Host Leader: the metaphor of the Leader as a Host

What is a Host Leader? What is the definition and meaning of Host Leader? The Host Leader is a model of Leadership based on the universal metaphor of the host that dates back to the dawn of time. Everybody has been a host, either for a dinner or a party. In addition, it is a custom that crosses all cultures and makes sense everywhere. At last, the power of all metaphors, is that they carry a great deal in just a few words.

Introducing the metaphor of the Host Leader

Traditional leadership puts the focus on stepping forward and acting. On the contrary, in another well-known metaphor about leadership, the Servant Leader, the main objective of the leader is to serve. Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of Servant Leadership states it as:

Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
Robert K. Greenleaf
The Host Leader is the right balance between the Hero Leader played when stepping forward and the Servant Leader played when stepping backward. The Host Leader plays both depending on the situation and the moment.

The Hero Leader steps forward, the Servant Leader steps backward and the Host Leaders does both depending on the situation and the moment. Moreover, the metaphor of the Servant Leader is usually not much appealing especially to traditional leaders.

Indeed, leadership is first about a relationship: between the leader and the others. Truly, a host without guest makes no sense. As a matter of fact, host and guests mutually co-define each other.

Host Leader: someone who engages fellow participants in a purposeful endeavor.
Host – Dr Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey

The 4 positions of the Host Leader

– In the spotlight: Being the focus of attention, out front, making things happen
– With the guests: Still out front, but being “one of the group”, not the center of attention
– In the gallery: Standing back, taking an overview of what’s happening
– In the kitchen: In a more private and intimate space, preparing and reflecting
Host – Dr Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey

The Host Leader has 4 positions: in the spotlight, with the guests, in the gallery, in the kitchen. And the Host Leader plays 6 roles: initiator, inviter, space creator, gatekeeper, connector and co-participator.

In the spotlight

Traditionally, this position is the common understanding of the leader. Surely, he/she is the one who is on the footlights, leading, inspiring and making things happen. To illustrate, the leader will be typically in this position when delivering a presentation for instance to kick off an initiative or in turmoil when the team needs support. An other example may be when the leader facilitates a workshop or a discussion.

With the guests

Here the Host Leader is just part of the group and blend informally with the team members. Truly, it is a bounding and listening position. So the leader gains legitimacy with the team and can identify opportunities and learn the reality of the field. In addition, it is also precious to get the feedback from those who do not speak up spontaneously in team meeting.

For example, the Host Leader plays this position on the following situations:

  • Attending a meeting or a presentation as a contributor with other team members
  • Share lunch or a coffee with some team members

In the gallery

This position is a first level of step back. Indeed, the Host Leader intentionally shifts his or her view on the team and the work environment to identify non obvious concerns or solutions and support creativity.

To illustrate, the leader is in this position when:

  • Taking a step back from day to day activity
  • Reviewing the big picture on the situation and related issues, challenges or trends

In the kitchen

This last position is the most stepped back one. Undoubtedly, the kitchen is the most private area. Indeed, the Host Leader is alone or with a small group and only by invitation.

Therefore, in this position, the leader reflects, prepares including collecting wise advice from experts or senior team members and plans. Truly it is the position of thinking, learning from experiences and preparing for the future. At last, it is also a time for the leader to regenerate.

Furthermore, this position may involve a coach, a mentor or a peer group to learn from others. But to play this position, the Host Leader should save time in his diary despite the pressure of public activities.

For example, the leader plays this position when:

  • Taking time to reflect with a learning journal or exchanging with a mentor or a coach,
  • Reflecting in retreat or during the opportunity of a trip,
  • Leveraging mindfulness methods to take a breath from hectic day pace.

The 6 roles of the Host Leader

1) Initiator: the Initiator role is about getting things moving in a useful, productive and necessary direction.
2) Inviter: the inviter role is making the invitation with soft power in a smart way, so it is acknowledging, attractive and clearly optional.
3) Space creator: the space creator role steps forward proactively to create a useful space, then steps backward to hold the space, adjust it, reinvigorate it or even change it completely.
4) Gatekeeper: the gatekeeper role starts with welcoming newcomers across the threshold. Then builds an appropriate sense of identity and integrity for discovery and creation. At last, makes explicit and enforces rules and safety.
5) Connector: the connector role builds connections with and between people, links people and ideas and knows when to leave them to get on with it.
6) Co-Participator: the co-participator initiates, provides and joins in along with everyone.
Host – Dr Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey (some sentences have been reformulated to come with a short summary for each role)


This role is about getting things started then making sure that they keep moving in the right direction. Actually, the Host Leader goes trough 3 steps to initiate:

  • Notice what is needed to shape the call for action,
  • Get things started,
  • Inspect and adapt during this early step based on what happens.

In coaching, we are quite aware of the first small steps to engage people in action. Therefore in this role, the leader focuses on identifying:

  • Actions to do in the very short term like today or in the week,
  • Tasks to deliver without the need of external contributions.

Furthermore, the Host Leader responds to what happens: a first small action makes things in motion, then other things happen, they make it possible to take other small actions.


This role is about inviting people to join the adventure. But there is a good way to invite, so it is a real invitation and it is inspiring and engaging. Indeed, it is only when people honestly accept an invitation that they are truly engaged and fully part of the adventure. Of course, the Host Leader elaborates on the quality of the relationship he or she has built previously with the person.

Therefore the leader has to think invitationally and consider acceptance of the invitation as a gift not as a given as part of the employment contract. As a consequence, the Host Leader uses soft power and influence. In addition he or she follows the steps of a proper invitation: acknowledgement, attraction and choice.


First, how does the leader make explicit what he or she values in the person to invite? Really, the key about acknowledgement is to highlight the quality of the person to invite. In other words, what are the reasons the leader is willing to invite the person and be part of the adventure: their qualities, skills and strengths.


Second, what is the leader inviting to? Definitively, the invitation should be appealing: what is the project intention, purpose and objectives? What is the vision and the value that is at stake?


Third, there should be a choice and the possibility to say no. As a matter of fact, if no is not an option, it is not a choice, it is an order. And this will destroy engagement.

Invitational language, soft language and inclusive language,

To deliver invitation, the Host Leader uses the invitational language to have people consider possibilities. To start, it comes with a question that invites by nature with an answer. On the contrary, a person can only accept or challenge a statement. Soft language makes the expression of the invitation moving a little bit further from the statement. It is another way to keep the choice wide open. Some examples of softeners:

– I wonder if. . . (and you can help me decide)
– There is a slight problem with. . . (not a big problem, so we can look into dealing with it
together rather than looking for blame)
– Maybe we should do this. . . (and again you are encouraged to give me your thoughts)
– This might be a good strategy. . . (and again it might not, so please say what you think)
Host – Dr Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey

Furthermore, the invitation uses the inclusive language. Using “we” from the very start stresses that it is a join adventure, something that the Host Leader and the invitee will build and develop together. On the contrary, using “you” may implies that the invitation is to push a problem to the person.

As a consequence, the positive conversation between the leader and the invitee generates more ideas and builds engagement.

At last, as the invitation comes with responsibility and commitment, the leader should allow the invitee for some thinking time to consider the invitation and what is in it for them. But when the answer comes after this delay, the invitee will be committed with heart.

Space Creator

This role is to design and build the relevant space with regard to the intent. In point of fact, the space has to propose areas to support both interaction and reflection times.

In addition, the Host Leader should consider the level of safety of the space, still based on the objective. Indeed, if the space is not safe enough, people may feel uncomfortable, nervous and defensive. Truly this is an issue for openness and creativity. On the contrary, if the space is too safe, people may feel over-relaxed and lack involvement.

Once the space is initially set, the leader allows the group to use it, and if they want, to rearrange it. Nevertheless, the leader makes sure that the space continues to support what happens.


This role is one that is most associated with the host around the world.

  • First the gatekeeper welcomes the newcomers across the threshold.
  • Second, he or she build a sense of belonging and shares the rules of the event.
  • Third, the gatekeeper enforces the rules and makes sure that safety is met all the time.
  • At last, in some extreme cases he or she may ask a guest to leave when not complying with the rules or jeopardizing the safety. If this happens, the Host Leader has to make sure to do it the most constructive way possible.

The threshold

Having a threshold means that some people are inside and other outside this boundary. In addition, the authors of Host name the group inside the boundary a container. Then, the boundary has 3 consequences:

  • First the leader has to work across the boundaries either vertical, horizontal or geographic when there is a need for contributions to achieve the objective. This is what the authors refer to as boundary-spanning leadership.
  • Second, the leader may have to adjust the boundaries and related container. Really, if the container is too big with too many people or too weak with too little link between members things are unmanageable. On the contrary, if the container is too small or too strong with too much link then it is static and non-creative. As a consequence, the leader may increase or decrease the size and strength of the container to achieve the proper configuration to achieve the objective.
  • Third, the leader may have to create a temporary and smaller container and a more focused group to address a specific topic.

At last, another consequence of the threshold is that some people will not be granted entry. Truly, here comes a sensitive topic. How to say no a constructive way?

Positive No

Thus the authors introduce the positive “No”. Actually, a positive “No” preserves the relationship at the same time that it makes it possible to address the problem right now. We can summaries it with “Yes! No. Yes?”

  • First, the leader acknowledges what the person shows either the interest, the enthusiasm or the proposed contribution.
  • Second, the leader gives a clear and matter of fact “No” with proper rational.
  • To finish, the leader proposes to the person alternative options either in action or role. Really, this last step offers another way for the relationship to continue as there may be many other opportunities to leverage the skills and the energy of this person.


This role is about building connection with people, between people and between people and ideas. In addition, the Host Leader knows when to step back and leave the group play by itself.

The 3 levels of connection

Level 1: Connecting with others (understanding people)

The Host Leader listens actively and acknowledges what people say by showing empathy and demonstrating understanding. This is the path to learn from the group.

Level 2: Connecting others (connecting people and ideas)

The Host Leader is a kind of social butterfly. Indeed, he or she connects the right people between each other and the right people to the right ideas. Surely, he or she leverages their knowledge of the group to create valuable connections with the intent of the group in mind. Then, the Host Leader takes a step back by either physically leaving, or staying quiet. He or she lets the group work just supporting them if needed.

Level 3: Everything is connected (wise connectedness)

The last step is assisting the group as a system for more connection, sharing and emerging value. The book stresses the following principles.

If I give you something:
– you are more likely to give me something,
– our relationship is more valuable, not less,
– like knowledge, love, care, interest, then we both have more of it.
Host – Dr Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey


The last role is about co-participating and joining in the group. Nevertheless, the Host Leader still looks around to make sure all proceeds accordingly and to meet needs if any.

Truly, co-participating builds the relationship between the Host Leader and the group as he or she can talk with people at all levels. In addition, it strengthens the credibility of the Host Leader. Furthermore as this approach roots in humility, people feel that the leader values them as people and for their contribution. As a consequence, people deeply engage and the leader knows what is going on.

What’s next? Learn more about Coaching and discover Change Management

Do you want to learn more about Host Leadership? Here are some valuable references

  • Host, the book from the inventors of the Host Leadership, Dr Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey
  • The website of the authors.
  • An quick presentation about the Servant Leader.

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