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Leadership? The Future of Leading…the art of hosting

August 13, 2013

Is it possible to lead and be led at the same time? Might the leader be the quietest person in the room; invisible, even?  What happens when there are no pre-agreed rules of engagement amongst those that you are leading? Does chaos or harmony ensue?

This guest blog has been written for ‘The Nature of Business’ by

James Allen of Sustainability Lab in

A lot is being written about new kinds of leaders and new ways of leading and I would like to share with you my experience drawn from the Art of Hosting (AoH) network, which I joined after participating in one of their ‘encounters’ here in Brazil. As many organizations are grappling with establishing less hierarchical management structures, the AoH approach suggests that it is those leaders who are able to listen to and draw upon different perspectives, and to strengthen connections between people and organizations through dialogue that will be able to bring out the best in those whom they are leading.

leonardo 2

Brazil’s 14th AoH get-together was a five-day long meeting, set in beautiful woodlands not far from Sao Paulo in early 2013. It is called an ‘encounter’, rather than a course, because learning takes place through active participation in a sequence of workshops that draw on different group dynamics, such as World Café and Collective Story Harvesting. Participants are encouraged to take the reins and lead different exercises, with the aim of drawing on and harvesting collective intelligence, ie the knowledge and wisdom of the whole group, rather than a chain of individual perspectives.

In this way, participants act as volunteer facilitators, responsible for leading each session, with the aim of ‘hosting and harvesting meaningful conversations’. For a conversation to be meaningful, participants must seek to listen actively and speak with intent. As such, the starting point is the individual’s relationship with herself. Silence and meditation techniques form part of the AoH toolkit, since the ability to listen well, both to yourself and to others, is a sine qua non of good leadership.AofH1

The relationship between the individual and the other within the group is first established through the most ancient form of dialogue, the circle. In the center of the circle, rather than a fire, is the group’s ‘purpose’, the issue or question that the collective is burning to address. Much time is spent on the wording and structure of that question so that the conversations and debates that follow are coherent and meaningful. Here the host plays an important role in helping to shape a powerful question, one that is both inspirational and practical.

What often follows in many of the participatory technologies shared in AoH are break-out groups of between four and six people. A group with that number of participants is large enough and sufficiently diverse to draw on a multitude of perspectives, without being so big that it becomes unwieldy. It is a model that reflects what is happening in many leading companies where self-organizing pods or cells are formed in order to deliver specific processes or results: Google (“…projects always start with a small group of people that make traction” – Larry Page) and Kyocera’s Amoeba management system are two such examples.


Disagreement within these groups is seen as healthy, indeed is actively encouraged. As management guru Peter Drucker is quoted as saying, the best decisions are based “on the clash of conflicting views, the dialogue between different points of view, the choice between different judgments. The first rule in decision-making is that one does not make a decision unless there is disagreement”. In fact, conclusions and good decisions (‘convergence’) can and should only occur after ‘divergence’ or discordance, where doubts are addressed through pertinent questioning. A good host knows how to needle and question, and embraces difference as part of a collective decision making process.

As such, to lead in this context means to accept the chaos that arises when different people bring their opinions to the table. At its purest form, a collective decision making process can be almost anarchic, in which the group or groups organize themselves and people fit in and contribute in the way they best see fit. Physicist David Bohm’s Theory of Dialogue proposes that a meaningful dialogue of enquiry should have no rules, no agenda and the participants should not be chosen but should put themselves forward. Many of these ideas permeate the AoH encounters: the ‘Law of Two Feet’ for example says that if ‘at any moment during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet and go somewhere else’.

This approach to learning – free, open, self-run – can be wonderfully enriching, but also unnerving. Participants must accept a new way of learning that involves observing, experiencing, embracing difference and acknowledging mistakes. In this way, the AoH encounter also represents an emotional journey where anxieties can rise to the surface. In our group, a number of participants – perhaps half a dozen, mainly those working at larger corporations – had come with their own expectations of what they would take away, and by the half-way stage of the week-long encounter, began to question these precepts: “where was the manual?”, they asked; “why hadn´t the information been systematized?”. At one stage, these anxieties threatened to boil over into outright revolt. But on this occasion, our hosts stood firm, recognizing and accepting these concerns, but not veering from their vision that it was up to each participant to contribute and to take from the encounter what they would.

feedback nature 3

It is here that the art of leadership really comes in to play, as the host perseveres through those periods of chaos that certain participatory methodologies such as Open Space have built into their DNA. In these moments an effective leader will seek to operate in the background as much as possible, an almost invisible actor whose presence does not influence the way the group choses to operate; but she must be paying complete attention at all times, observing not just what is said, but what is done and how it is done – sensing the group’s energy. It is up to her to know when she must play the role of the chalice bearer, embracing, soothing and calming, and when is the time to intervene as the blade-wielding warrior, nudging, cajoling and, above all, questioning in order that the group might move forward.

Successful leaders are therefore those that are able to harness and catalyze collective knowledge and different talents around a shared purpose, weaving solutions that recognize and value the voices and opinions of the individual and of the collective. Where, previously, we were schooled in Isaac Newton’s mantra that it was possible to find singular answers to our problems through objective analysis, now we must accept a more nuanced (or Quantic) view of the world, which accepts that there is no one single, objective ‘solution’ or answer and that the observer herself influences the response as a direct result of her expectations or intentions.

Alkíndar de Oliveira, a Brazilian specialist in communication theory, captures it thus:

In linear thinking, competition was the only rule. Leaders from the same company would compete among one another as a show of superiority… But in systemic thought, the rule is: we use dialogue so that both the leaders and the led specialize in collaborating with one another. When services are carried out based on competition, it may be possible to achieve good results in the short term. But if we think about the long-term, collaboration will always offer a better alternative since, among other advantages, it will ensure that company staff do not try to obstruct [what has been agreed].

Not only does greater collaboration lead to greater buy-in, it can also result in better decision making; better, even, than the most adept individual in the group. This is the principle argument that threads through ‘the Wisdom of Crowds’ a 2004 book by New Yorker journalist, James Surowiecki. For the group to make a successful decision, argues Surowiecki, certain conditions must be met, including diversity, to ensure a range of different opinions (the divergence – convergence axis mentioned earlier); decentralization, to ensure that no one person dominates the decision making process and that people bring their own know-how to the table (the power and effectiveness of smaller groups); and the skill and techniques to summarize the different opinions into a collective view (the art of harvesting).

windmill 3

Here, again, the leader-cum-host has an important role to play: ensuring that the collective intelligence is organized in a way that it can subsequently be shared and utilized. There are many examples of harvesting techniques, including a number that use pictorial and visual forms. Successful harvesting happens on the back of meaningful conversations that are then synthesized to their purest form so that the key messages come through and really carry a punch. And the quality of a dialogue is only as good as the information that is systematized as a result, as it is this harvest that leads the group towards its collective future: “if the group is an art form of the future, then convening groups is an artistry we must cultivate to fully harvest the promise of the future.” (Jacob Needleman, Centered on the Edge).

How, then, might we describe the qualities of this new leader in the context of a chaordic world, in which power is shared and distributed among different members of the group? To embrace the chaos, a leader needs to be grounded and calm; to battle inertia, she needs to have clarity of purpose and direction; he must trust in the group and its ability to find its own solutions, while also questioning and prodding in order to work towards the essence of what needs to be addressed; she needs to be invisible, never imposing, but also present, and always listening.

wales sea and sunset

At the end of the 2007 AoH meet in Brazil, the group of participants drew up the following collective reflection:

We are the system

We are the system

the system is not outside of us

it is our own broken relationships

that need to be cured

my relationship with myself, with life,

with this earth, with others,

with my work, with the world.

This is how systemic change happens.

I am the needs of the world

we are the system

we are the solution.

Significant conversations and space for

real learning cure our relationships.

We are all invited to live and work from the heart…

From disrespect to respect –

from “I know better” to  curiosity –

from judging to understanding one another –

from machine to living system –

from fear to love.

This is what we now must host among one another.

This is part of the work of anyone

who wants to help the world.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2013 5:13 pm

    A wonderful assortment of Wisdom. Thanks James and Giles for sharing.

  2. August 19, 2013 6:22 am

    Beautiful synopsis of AoH James, and thanks for posting Giles! Have bookmarked this for future reference ; )

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