Nigel Gann: Enabling the community to be a host leader

Nigel Gann

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”.

Political 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 response.

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.

Can a 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.

There are 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.

The vision 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 heart:

We support people in Lichfield, especially newcomers, who face discrimination or exclusion due to displacement, immigration, racism, poverty, abuse, sexuality, disability or violence

We come alongside individuals and organisations throughout the district of Lichfield to coordinate welcome and support for those who need it

We challenge visions of Lichfield that exclude any individuals and groups that live and work here

We hold 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.

This year 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.”

I think that should be fun.

Nigel Gann, Lichfield, November 2020

Nigel Gann taught in schools and now coaches school leaders. He has written a number of books on leadership: “The Great Education Robbery” will appear in 2021.

A more picturesque view of Lichfield and its famous cathedral

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