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Mark McKergow

Host: Six new rules of engagement


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What is host leadership?

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A host is someone who receives or entertains guests. This is a position with which we are all familiar, at some level. Think about your experience of hosting people in your home or at a celebration. Hosts sometimes have to act heroically – stepping forward, planning, inviting, introducing, providing. They also act in service: stepping back, encouraging, giving space, joining in. The good host can be seen moving effortlessly between them. Hosting has ancient roots and is found across all cultures. We all know good hosting (and good “guesting”) at an instinctive gut level.

The art of leading was never easy – and it seems to be getting harder all the time. Communication is faster, connection is greater, markets are global, and whatever action we take is part of a great onrushing whirl of conversation and innovation.

In this world, what does it mean to lead? People can get all the information they need (apparently from whatever perspective they want) at the touch of a button. They can interact with whomever they want. So, the classical view of a leader as someone who simply issues information and direction is obsolete.

As a leader, are you going to step forward, or step back?

You’re probably thinking that the answer is obvious – leaders step forward! Yes, of course they do – sometimes. The idea of such heroic leadership qualities is thousands of years old. Surely leaders go first, need to be brave, need to build confidence in taking people into the unknown and uncertain future.

Looking at how leadership is developing in the twenty-first century, we are noticing a growing idea that leaders also step back sometimes. This needs a different mindset, changing the way we think about the role of the leader from the hero to the engager. There are many reasons for this shift – not least the pace of change, the growth in interconnection and moves towards a knowledge economy, where putting ideas into practice is more important than doing up the same bolt on a machine for thirty years.

Modern leaders need to engage others, to encourage them to step forward and act – otherwise, the leader can end up pulling everyone else along, trying to have all the answers and exhausting him/herself in the process.

For some people, stepping back is quite a new idea. We find other leaders who are keen to step back – though they may try it and then struggle with what to do next. Many can’t resist the temptation to revert to action and trying to do everything once again.

Therefore, the leader as host is a powerful idea. We all, at some level, know what a host does. We have all invited people around for a meal or a party. We have all been through the balance of preparation and engagement, the joy of introducing people to new friends, the balance of leading, organizing and participating. And we have all been guests too, experiencing the skill of a good host (and perhaps the clumsiness of a bad one) first hand.

Hosts don’t just engage people by drawing them in. They introduce people to each other, make connections and act positively to bring together synergistic groups – people who can complement and add to each other’s qualities, skills and interests. The art of arranging – whom to put with whom, what might make an interesting group, even thinking about keeping specific participants apart – is a key element of the host’s skill.

Having drawn people together, a good host won’t dominate the situation. He/she will flit from one section to another, with a word here and a touch there, keeping an all-encompassing eye on how things are going. But the host won’t hog the limelight or become tiresome by constantly taking center stage. The host is always on the lookout for when to intervene and when to leave things ticking along – when to step forward and when to step back. The role of the host transcends and includes both. It entails awareness and timing – and acting instantly.

Many people around the world have commented to us that, while the notion of being a leader seems like a very big stretch for them, thinking of themselves as a host is much easier. This gives us a way in to what can be a very sophisticated and flexible leadership position.

Host leadership is a way to take a leading position, in a way that draws others in, in a natural way. The details of how you do it will depend on your own culture, your own contexts and your own preferences.

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Mark McKergow


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