Hosts spot what is missing and gently act

I remember seeing Alan Aykbourn’s play Absent Friends some years ago at the theatre.  The main character is Colin, whose fiance has just been drowned and has been invited for a tea-party with friends  to help him get over it.  The friends are determined not to let this unhappy event mar the event, and so go to great efforts not to mention it.  This being Aykbourn, confusion, comedy and pathos follow; for example when asked how she likes her tea one of the character unthinkingly replies “just a spot of milk… don’t drown it!”. 

As a solution-focused practitioner, I am always on the lookout for what is working, what strengths people show and to be generally appreciative.  This is indeed a key aspect of any good host – imagine how it would be if we were scornful of someone’s dress or hair, for example.  However, good hosts also deploy another skill – spotting what is missing.

Sometimes what is missing can be obvious – a guest without a seat, for example.   Other times the missing aspect may be less obvious – something is not quite right, perhaps people are a little uneasy about something, or something has not been acknowledged.  A good host (and a good host leader) will be alert to such situations and will then act to nudge things in the right direction.  The acting, however, is often a gentle nudge rather than a wholesale panic.  A chair appears by the standing guest.  A confidence-boosting word is dropped into the conversation.  A small acknowledgement is given.  And then, tension released, we can all get on with the matter in hand.

4 thoughts on “Hosts spot what is missing and gently act

  1. Phil Aspden

    Excellent analogy – the leader who can correct what is wrong or missing without too much fuss and without adopting a ‘look at me’ approach or declaring ‘do I have to do everything round here?’
    Taking it a little further, it does highlight the difference between host and servant metaphor in that if something should be drastically wrong – a danger to the party – that the host is in a position to call a halt to proceedings and take corrective action. I think this type of strong intervention that leaders recognise as being important when needed, is where servant leadership can feel awkward.

  2. Arthur Battram

    I think you are gently homing in on something genuinely novel here Mark. The basic HL idea as you present it didn’t exactly knock me out with its originality, as you know. It reminded me of my own ‘pattern management’ and Peter Fryer’s approach to leadership, as well as various tribal or LGI approaches.

    And (not but) you are onto something now. If we accept that host leadership is something that smart leaders have ‘naturally’ done for millenia, what you are doing is now going further than just saying that. Because there is nothing ‘natural’ about it, is there? As we know from the claims of NLP, it is possible to study a great salesman, and work out what they do, codify it and teach it to others. That is one way of describing what you are doing, but in a SF way not an NLP way (which I welcome as I share some misgivings about NLP’s claims).

    So, what is this thing? Well, if you pull it off, you will be offering us a set of tips for how to support the process of a great event, based on SF ideas (and, I would suggest/contend/exhort complex systems ideas).

    I already have one tip from you, thanks:

    “Pay attention to what’s missing, like the missing chair, anticipate it, and fix it before it becomes a problem.”

    I knew that already – that’s not the point.

    The added value is in the making explicit of thethe tacit. (cf Polyani and Nonaka, not to mention Boisot)

    Power to your elbow, Mycroft!

  3. Mark McKergow

    Thank you both for these comments – very encouraging! Phil, I think that the possibility of strong intervention (combined with exquisite sensitivity about using it) is a key part of the host idea, and does indeed point up some differences with the servant. Arthur, yes, complex systems ideas very much to the fore here, as I hope to be clarifying in due course.

  4. Mark Veary

    Great metaphor and interesting although very academic responses so far. I guess what I’m interested in seeing at this early stage in the development of HL is how this will be used practicaly in the workplace when there are already so many books and workshops on leadership. How do we make the HL idea distinctive amoung many. How do I use/make useful, this wonderful metaphor in the middle of an oil field? Thanks. Mark

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