A case for host leadership

If organisations want great performance, their people are the solution. Research consistently shows that improved performance comes from increased engagement with the people doing the work (see for example Gallup, 2012Harter, Schmidt, and Hayes, 2007Nahrgang, J, Morgeson F. & Hofman, 2011). The benefits are across the board – productivity, safety, retention, customer satisfaction and even profitability – ranging from 10% to 50% depending on the outcome variable. Unfortunately, these studies also show that it is primarily people in leadership positions that are engaged, while the biggest proportion of people at work are not engaged, and some are even disengaged.

Traditionally, however, leaders have not been taught or positioned for engagement. Instead, mainstream approaches to leadership advocate that leaders are supposed to instill order, take control, and create predictability by assuming the role of ‘the heroic leader’. Followers, on the other hand, are told to be just that – followers. They are schooled into compliance, signing on procedures, swearing their commitment to cultural values and behavioural charters, given performance reviews, and exposed to other attempts to keep performance, values and creativity within prescribed boundaries.

This heroic leadership is thought to be achievable through charisma, strong will, expertise, a compelling vision of the future, or similarly an embodiment of that which an organisation bets on will take them into the future. Some leadership approaches suggest the use of intrinsic motivation and other ‘soft skills’, others advocate a strong and visible role with ‘clear lines of accountability’. They all have in common that they configure leaders as leaders and follower as followers.

To be fair, this leader-centric approach used to work, or still works to some degree, which is probably why it is still so pervasive. In settings where you did not want people to think, but rather to robotically enact plans, that heroic role was necessary to create or sustain that type of followership, for example, in a conveyor belt manufacturing setting. However, while this leader-follower relationship may produce some benefits in terms of control and predictability, it also creates a range of problematic side effects. This is neatly summarised by retired submarine captain David Marquet who says ‘if you treat people like followers, they will behave like followers’. Or in the words of the father of shared space traffic solution Hans Monderman “if you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots”. This is why best practice, standardised work methods, solutions and programs imported from other organisations or external expertise threaten great performance. Because, in the process of leaders imposing solutions (albeit with the best of intent):

  • frontline employees are not engaged when solutions are provided to them;
  • people’s contributions, creativity, care, capacity for detection and innovation are disregarded and disrespected;
  • those who implement solutions are empowered and engaged;
  • the intended recipients are more likely to become recognised for their deficiencies, problems, and unwillingness to take up the well-meant help/solution; and
  • people start to think that change is only going to come with the right expertise, the right knowledge, and the right money needs to come from the outside to rescue them. (List loosely adapted from and inspired by Cormac Russel’s TED talk on the unintended harms of help)

Every solution and rule that is introduced comes with a subtext that people’s experience, knowledge and brains are not needed. As a result, more and more employees are pretty dead from the neck up while at work. And when a (heroic) leader sees that, their instinct may be to apply more pressure, use more fear, put up bigger posters with better slogans, create incentive programs, and take disciplinary measures to ‘win’ the ‘hearts and minds’. This of course only serves to drive people further away, to further disengage their capacity and potential.

If an organisation really wants discretionary effort, better learning, improved performance, more care and responsibility, more creativity, more adaptive solutions, better feedback about what works and not, we need to stop putting our hope in the heroic leaders. To engage, to unleash more of the intellectual capital and human potential for improved performance for responsibility and leadership, organisations need to shift the the role of leaders to be one of leaders as ‘host’ who enables people to be leaders themselves. This is particularly needed in any organisation that works in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments, where surprises and adaptive challenges are plenty. But also anywhere where an organisation wants their people to thrive.

Seeing and being a leader as host, means that the emphasis shifts from it being all up to the leader (no matter how well intended), to how leaders/hosts can find ways to engage people to contribute to the workplace. This is not a warm and fuzzy approach to make people feel good, but a realisation that people are needed to make the workplace a success, about tapping into their knowledge and intellectual capacity, capacity for detection and innovation, for making a difference. If people are not joined into the work, it is always going to be an uphill battle to achieve great performance.

Jono Brent, CEO of Connetics – a Christchurch based electrical contracting company – shared with me how he and his team have put host leadership into practice and the outcomes it produces. As a starting point, the host leader does not have all the answers, and they don’t need to have the answers. But faced with a challenge, an issue, and desire to improve performance, the host leader is likely to ask: who cares about this? This shifts the role of the leader to one of facilitating solutions amongst the people who have a vested interest in the issue, rather than the leader trying to be the solution or impose their solution (being the hero). The solution that comes out of such a temporary collaborative group, may work well, or not. If it works well, all is good, everyone is happy. But if it does not, the people who were engaged to co-generate a solution, still have accountability, vested interested, are committed to making it work and are likely to try again.In either case, the host leader allows the organisation to move towards improved performance while engaging and realising people’s intellectual capacity in the process, with a higher likelihood of ownership no matter the outcome.

Connetics have discovered that whoever facilitates a working group quickly turns into an informal leader, which may upset formal reporting lines. Hence it is hugely beneficial to make sure that the host leadership capacity is built into every leadership position and not only have a few host leaders in the organisation. Ultimately, host leaders enable other people to be leaders in the workplace. Or put similarly, leadership works better when it is distributed and seen as a collaborative process, rather than as the trait of individual leaders.


Concluding thoughts

The biggest threat to great performance is not the non-compliant worker. Instead, the risk lies in our belief in uniformity, discipline and external expertise. The challenge is not how we can create stronger leaders, or better followers. As long as we keep celebrating a few heroic leaders while marginalising a big proportion of people at work, performance will be sub-par. Seeing and being leaders as hosts, allows organisations to unleash more of their collective capacity to create the future they all would like to see.


Sources of inspiration:

Mark McKergow & Helen Bailey (2014). Host. Six new roles of engagement.

David Marquet (2013). Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders.

Otto Scharmer (2013). Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies.


  1. Tony Cartwright Reply

    Great article Daniel. Just wasn’t sure where you were going with intrinsic motivation or other soft skills?? Aren’t these approaches necessary to develop ‘hosts’? Doesn’t intrinsic motivation only flourish when people are provided with autonomy, allowed to develop mastery and enabled to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves (Dweck, Pink, et al.)? Wouldn’t leaders/hosts require well-developed soft or social skills to develop themselves and their teams?

  2. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

    Hi Tony,

    Thanks for your comment and question! When presenting these thoughts a frequent comment from leaders is that ‘we already do this’ They examplify this with the use of questions to get people to realise right/wrong/what’s important (such a manipulative type of curiosity), to be present on site, or the use of explanations of where the business is heading to instill faith and hope people, patience with low performers. All relatively soft skills. However, it’s still heroic attempts – it still configures followers as followers (relatively helpless, in need of instruction and control, and without outside guidance would not amount to much). The heroic leadership is based on the idea that leadership is something that resides in a few select people. Host leadership instead allows leadership to emerge in other people, and between people (as a process). As you point out, soft skills are quite likely to help that process but does not define it.


  3. Sam Morrison Reply

    Such a timely article, I have a sweaty palm conversation on the horizon with senior management and this article touches on some key points I need to introduce to the team.

  4. David van Valkenburg Reply

    Great post Daniel! And you are quoting David Marquet who has transformed his submarine from a leader-follower model to a leader-leader model; exactly the transition that you are describing. And numerous links are present in your article to the findings of the Corporate Rebels; check put their 8 trends at https://corporate-rebels.com/the-8-habits/

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      David, thanks for highlighting/reminding of the link. I’d be keen to hear more on what the uptake is of the Corporate Rebel’s approach for company wide implementation, or even individual, and what happens in those organisations.

  5. David Christenson Reply

    Thank you for this very insightful article. Relational and Appreciative Leadership have also been advocating this shift described here as moving from hero to host leader. Your article helps people with ideas on how after the logic of why is firmly in place. Strong work sir!

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      Thanks Dave! There are many steps to be explored. This is just the starting point. Of a particular interest for me is what drives leaders from heroic to start practicing host leadership.

  6. Emma Reply

    Hi Daniel,

    Great article. Do you have any examples or case studies of this being translated to small business or the agriculture industry in Australia?

  7. Rob Robson Reply

    Thank you for your perspectives on this important question Daniel. As I struggled to become a more effective conflict engagement practitioner and mediator in healthcare disputes over the past 25 years I gradually learned that the qualities that helped me improve were almost entirely identical to the characteristics of a good improv comic AND (this is the spectacular part) the qualities of an effective leader of large and small social organizations that are complex adaptive systems. Quite a bit written about this in the CAS literature as well as in the narrative mediation literature.

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