Mark McKergow who is perhaps best known for his work on the Solutions Focus approach to organizational change and coaching, has just launched a new website to explore and promote the metaphor of "Leader as Host". This is an interesting concept. It offers an alternative way of looking at leadership in organizations. And, in doing so, it might provoke some new insights into its process and practice.
In an accompanying working paper, McKergow sets out six aspects of “hosting” that he maintains apply equally well to the practice of leadership in organizations. Hosts (and hence leaders), he argues:
- Create great spaces (physical and psychological) – and are active in them.
- Use the ‘soft power’ of invitation (rather than the ‘hard power’ of coercion).
- Have ‘Response-ability’ (Balancing defining the event AND responding to what happens).
- Use Co-participation (Balancing providing for everyone AND joining in alongside everyone else).
- Ensure judicious Gate-opening (Balancing defending boundaries AND making new connections).
- Spend time front stage, on the balcony (taking an overview) and back stage (developing their capabilities).
McKergow positions the notion of Leader as Host in relation to what he describes as the established polar opposites of Leader as Hero and Leader as Servant (after Robert Greenleaf). He argues,
“This new metaphor could be viewed as a Hegelian synthesis – it not only includes both of the others, but offers a new perspective with many creative possibilities.”
I first came across the idea of relating leadership to the role of hosting in the book by Richard Lester and Michael Piore, entitled Innovation: The missing dimension. The particular “missing dimension” to which they refer is the failure of the established management discourse to take account of the role that interpretation plays in the innovation process. Their case is that an interpretive perspective is needed to counter-balance the problem-solving approach that dominates managers’ thinking and practice.
In advancing their argument, they draw an analogy between the role of a host (or, as they position it, hostess) at a cocktail party and the leader’s need to stimulate and help sustain ongoing, interpretive conversations around emerging issues and possibilities. In a similar manner to McKergow, they identify typical activities of a host or hostess. These they state variously as:
- Identifying the ‘guests’, and bringing them to the party.
- Suggesting who should talk to whom and what they might talk about.
- Intervening as necessary to keep the conversation flowing.
- Introducing new people into the group, where conversation appears to be flagging.
- Introducing a new topic, when two people do not seem to be able to discover what they have in common on their own.
- Breaking up groups that do not seem to be working or are headed for an unpleasant argument.
- Generally navigating between the shoals of boredom and hostility, either of which would cause the party to break up and the participants to leave.
I’m particularly attracted to this latter formulation, because it identifies the critical dynamic as one of conversation. And, as I argued in the previous post, for leaders, the conversations are the work. Although Lester and Piore’s focus is on conversations relating to innovation, this dynamic is fundamental to all aspects of everyday organizational life.
Focusing on interactional dynamics rather than individual descriptors
I’m therefore more taken with the idea of drawing analogies from the conversational dynamics of the hosting process, than with describing someone who adopts a particular leadership practice as a “host”. Nor am I convinced that it helps to retain the terms “Hero” and “Servant” as ways of labelling different manifestations of “Host leadership” that might be observed from time to time. What matters more is the ongoing interactional process, out of which new meaning and practice might emerge or existing patterns of understanding and action might be reinforced.
To characterize one or more of the actors as Heroes, Servants or even Hosts shifts the focus from the complex social process in which they and everyone else are participating towards the perceived role of a particular actor or actors within it. And this makes it more likely that leadership will continue to be seen as an elite practice confined to a few, autonomous individuals, rather than as an emergent property of everyone’s ongoing interactions.
McKergow acknowledges this to some degree towards the end of his paper, when he says,
“I think it might be more interesting to look at hosting as an interactional, social and contextual activity rather than a label to be applied to a single individual.”
Making the most of "the leader as host"
From an informal coalitions perspective, leadership emerges, and is recognized as such, in the continuous process of people’s day-to-day interactions. Stimulating and participating in meaning-making conversations, and seeking to mobilize the actions of others around important emerging themes, is the essence of this practice. And it is a practice that takes place continuously and mundanely, not solely in set-piece events or involving senior people.
Drawing analogies from the widely understood process of ‘hosting’(and being hosted) - as McKergow and others are seeking to do - should help people to recognize this practice as a normal part of their everyday experience. And it might also help with the task of chipping away some of the false mystique that surrounds leadership as it is ordinarily constructed.
Making the most of the concept of "leader as host" will depend - in this case as in all others - on the ways in which people perceive, interpet, evaluate and make use of it in the context of their own, local interactions. 'Hosting' conversations through which such understanding and action might emerge is, perhaps, an appropriate first challenge!