We have a culture in which heroic figures are revered as aspirational paradigms of success, and our approach to leadership is shaped by this idea of the ‘hero’ leader. The hero leader is smarter, more knowledgeable, braver, more committed than everyone else. They arrive at the last minute to spectacularly save the day, often brushing aside their underlings and their efforts in the process. It’s just as easy to see the harm done by this heroic style of leadership as it is to see the obvious benefits. As valuable as it is to work with someone whom one can look up to and put faith in, sweeping in to ‘rescue’ the team effectively turns the team into ‘rescued people.’ Their role is then to revolve around the competence of their leader like limbs: deferring, doing as told… not asking too many questions.

Over the years various thinkers have put forward alternative ideas to that of the hero paradigm. One recent addition is the metaphor of the ‘host.’ The role of the host is rather complex; taking responsibility for their guests while also serving them, hosts are effectively ‘both above and below;’ they shape and direct while also facilitating and stepping back.

Thinking of leadership in terms of stepping forward and back is a useful way of understanding the host metaphor. It’s easy to see leadership as being defined by stepping forward; taking initiative, getting things moving, being in the spotlight. It can be counter-intuitive to step out of that spotlight and see what happens, but being a host doesn’t require you to stop doing these things altogether: the real requirement is for balance.

Consider the ways in which you can step forward and back as a leader. An example of the high-presence, high-control, ‘hero’ style of leadership in the context of a team meeting would be to set the agenda, chair the meeting from the head of the table and open with your number one priority. By contrast, a leader who functions at least in part as a ‘host’ might be inclined to ask what people want to talk about in order to inform the agenda, rotate the chairing around a round table and start by inviting everyone to mention something they’ve made progress on, to get everyone’s voice in the room.

A very passive leader can be seen as highly facilitative, but their apparent reluctance to take control can just as easily be seen as feeble. To lead as a host you must balance the level of control and direction in your leadership against the extent to which you enable your team and promote the success of others. Building relationships in any area of life is rather like a dance: if you step forward all the time, you’ll be doing all the work and cramping your partner’s style. If you step back all the time, others will feel like they’re doing all the work.

Getting the balancing act right is critically important, and stepping back in the right situations can be extremely powerful. Not only does it allow others the space to step forward, pick things up and act under their own initiative, it also allows you to see what kind of impact you’re having and how others are responding, as well as giving you a chance to consider what should happen next and to prepare to step forward again. A true host acts on their evaluation of the situation and is willing to adapt and adjust, identifying when to take control and when to let others step up.

The first step toward becoming more of a host leader is pretty obvious: start imagining your team as your guests. Look at the space you’re working in, at how you both create a safe place and provide what’s needed by your team, at how you invite people into the conversation. Make it more about them than about yourself.


By Dr Mark McKergow, co-author of Host: Six new rules roles of engagement for teams, organisations, communities and movements