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InfoQ Homepage Articles I’m Not a Servant - I’m a Host! A New Metaphor for Leadership in Agile?

I’m Not a Servant - I’m a Host! A New Metaphor for Leadership in Agile?


What does it mean being a leader? And what does it mean being a leader in an agile context? This fundamental question is being continuously asked by many people and in various settings: from the small startup to the big organization we are all trying to understand how to implement a sound leadership model. In fact leadership is highly contextual and very much connected to the interpersonal skills of the individuals, so a “model” of a leader that tells you how to act in such a role will anyway be limited. What if you could instead get your inspiration on how to lead from a metaphor? Simple enough to help you decide what to do in a particular context and still rich enough to be fitting most situations where you could find yourself in.

Metaphors in leadership are not new. In this article we will start from a very well known one, the Servant Leader, and then introduce a recent metaphor mentioned in the management literature, a richer one that goes under the name of Host Leadership that, in my opinion, is more useful for a modern agile organisation.

Servant Leadership: a good idea with limitations

In Scrum we say that ScrumMasters and Product Owners are Servant Leaders: but... what does that really mean? What is there beyond this label and what are the practical implications in the daily life of a ScrumMaster?

This is, in fact, one of the questions I get asked most in my consulting work. I searched a bit in the literature for ScrumMasters and for the references to Servant Leadership and there is little more than just an association between the two concepts. Sure enough, there are several articles describing what a ScrumMaster as a servant leader should do, but they are mostly opinions of the authors and not really reconnectable with the original idea of Servant Leadership. The interpretation of what that really means is left to the individuals. Sure, we can cross-reference the term with the values of scrum and agile, still, there is not much operative information available about what a Servant Leader in an agile environment should do or should not do.

Understanding properly the term and its implications is also a significant challenge for quite a lot of people who, before agility, were in some sort of management position and, at least at the beginning of an agile transition, they are still accountable towards the layers of management above while, at the same time, they are supposed to “serve” their teams.

Back to the past: where does the term servant leadership come from? The term - actually a metaphor for being a leader - comes from the work of Robert Greenleaf, who, in the 1970s, used it as a way to describe the way a leader should act. He was inspired by Hermann Hesse’s work “Journey to the East”, where a group of people travel together and, much unknown to them, the group stays together (we would say “act as a team”) thanks to their servant Leo who, with his presence, brings cohesiveness to the whole group. As soon as Leo leaves the party, the group falls in disarray.

Greenleaf proposes this approach to leading as a provocation, in contrast to the at those times common view on leadership as a heroic act: the king, the mighty warrior and similar figures. The metaphor of the leader as a hero is very much common also these days and quite ingrained in our culture, so much that we seldom even realise it: consider for example the typical action film where the main character has some charismatic leadership traits and he or she acts effectively as a hero until, eventually, at the end of the film he or she “wins” whatever was at stake. Sure, this leader might have a lot of great characteristics: from empathy, to agreeableness, to generosity and so on, but it still remains a heroic figure who is followed by others, and not much of a servant. Not exactly what we want in agility, as we want the teams to be empowered in what they do.

The Servant Leadership metaphor became very popular in the recent years (see for example why isn't servant leadership more prevalent), and it deserves to become even more popular, especially because it turns the hierarchical pyramid upside down in a very provocative way.

Figure 1: Leadership metaphors - from Hero to Servant

However in my opinion it has some limitations:

  • As a servant I have no power. This does not address the issues of accountability that are typical in organisations. Also, what should I do if the team is going in a direction that will lead to problems? Without power I cannot stop them. Actually this point is really a misunderstanding of Greenleaf’s work as the Servant Leader can be a Leader, he should help the growth of the people instead of focusing on the “accumulation and exercise of power”1.
  • As a servant how am I going to lead really? The historical representations of similar roles do not help much: think, for example, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, where the servant is smarter and better informed than the master: not exactly an appreciative view of the master!
  • Also the Scrum Guide describes the ScrumMaster role as “… responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted. Scrum Masters do this by ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices, and rules”. How can I be “responsible” if I have no authority? But if I have authority don’t I end up being a command and control manager all over again?

While I believe Servant Leadership is a good step in the right direction, in my opinion it still leaves too many open questions, probably more than it solves. Yes, it’s a good metaphor, much better than the leader as hero, but still not sufficiently “rich” to be helpful in everyday’s business, in the sense that the concept of “serve first, then lead” is not giving much practical information on how to act today, with my team, in my organisation, …

The limitations of the leader as a servant have also been discussed and criticised by several sources2. For example in many organisations there is an accountability structure that prevents a proper implementation of a servant leader. Another example is that if the “master” wants to go in a direction that is clearly wrong, what should the “servant” do? Over the last years, there was a proliferation of other metaphors for leadership that go together under the name of “post-heroic”3, as they all confute the leader-as-a-hero model, and, at the same time, they try to propose a practical model for implementing a servant-leadership-like style in organisations.

A better metaphor: Host Leadership

A very interesting alternative metaphor has been recently developed by Marc McKergow and Helen Bailey and it’s called “Host Leadership”4. In this case the leader is neither a hero nor a servant. He/she is a host, i.e. somebody who receives and entertains guests. As a host we all have duties and responsibilities: from setting up a good environment for our guests to be part of the event together with them and help them having a good time. However, hosts have also some rights: deciding who comes and who does not come, setting some rules and boundaries and ensuring people respect them. At the same time, the host relies on the guests to “be part of the event” and  be active in it.

Figure 2: Host Leadership: Contextually leading from within the group

This mix of authority and responsibilities is, in my opinion, a much richer and more effective metaphor, especially for ScrumMasters, but also for Product Owners and any other leadership figure in agile: in these roles we want to have the teams (our guests) to find an enjoyable environment to work in, with all the necessary pre-requisites organised. We are there with them and we are part of the event, supporting them and at the same time being supported by them. We still have some duties towards the organisation we work with, so we have the right to set some rules - in complexity we would say boundaries - that are essential to a civilised working environment. I believe this metaphor gives a “soul” to the common understanding that leadership should be contextual.

Since I got to know this metaphor almost two years ago I have been consistently using it in my teaching classes and in my mentoring of agile leaders and I found it gives them a much more concrete basis to discuss contextually what they could do in their work: they understand much better what are their options and that it’s not just about serving but contextually understanding what is needed to bring the team forward. I typically describe Host Leadership with the more concrete example of hosting a party: as a host you need to provide for food, drinks, music, ..., i.e. you have some duties to support your guests and you do that because you are interested in creating a great party, where people have fun to be part of. At the same time you are responsible to ensure the party is running according to the basic rules of a civilised being together and if somebody goes out of some boundaries, as flexible as they might be, your role as the host will eventually be to intervene to ensure the rest of the party does not get damaged by the action of some. And this might well involve command-and-control actions5.

What I notice is that the leadership figures I work with – many of them are ScrumMasters and Product Owners, but also managers in companies - first of all react very well to this metaphor, as it is well known to them, second they can “translate it” very well to their work scenario and it enables them to find more creative options when interacting with people.

Host Leadership: Roles and Positions

The basic idea of Host Leadership as discussed by McKergow and Bailey is that, to implement a contextual style of leadership, a host could be acting in several possible “roles”:

  1. Initiator, providing the initial sparks of what might become a broader initiative
  2. Inviter, inviting the relevant people to join our idea
  3. Space Creator, thus creating an environment - both physical and emotional, where something is really happening
  4. Gatekeeper, defining and protecting the space we have created, allowing people in and out as necessary
  5. Connector, by putting in touch people who otherwise would not cooperate, thus enabling useful conversations
  6. Co-participator, where we are also an important part of the system we helped creating, not just creators

Each of these roles can be actually played from four different “positions”:

A. On the stage, where we are the centre of attention

B. Among the people, where we are one among the many

C. On the balcony, where we let the event happen while observing, learning and be ready to intervene if necessary

D. In the kitchen, where we do our preparation work

Each combination of role+position is a creative stance we might use in our leadership work and the art of it is to choose the most productive one for our situation.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Space Creator + On the Stage for example is what we do when we explain to our audience the purpose of a meeting
  • Connector + Among the People is what we do when we, based on our knowledge of the organisation, suggest that a certain person should talk to another in another department because he/she might be able to help in solving a certain problem
  • Co-Participator + In the Kitchen is when we are preparing our ideas and our arguments or tomorrow’s meeting

Now a few less intuitive examples:

  • Space Creator + On the Balcony is when we are “just observers” in a meeting and with our attitude and body language we are influencing the behaviour of others, often involuntarily. Have you ever joined a meeting where your boss was grumpy, maybe just because of some non-work-related problems?
  • Gatekeeper + In the Kitchen is when we brainstorm what are our possible actions to protect the team in case a certain person will disturb the team’s performance.
  • Inviter + On the Balcony is for example when we set a visible timebox for a task: while we will be “just watching” it’s an implied invitation to focus on getting results in a short time.

To its roots, Host Leadership is “just a metaphor” i.e. it is a description of an attitude when leading. As such its value and advantage is that it gives a mental model to then find out your own solution to your actual problem. It’s a tool for reflecting – with yourself or in a work group - on what are your options and how your could expand them.

However Host Leadership is not a set of recipes: if what you search are solutions directly applicable to your problems it might not be the right tool for you. The metaphor is intended to inspire you rather than to drive you.

To me the biggest advantage of Host Leadership is the richness of the metaphor: through the combination of roles and positions it gives way more options to reflect on compared to the “serve first, then lead” idea of Servant Leadership. At the same time this richness is expressed in a form that most of us can understand and apply immediately, as the concept of hosting is something that is part of our culture. As an additional plus, different cultures are hosting in different ways, but the basic goal of hosting is very similar, i.e. the metaphor describes an attitude that will be automatically implemented in an effective way for a specific culture.

In practice: learning contextual leadership through roles and positions

The way I use these ideas in practice when working with ScrumMasters and Product Owners is to introduce the concept of the various roles and positions to them and let them work out in a workshop format what each combination of role+position means for them in practice and how they could use them. This allows them to reflect on how they are currently leading their teams and explore alternative behaviours that might be more productive. At the same time, this takes off the pressure of “doing” something as a leader: especially the positions “on the balcony”, i.e. the ability of leading by letting things happen, is a valuable learning for many who come in contact with these concepts.

Here are a few examples of what some participants found out during these workshops:

  • Inviter + On the Stage: Present a project and ask who wants to join the project team
  • Space Creator + On the Stage: Present a project in a way that inspires the developers
  • Space Creator + Among the People: Help your team to create the space they need to work
  • Gatekeeper + Among the People: Discuss with them what are the “rules of the game”, for example, discuss together the Definition of Done
  • Initiator + On the Balcony: Look at how the team works and find ideas for improvement to propose to them. In fact this is very similar to the Gemba walk in the Toyota System
  • Gatekeeper + On the Balcony: Observe how a meeting is going and assess whether it is progressing in a healthy way or if you have to intervene
  • Inviter + In the Kitchen: Assess who you should invite to an upcoming meeting
  • Space Creator + On the Stage: Compliment/appreciate the work done

Figure 3: Brainstorming Host Leadership roles+positions in a workshop

The idea is fully compatible with leadership being an organisational trait6, like Pervasive Leadership7, i.e. that leadership is something that everybody does, not just some appointed individuals. The idea of Host Leadership is not related to a specific organisational role. Being an attitude to work with people it could be, in fact, considered to be an implementation of pervasive leadership. When I discuss Host Leadership in my workshops, in fact, I often discuss how a programmer can be a host leader and how this concept is very much relevant for them too.

In the organisations where I introduced it I worked typically with ScrumMasters and Product Owners and the typical learnings they achieved were:

  • An awareness of how good leadership is contextual and requires flexibility
  • That there are several roles that can be used and several positions: this increases the amount of options available. In practice I noticed how knowing the concept helps stopping automatic reactions and supports a more “thought-out” approach to leadership
  • The position “on the balcony” is for many people a new way of thinking about their role: just watching and learning from what they observe.
  • In the model embedded there is the idea of a leader that starts something - the initiator – who, at the same time, is a co-implementer - the co-participator
  • It models well the necessity, as a gatekeeper, to set some boundaries to what the team, the organisation, the colleagues are doing: a servant leader is typically not allowed to do that

Overall in my experience this new metaphor for leadership is a very useful way to give an operative definition of leadership that promotes a collaborative approach in an organisation. The metaphor is generic enough to be understood by everybody and, at the same time, easy to apply to most scenarios we find in agile.

Where do we go from here?

In this article we have seen a new metaphor for being a leader, a rich and culturally strong metaphor that is very easy to apply in practice. By using it to reflect on what are your options you can discover different ways of acting and interacting with your colleagues, whatever your organisational position is.

To start using it effectively, the best way is to start “In the Kitchen” by using the roles + position matrix to find new options to deal with some difficult situations you might currently have. Look at the 24 combinations and find one or more actions you can take from those perspectives. Enjoy the richness of alternatives you are creating this way. Then choose what seems a good option and put it in practice.

Slowly you will learn to analyse a situation “live” using this matrix and react in the moment: congratulations, you’re a Host Leader now…

About the Author

Pierluigi Pugliese started hacking code so long ago that he cannot remember exactly when anymore. He worked many years in the mobile telecommunication business, both as programmer and as a team leader, providing software for several mobile phones of known brands. Currently he works as a consultant for software organisations and coach for individuals and teams, focusing on software development and software processes, helping them implementing sound and agile solutions. Pierluigi is based in Munich and operates through his company Connexxo as well as being co-founder of Agile Reloaded.


1 What is servant leadership

2 See these examples: Why servant leadership is a bad ideaProblems With the Servant Leadership ModelA Critical Review of Power within Servant Leadership 

3  Post-Heroic Leadership: Managing the Virtual Organization 

4 Hostleadership and their recently published book “Host

5 David Snowden proposes a similar way od working with complex adaptive systems in his ABIDE model

6 J. O’Toole - “When Leadership is an Organizational Trait” in “Business Leadership: A Jossey-Bass Reader”, Jossey-Bass, 2008, ISBN 978-0787988197

7 We Need No Less than Pervasive Leadership

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