The theme that kept coming up in all three of those conversations, and in my recent talk at Patti Digh’s Design Your Life Camp, was this:
We don’t need another hero. (Thank you, Tina Turner.) What we need instead are people who will serve as hosts.
This is not an original thought to me, but the more I learn about it, the more central it has become to the work that I do. (I learned it first from my teachers Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, and have become immersed in it in my work with The Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations that Matter.)
We have built too many of our models (in business, government, church, Hollywood, etc.) on the expectation that someone will show up as the hero to save us from the ills of the world, or that we have to show up as the hero for someone else. What that does is create environments where our heroes have too much power, we assume that the rest of us don’t have the capacity to impact real change, and we become complacent in the face of violence, destruction of the earth, racism, economic imbalance, etc.
Here’s what Meg Wheatley has to say about the difference between a hero and a host:
You’re acting as a hero when you believe that if you just work harder, you’ll fix things; that if you just get smarter or learn a new technique, you’ll be able to solve problems for others. You’re acting as a hero if you take on more and more projects and causes and have less time for relationships. You’re playing the hero if you believe that you can save the situation, the person, the world.
Hosting Leaders create substantive change by relying on everyone’s creativity, commitment, and generosity. They learn from firsthand experience that these qualities are present in just about everyone and in every organization. They extend sincere invitations, ask good questions, and have the courage to support risk-taking and experimentation.
The more I learn about what it means to serve as a host leader, the more I am determined to incorporate it into every part of my life. I am a host leader in the way that I teach at the university, inviting my students into their own creativity, innovation, and way of learning instead of trying to impose my ideas on them. I am a host leader in the way I lead retreats, starting always in circle, where we look into each other’s eyes, see the humanity there, and share our stories in a way that invites both vulnerability and strength to show up. I am a host leader in the way that I parent, creating a container for my children to grow into the best version of themselves, instead of trying to mould them into my view of what they should be. I am a host leader in the way I coach, asking meaningful questions that will reveal my clients’ deepest wisdom and truth.
How can we be more intentional about serving as host leaders? Here are some of the thoughts that have emerged from my many conversations with my teachers and fellow-learners on the subject:
- Start with curiosity. Leaders are usually taught to be decisive and knowledgeable, and to “never let them see you sweat”. That’s a hero model that closes the door to new things showing up and to other people bringing ideas and questions into the room. Instead, open the door to possibility by being curious. What is opening up? What is possible? What do people bring? What would happen if…?
- Host yourself first. Get clear on who you are and where you stand. Find the practices that help to ground you in your own truth and wisdom and that help you withstand the pressures of ego and “the way things have always been”. Inquire into your own stories, triggers, and fears first so that you are more prepared to host what shows up in the circle. (A practice like Mandala Discovery can help with that.)
- Be vulnerable. Admit what you don’t know. Admit that you need other people. Admit your failings. It may seem counterintuitive, but vulnerability is one of the greatest strengths of a leader. Vulnerability invites courage, growth, and meaningful relationships.
- Invite vulnerability in others. Create a space where it is safe to fail, to fall apart, to not know the answer, and to take risks. People will show up with all of who they are when they know that they are safe.
- Trust other people and invite them to bring their creativity, commitment, and wisdom. Every time I teach, I begin by saying “I am not the only person who brought wisdom into the room. Everyone of you brought wisdom, and it is my hope that at some point in this class, you will feel comfortable enough to share it.” Trust them and give them autonomy.
- Ask good questions that open up meaningful conversations. Good questions are invitational rather than assuming. They invite energy rather than trying to contain it. They serve like a garden hoe, loosening the soil so that the seeds can grow.
- Be an active and engaged listener. An effective host leader spends a lot of time in silence. That’s something that’s taken me a lot of time to learn as a leader/teacher/parent – that I am more effective when I am listening to other people than when I am trying to fill the space with the knowledge I feel compelled to offer people. An effective listener/host allows the people in the circle to get closer to their OWN wisdom and stories rather than trying to adopt someone else’s wisdom.
- Start with a “heart at peace” rather than a “heart at war” (from the book Anatomy of Peace). A heart at war sees others as objects to be overcome, colonized, monopolized, directed, changed, while a heart at peace sees the humanity in each person.
- Rearrange the chairs. Most of our classrooms, boardrooms, conferences rooms, etc., are set up in a way that honours the hero model, with the expert at the front of the room. As my circle teachers, Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea say, “change the chairs and you change the conversation.” Get people into circle and teach them that each person in that circle has some responsibility for holding the container and for honouring every other person in the room. There is no room for a hero leader in a circle.
If this is something you’d like to learn more about, I invite you to attend the upcoming Art of Hosting training that I’ll be co-hosting in Winnipeg in November. This is the kind of training that I wish everyone could take at some point in their life. The more of us who take it, the more the world will change.