Mark McKergow's publication on host leadership in 2009 provided a powerful new (yet ancient) metaphor for understanding the leadership that is needed for work in complex living systems. Alongside Helen Bailey he is soon to publish a new book on the topic called "Host". This blog seeks to underline why this work is such an enormous gift to the public sector and an important part of a global movement towards leadership based on increased consciousness and connection. The references to different host leader roles are taken from this terrific new publication.

Host leadership is a dance based on awareness of the current moment and the future yearned for, rather than a set of competencies to be acquired. It is practical, accessible and attainable.

In the role of initiator the leader provides a call to action based on a powerful intention while maintaining awareness of what’s needed now, through continuous listening and a focus on what is already going well. In this way they are well placed to model the values of public service, celebrating the privilege of being in a place to care, while building and aligning energy towards shared goals.

From a position in the (metaphorical) gallery, the leader is able to support a culture of reflection and inquiry. In the NHS it is possible to see an association with the amount of time people spend reflecting on aims and practices and crucial outcomes, including patient mortality. Host leadership provides a welcome counterbalance to the mindless drive to do more with less with a call to “Don't just do something, stand there!” with awareness.

I have witnessed many public sector staff reporting feeling unheard, and devalued. Rather than being offered the autonomy that we know promotes high morale and effectiveness they are too often given targets that appear to have only a tenuous connection to the outcomes they know users seek. In contrast the host leader invites creativity and autonomy. I loved the idea of inviting people into a project by “clearing a space before them”, perhaps with a question. “What could you do here, with the gifts you bring?”. Being grateful for those gifts and creating a sense of the “we” and “us” in this noble cause is crucial. I have hosted spaces in hard pressed public services where talented senior people have literally wept bitter tears simply because no one has thought to say “thank you” for any of the efforts they have made. (I have recently blogged on the dilemma that witnessing this pain raises and some of the potential resolutions that have come to me. Click here for more information)

Host leadership brings in the deeply intertwined roles of Space Creator and Gatekeeper. One prevalent problems of team design currently is that in order to cut costs teams expand beyond the size that social psychology would suggest is optimal for complex decision making (7-9) so that they become dysfunctional and wasteful. The host leader consciously adjusts the size and strength of the container to best undertake the work, often by reducing size and building strength through focus, alignment, passion and improved communication.

Host leadership also illuminates the need to balance building cohesive teams with boundary spanning: linking to other teams and other parts of the organisation. It has long been recognised that inter-team working may be more important than intra-team working in improving the user/patient experience.

Public sector team working is also riddled with tradition and ritual, including for example concerning the role of medics in leading discussions and making decisions. Host leadership highlights the importance of knowing when to observe such rituals and traditional group boundaries and also when to consciously introduce new energy and ideas by deliberately abandoning or changing practices and bringing in new voices, perhaps from users and community members.

As a connector the host leader “meets people in their resources”, being appreciative, modelling openness and interest - rather than working egotistically to be merely interesting. As a coparticipant they are walking in the shoes of users/patients and staff, including (and topically) eating the food they eat with them. They are visible and involved, being able to ask the right questions rather than always coming up with the answers. They embody the ethos of public service by always being seen to serve others before they serve themselves. These are the sorts of values that brought people in public service in the first place and which leading improvement agencies (such as the Institute of Healthcare Improvement) suggest should be the basis of strategic development for improvement. By giving space for people to act in accord with a higher purpose host leadership also encompasses that wider connection with all that is, and that was celebrated through the Greek god Eros. Rather than being merely concerned with the sexual, Eros was the oldest and the newest of all the gods being the god of endless rebirth and renewal through radical interconnectedness with all including wild nature and mother earth. This brings me to what I feel is perhaps the biggest contribution of host leadership: it offers a practical way of engaging with whole living systems (the domain of complexity theory, complex adaptive systems, chaos theory, etc).

In their “Users Guide to the Future”, Mark and Helen highlight the folly of the “business planner” who is overconcerned with what they call “ant country”: that hinterland between the immediate future of the next small step and the more distant yearned for vision. This hinterland is exactly the space that many public sector staff are required to focus through performance targets and short term strategies (commensurate the short term tenure of many of the managers who develop them). Instead Host Leadership invites us to maintain a dual focus (a) on the next small, easy to execute, low risk action that requires little or no permission and that reaps immediate feedback and learning and (b) the hopes, dreams and intentions that give meaning and purpose to the whole enterprise. This is exactly the practical, cost-effective, morale building, and people-valuing shift in focus that the public sector needs right now.



McKergow, M., W. (2009). Leader as Host, Host as Leader: Towards a new yet ancient metaphor. International Journal for Leadership in Public Services, 5(1), 19-24.

McKergow, M. & Bailey, H. (2014) Host: Six new roles of engagement for teams, organisations, communities and movements. London: Solutions Books.

Why the public sector needs to deepen to the possibility of host leadership now

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