped up the day and went off for a very nice Italian meal.

gathering-ffThe final day of the Gathering was in Open Space format, and we had lots of excellent conversations convened by participants and also by some of the speakers.  Everyone wanted to explore their questions, and there were some great meetings of minds, from the conceptual (leader/follower relations and connections to happiness, for example) and the practical (sharing activities for teaching host leadership).  One key discussion was about how we can all contribute to spreading the word, and the group agreed to support the Host Leadership Linkedin group as the public place to share and converse.  We are also exploring a Practitioner’s Community for sharing resources etc – this is in its gathering-7early stages but we are optimistic about creating something to support people who really want to specialise in sharing and developing host leadership ideas in different contexts.  Watch out for more news!

We closed tired but happy, with much renewed enthusiasm and looking forward to future developments.  There was considerable interest in a next Host Leadership Gathering – perhaps in France, Germany, Bulgaria or even Singapore?  For up to date news of future events please sign up on our website, follow @thehostleader on twitter and join the Linkedin group.


How to be a good host – in English and German


I was approached a little while ago by Jan-Dirk Rosche from Switzerland.  Jan is connected with the Jakobsweg path – the part of the famous pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela that passes through Switzerland.  There are many people wanting to walk this trail – but a problem in convincing locals along the route to open their houses to offer the walkers accommodation.

Jan is a fan of Host Leadership, and asked me if I would write a short guide on ‘how to be a good host’ for the Jakobsweg – to give encouragement to new and existing hosts about how they can support the walkers and also get some interesting new contacts and perspectives themselves.  I agreed, and the piece is now up on the Jakobsweg website in both English and German.

As you can see, I use our six roles of a host leader to offer practical guidance for Jakobsweg hosts.  These ideas can of course be used elsewhere too – by anyone offering shelter and accommodation to strangers.  When we lived in Cheltenham, SW England, Jenny and I used to offer bed & breakfast to racegoers coming to town for the National Hunt Festival every year, and the same things applied. I also worked a stint at deutschkurs hannover as a teacher teaching German.

Do please share this with everyone you know who is perhaps thinking of opening their houses.  It’s very worthwhile, there is richness for both host and guest, and it is excellent leadership development too!  If we are leading with engagement at work, then engaging with strangers at home is a marvellous learning resource.

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).