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Q&A on The Host Leadership Field Book

Key Takeaways

  • Host Leadership - leading as a host rather than a hero or servant - is a useful and flexible way of leading teams and organisations
  • It is being used in settings ranging from organisational change to virtual teams, from agile projects to school leadership and social care
  • Leading as a host embraces change and emergence, combining excellent planning with on-the-spot adaptability   
  • Thinking of yourself as a host and the other people as your guests is a rapid way of gathering new insights and strategies for leading and engaging
  • The rich model of six roles and four positions of a host leader gives a great deal of underpinning wisdom and possibility for leaders at all levels of an organisation, from customer-facing staff through team leaders to senior managers

The Host Leadership Field Book: Building Engagement for Performance and Results provides 30 cases and experiences from people who are applying host leadership in different settings. The book emerged from the 2019 Host Leadership Gathering, and was edited by Mark McKergow and Pierluigi Pugliese.

InfoQ readers can download the introductory chapter from the Field Book which describes the book and provides a summary of the Host Leadership roles and positions.

InfoQ interviewed Mark McKergow and Pierluigi Pugliese about host leadership.

InfoQ: What made you decide to create this book?

Mark McKergow: It was Pierluigi’s idea. We were thinking about the 2019 Host Leadership Gathering which he was keen to host in Munich, and he suggested that rather than just have a conference/meeting, we could have an objective to actually create something as a purpose for the event.  It has been wonderful to see the contributions coming together, both from those participating on the day and those who put their hands up and volunteered afterwards. It’s a great chance to see how Host Leadership is in use around the world in so many different practical ways, five years after the original Host book was published.

Pierluigi Pugliese: It all started with an observation I made many years ago: while Open Space conferences are great, usually there is not much that becomes available to people who did not participate; either you were there and it was wonderful, or you missed it all. Actually, Harrison Owen had already codified the concept of "Instant Proceeding" in his book "Open Space Technology"; I had just never seen it implemented in practice (with the exception of a few in-house events I facilitated). So for a while I had played with the idea of using that format to create something collaboratively to give back to the community. Once Mark mentioned the idea of having an Open Space day as part of the Host Leadership Gathering, it was just a matter of connecting the dots ...

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

McKergow: It’s intended for anyone interested in building engagement within their teams, organisations and communities to lead to better performance and results.  We think that leading as a host is a great way to do that, and it’s borne out by the book chapters. So potential users might be helping agile teams, project leaders, school principals, healthcare professionals, local community organisers - anyone wanting to bring people together to achieve something in an effective way.  

Pugliese: Agree with Mark. And for me, this book is also an invitation to explore the metaphor of the Host in more detail; while it’s very easy to understand and to apply it at a basic level, there is a wealth of richness in exploring how the Host interacts with the Guests in all the possible configurations.

InfoQ: How do you define host leadership?

Pugliese: For me, Host Leadership is a superb way to reflect on how we interact with people. While we typically all agree that leadership is about having followers, many other authors still place the leaders in the middle, describing with various levels of prescriptiveness what they should or should not do, usually forgetting that in order to have an interaction we need to be at least two ... They might be talking about post-heroic leadership (for example see why your organisation needs post-heroic leadership), but the focus and the language used are still referring to the leader in a heroic fashion: "the leader is ...". Host Leadership is different in this respect: while the Host needs to take on - for example - the Inviter role, the "how" this is done, the focus on the interaction with the Guests, is so definitive that it makes a lot of difference in practice. It’s not anymore about "me", but about "us", and how we relate. Suddenly, the interaction between Host and Guests is what is worth talking about!

McKergow: The great thing about Host Leadership is that’s it is BOTH a metaphor and a model. The metaphor can do a lot of work on its own - indeed there are a couple of chapters (notably the piece by agile consultant Géry Derbier) that are totally about his use of the metaphor to get people to think differently about what they are trying to do. We all know about being a host, and also about being a good guest. So suppose you ARE the host in this situation, and the other people are your guests ... what would you do next? It’s amazing how much rich new thought and insight this simple activity can provide.

Then there is the model, which is about stepping forward and back, six roles and four positions of a host leader. These are summarised in the first chapter of the book. Briefly, the six roles are:

  • Initiator - gets things moving
  • Inviter - involves other people with soft power and invitation
  • Space-creator - makes and looks after the space (physical AND psychological) where people will come together and interact
  • Gatekeeper - negotiates and looks after boundaries, welcomes people over the threshold and helps decide what is and is not part of this interaction
  • Connector - shares power by introducing people to each other, so they can make things happen together
  • Co-participator - joins in with the event as well as leading/hosting it (in the same way that a host eats the same food as their guests)

Our four positions of a host leader are places to stand (physically or perceptually) to get different perspectives on what is going on and what needs to happen next:

  • In the spotlight - up front with everyone watching (important, but not all that common)
  • With the guests - meeting people 1-1 or in small groups - a much more two-way process than being in the spotlight
  • In the gallery - taking a detached position to look around, see how everyone is doing, is anyone being left out, what needs to be done to move things along
  • In the kitchen - a private space where leaders can reflect, learn, receive coaching or mentoring, and take stock out of public view.

Host leaders use these roles and positions, stepping forward into the role which needs to happen next, with a focus on helping people interact usefully and constructively.

InfoQ: How does host leadership differ from other modern leadership approaches like leader-leader (from Turn the Ship Around), servant-leadership, or humble leadership?

McKergow: I see Host Leadership as a build on the ideas of servant-leadership. Robert Greenleaf’s ideas and writings have been important over the last 40 years or so. We think Host Leadership is a more complete and easier to grasp idea; yes, host leaders serve their ‘guests’ - and they do a whole lot of other things to which actively contribute to success. Hosting feels more like an active leading role to many people, which helps them start off in this direction more easily. It’s a rich idea for which we have a lot of existing competence and experience - both conscious and unconscious. Hardly anyone has servants anymore, so that role may be less familiar and accessible to the vast majority. It’s not an accident that the places where servant-leadership has gained traction are places where they have a sophisticated idea of what ‘service’ means, such as church organisations.  

In comparison to the other leadership approaches, I think Host Leadership benefits from being both an instantly-understandable metaphor and a rich model. People get an initial idea of what it’s about right away (from the metaphor). They can then explore the model in more depth to extend their understanding and get new insights. I love David Marquet’s ideas in Turn the Ship Around, but there is no shortcut - you have to read the book to understand them. ‘Think like a host’ is something people already know how to do (at some level) - they can start in a flash and then deepen their understanding later, based on real actions and experience.

Pugliese: For me, Host Leadership is more than a leadership approach: it’s an approach to human interactions, with leadership being one of the application fields. For me it is also not an alternative to other approaches but rather integrative! You might want to use the ideas of Humble Leadership, yet in order to interact with your organisation you will have to initiate, invite, create a space, i.e. Host Leadership might be the operational tool you can use to implement other leadership ideas and models. Yet, on the other hand, Host Leadership could be everything you need, as Géry Derbier hints in his book chapter "Can it be that simple?", where he describes how a minimalistic usage of the metaphor was everything he needed to achieve great results.

InfoQ: The book contains experience stories on applying host leadership. Can you give some examples of the stories?

McKergow: The book contains some 30 stories about people using Host Leadership in many different settings. Some of these are about using Host Leadership over an extended period. I like the chapter where Bjorn Z Ekelund and his colleagues from Norway are working with six refugee families, with the workers consciously shifting their professional perspective for the first time from ‘we are helping you’, to ‘let’s do this together’. It’s fascinating how they apply the different roles over a six-month period which results in the families, as well as the professionals, becoming more engaged and more connected to each other, and towards positions with more dignity and more personal empowerment.  

In a different vein, there is a super chapter from Rachel Lindner in Germany about hosting global virtual teams as part of a cross-cultural initiative. She not only shows how using Host Leadership roles and positions have helped her build these virtual teams quickly and effectively, but also how she then encouraged the team members to take on hosting/leading roles on their own. There is a fascinating piece from Hans Christian Nielsen and Jonas Hedegaard from Denmark about how the Roskilde Festival - N. Europe’s largest music festival with 130,000 attendees - uses the principles of hosting to rapidly transition from a small full-time team to an organisation of 30,000 volunteers and back again within weeks.

Not all the stories are about such large-scale ventures. For example, there are chapters about using host ideas within a coaching framework. I have already mentioned Géry Derbier’s chapter where he coaches people to just ‘think like a host’, and in a few moments they have new insights and realisations about working with others. I have a chapter with Peter Roehrig about using the ‘User’s Guide To The Future’ framework from the original Host book as a coaching tool - it’s a wonderful way to start with a huge idea and break it down into well-founded actionable steps within a few minutes. There’s a very nice chapter from Pierluigi himself alongside Markus Reinhold about taking a hosting perspective as a trainer, preparing and running training courses and workshops. There are also chapters about teaching Host Leadership ideas and inspiring people to start using them.  

Pugliese: There is also a section on using Host Leadership and agility; the metaphor has become very popular in Agile and many people are applying it in the most varied situations: from daily standups to retrospectives to creating communities. And while this section might be the first one the readers of this site are interested in, I found many other chapters to be incredibly inspiring in my work with agile teams and organisations.

InfoQ: What are the challenges when moving towards host leadership and how do people deal with them?

McKergow: We have found that once people become aware of the possibility of leading as a host, many people take to it relatively quickly and enthusiastically. It’s so usable right out of the box; people connect to their existing knowledge and experience and away they go! The difficulty is not in getting them to start using it once they know about it. If anything, the challenge has been more about getting them to keep going past this initial success to really engage with the richness and multi-dimensional possibilities of the model. There is so much potential and nuance in the six roles and four positions, but not everyone is prepared to take it on right away. We are hopeful that this book will be an encouragement to dig a little further into these ideas and practices.  

Pugliese: I fully agree with Mark; there is an incredible potential in the metaphor that remains untapped because once people use it and have success with just the rudiments, they stop exploring. There is more to it -  and I also hope the book will inspire people to go deeper.

However, a very interesting aspect for me is the lack of challenge in implementing it; I’ve seen people change completely the way they interact with others after just having learned the metaphor. There is something in Host Leadership that resonates very naturally with some people, and once they become aware of the very idea of hosting, that’s enough for a significant change.

For one of my clients we developed an advanced education program for Scrum Masters, and once I suggested they include Host Leadership, they recognised the potential and they wanted it as the overarching frame for the entire program!

InfoQ: How do the host leadership roles fit into organisations that work according to agile?

McKergow: We find that many organisations who work with agile have taken on the servant-leadership idea, and then struggle with it. It’s great to want to serve your teams, but what does that mean? How do you perhaps reconcile accountability as a manager/team leader with simply serving? We find that the idea of ‘hosting’ the team is in many ways more graspable and achievable - the six roles are all things that the host leader can do and look after, which are to do with helping the team come together productively rather than trying to control the results of the meeting.

Another subtle difference is in the way that the leader has their own potential say in the discussions - as a coach/facilitator, the leader is supposed to stay out of it. As a host, they are also a co-participator and have the option to (carefully) offer their own thoughts on what’s happening. Just as ‘leaders eat last’, hosts too hear others first before offering their ideas.  

Pugliese: I’d say: perfectly, and in two ways:

  1. If we want to move away from command and control, we need to change the way leaders interact with people. A common pattern I see in many "agile transformations" is the inability of management to change their style of interaction. While they might genuinely be interested in creating a collaborative environment, their language and their approach to communication often tell the opposite. The result are leaders who are not trusted because they send incongruent signals that are difficult to make sense of. Host Leadership is for me a very pragmatic tool to re-train management and help them interact in a more productive way with the rest of the organisation.
  2. Agility is, at its core, a way to cooperate. And cooperation needs interaction, communication. Following - for example - the "rules of Scrum" seems easy, but if we don’t interact properly, nothing will work. So Host Leadership is not only for leaders; in a self-managing system, everybody is, in fact, a Host and benefits from these ideas. I like the idea of having leadership as an organisational trait as described by O’Toole, and being a Host in your daily interactions with other people is an incredibly simple and effective way to go there.

InfoQ: How can we apply host leadership for distributed, dispersed, or virtual teams?

McKergow: That’s an excellent question!  We think that Host Leadership can fit well with these kinds of setting. Firstly, there is good experience in the Rachel Lindner chapter mentioned above about virtual teams. Because the channels of communication are ‘narrower’ in a virtual context, it can be even more important to take care to invite people carefully, make a great space for interaction, share time, make sure everyone is included, connect people together afterwards and generally make effective use of the precious together-time.  

Then as time goes on, the hosting role can be shared- either with different people taking on different elements of the hosting, or people acting a host leaders in their own spaces and places to engage even more people. It’s a powerful combination to show host leadership (by doing it), to teach it (by making people more consciously aware of what you are doing and why), and to encourage others to use it for themselves. This same kind of tactic can be used in distributed or dispersed teams as well. It makes for a coherent approach within the team/organisation, which is itself a powerful move for alignment and engagement.  

Pugliese: Just be the best Host you can! Again, Host Leadership is about interacting better as humans. You can invite face-to-face or over a phone line or via email; there is no structural difference in how you do it. And it becomes an even more important skill when working remotely; it seems to me Host Leadership makes the intention of an interaction clearer and inherently more respectful.

InfoQ: How can we use host leadership in training, mentoring, and coaching?

McKergow: Thinking and leading as a host fits very well with the functions of training, mentoring and coaching. Because the host is always looking to promote useful interaction and engagement, the six roles can all play their part. We both come from the field of Solution-Focused (SF) coaching, where the focus is on helping the coachee/learner connect with their own experiences, hopes and wishes, rather than imposing our own ideas. Good hosting can have such a huge impact on the quality of the dialogue, reflection and learning that occurs; when the client really feels heard, understood, appreciated, looked after, then they are in a position to go further, deeper, be more challenging (and also possibly challenged).  

InfoQ: How can organisations introduce host leadership?

McKergow: This is a question that comes up from time to time. We find people coming along, enthusiastic and fired-up, wanting to convert their whole team, department or organisation. We always urge caution! You might love this, but if you start hitting people over the head with it (in your desire to get things moving), then it’s hard to see good things emerging. Go slowly. Use it yourself. Dig in a little bit to the aspects of the model. Start getting results yourself. Then, when people are noticing that you’ve become more effective, more caring, more aware in your leadership, that might be a good time to let them into the ideas and encourage them to start trying things for themselves.  

There are stories emerging from around the world about people starting to introduce and teach the approach. Ralph Miarka and Veronika Kotrba from Austria show a way of getting people focused on the relationships implied in different leadership approaches, which works very well. (If you think you’re a shepherd, do you really want the others to be sheep!?) Host leaders, of course, and view the other people as their guests, which is already the start of some very interesting conversations. Host Leadership can be an integrating metaphor, as another chapter produced by participants to the Host Leadership Gathering points out. And Leah Davchva from Bulgaria shows how she introduces the metaphor and model in a four-hour workshop, complete with downloadable posters. It’s a great resource.  

Pugliese: Start simple: the very simple metaphor of behaving as a Host would is a very powerful game changer for many people. Then, you can explore the six roles and the four positions, and finally delve into more and more nuances.

Having a few good examples of Hosts in your organisation can make it spread. My observation is that this metaphor speaks very strongly to some people; it’s natural, it rationalises a way they would like themselves to be, hence they start using it very naturally and become role models for its application in a company.

InfoQ: What skills should host leaders have and how can they develop them?

McKergow: That’s a huge question! The starting point is to bring both a large-scale awareness of what you are trying to do, and line it up with some great attention to detail. An outward focus is very important too - it’s very hard to be a good host leader if you are self-obsessed or inward looking. (But that doesn’t mean that introverts can’t succeed - some of the very best host leaders we know enjoy having the chance to take on a people perspective from time to time and use their inner resources to prepare and reflect.)  Alertness and awareness are key - you have to be both a good planner AND be able to adjust and adapt as things move along. ‘Working with complexity’ (as opposed to fighting it or simply giving in) is a key benefit from the Host Leadership stance. Surprising as it might sound, we find that if the ideas of Host Leadership speak to you, you will very likely be able to make a great start with your existing skills and experience, and then build on these as you go along.

Pugliese: Situational awareness comes to my mind, which means being open to the signals coming from the world around us. A few months ago, I attended a meeting where one person behaved in a very toxic way. The whole group was uncomfortable about the way this guy took control of the discussion and made it his show. He was simply not picking up any of the non-verbal signals coming from the twenty-something people kept "hostages" by him in that meeting; it was clear to everybody how unaware he was of the situation around him, yet, he continued. Anyway, I think situational awareness is a basic skill for everything related to human communication, not just for learning to be a Host.

Yet, I believe that simply appreciating what it means to be a Host in your daily communication might help you develop the necessary observational skills to become a better Host.

InfoQ: What's next for host leadership?

McKergow: We are keen to find more ways to support people wanting to try Host Leadership and then expand their ability.  We are thinking of adding a Resources page to our website soon to help with this - there are some good resources out there, but they are not yet very well assembled and accessible.  We’re keen to keep adding resources to the Field Book too - there are a couple of chapters that arrived too late for the book, but that we want to make available through the website.  We’d like to get more conversations going in our LinkedIn and Facebook groups, so please sign up to those. And the next Host Leadership Gathering will be in Vienna, Austria, on 13-15 May, 2020!

In the longer term, there is an excellent chapter towards the end of the Field Book from Mark McKergow’s original co-author Helen Bailey.  She writes about how the simplicity of the basic Host Leadership idea belies its depth, and that the way forward for those wishing to deepen their practice is not to learn more about it, but rather to revisit the basic ideas again with new eyes and new experiences.  Our understanding of these ideas continues to grow and expand, and we’re keen to support people along the journey.  

About the Book Authors

Mark McKergow pioneered the idea of hosting and leadership starting in 2003 and wrote the book Host: Six New Roles of Engagement with Helen Bailey (Solutions Books, 2014). He is a speaker, author, consultant and trainer who brings new ideas into the world of management. He loves ideas that make things easier, simpler, shorter and more effective than people thought possible. McKergow is based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His previous work in accelerated learning and Solutions Focus has taken him around the world, and his book The Solutions Focus (with Paul Z Jackson, Nicholas Brealey, 2007) has been translated into 11 languages.

Pierluigi Pugliese is founder and managing director of Connexxo GmbH and active as Agile Coach, Systemic Consultant and Trainer. He has a lot of experience in various roles in software development organisations and complex international projects. As an expert in agile and Scrum, he is working flexibly in various functions: consultant, coach, trainer, facilitator, depending on whether the client wants to implement agile methods in just one team or spread the agile values and principles throughout the whole organisation.

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