The six roles of engagement

The metaphor of host as leader, and leader as host, is both practical and transformational. It is practical in that the skills, tools and ideas involved can help us build engagement with people – with individuals and teams at group level, at organizational level (including both corporate and public bodies), and at the wider levels of communities and movements. And it is transformational because, simply by thinking about the leader as a host, we have already opened the door to a rich and wonderful world of awareness, flexibility and history.

We are moving the notion of leadership and engagement from an approach that involves rules to one that involves roles. A role is something you do – at the appropriate time. In the terms of hosting, roles are ways of acting and behaving in a social situation. A role is something we slip into and out of all the time – like parent, friend, badminton player. It’s nothing to do with acting (like a stage performer). Here, it is about changing our awareness and focus, from day to day, hour to hour, even moment to moment. Now, here’s the thing: as a host, we already know how to take on different roles at different times, how to shift from one role to another. We even know when to make the shifts, when to step forward and when to step back again.

The notion of six roles of a Host Leader enables us to rapidly build awareness of a wide range of possibilities for action. We can also tap into our inherent knowledge of the dance of the host – forward and back – in each role.


Joseph Campbell’s famous work on the Hero’s Journey story meta-structure gives us a very insightful sense of how “initiating” happens. Campbell examined the ways in which myths and stories are built up, and produced an overlay, an arch structure, by which events often unfold. In Campbell’s analysis, stories usually start with a scene-setting section he called “The Ordinary World” – giving us a sense of where and when the events are taking place, and the normal run of things.

Anyone who has sat down with a child at bedtime and told (or even improvised) a story beginning with “Once upon a time…” has been using this starting point. “Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house.” Nothing unusual here; it’s just normal.

And then, in Campbell’s analysis, comes the “Call To Adventure.” Something happens that tips the balance out of the ordinary and demands a response. In Goldilocks’ case, she knocks on the door and, getting no answer, decides to go in, and finds three bowls of porridge on the table … You know the rest. Had a porridge-eating bear answered the door, we’d have a different story.

The point here is that we rarely initiate entirely on our own, from nothing or out of thin air. There is usually a call to adventure of some kind. This may take the form of an interest, dissatisfaction, a passion, a rage, or just wanting to see something done better or differently. So, when we get mad about something, it may be a call to adventure. Likewise, when we notice ourselves drawn to something, it may be big: end child exploitation or protect wildlife around the world – or it may be smaller: organizing the team’s documents so people can find what they need more quickly, or starting to develop a new service line for an ill-served customer group.


Anyone can be a Host Leader at any level of an organization. If you manage staff, you’re a leader. If you engage with customers, you’re a leader. If you engage with stakeholders, you’re a leader. If you engage with the public, you’re a leader (in their eyes anyway). But we may be thinking that we can’t go around issuing invitation cards to anyone and everyone. Of course not. But we CAN think invitationally.

Thinking invitationally is at the heart of Host Leadership. When we invite, and people accept, they show up being involved, open, engaged, part of the process. When we invite, and people don’t accept, well, that’s a message from the universe that what we’re offering isn’t exactly what is wanted. Thinking invitationally is about reaching out and engaging with those around us in a way which invites – rather than insists – that they join us in working on some project, purpose or endeavor. It’s about seeing the participation of others as a valuable gift, rather than the result of a contract of employment. (There may well be a contract of employment, but if you get to the point of insisting on the terms of that to achieve participation, well, you should have read this book sooner.)

Space Creator

In starting to think about the role of a host as a Space Creator, a little research reveals many offers of rearranging space, making the most of space, organizing space, de-cluttering, maximizing small spaces, etc. We also hear about such concepts as creating space for you, creating head space, thinking space. There is something deep inside us that knows the importance of space. Good Host Leaders know the importance of space.

The role of host involves creating a suitable space for the events to emerge and unfold. There seems to be a dichotomy here between active planning and emergent responding. Much of the new literature on leadership speaks of the importance of the space and of allowing and nurturing emergence within the space. The host plays a vital role upfront in deciding on the space and how it is to be decorated, laid out and used. This is another example of the flexibility of the host role – one minute making brave and influential decisions and the next clearing up a spilled drink.

The idea of space has been advanced by the idea of ba. This Japanese term, originally proposed by philosopher Kitaro Nishida, means “a shared space for emerging relationships” or, in more general terms, a context in which meaning may emerge. Some writers talk of sacred space and safe places as being of overriding importance. We think that just about any space can be capable of being used with good ba. The question, of course, is about how the space is prepared and used, and how the leader’s hopes are brought into the space.


A Host Leader knows the importance (and the creative possibilities) of defining boundaries. In the postmodern world of the Internet, boundaries have had a bad press – some say that there are no boundaries anymore. On the contrary; a boundary can serve the Host Leader well by making clear what expectations and norms apply. In the same way as a host can have a “leave your shoes in the hall and don’t tramp mud into my carpet if you’re in this house” norm, the Host Leader will take care to choose boundaries that can help people understand where they are and what they are committing to do in a certain place or role.

Once people have come over the threshold, they are aware of being in a new place, with new people and possibly new expectations. One of the key roles of a Host Leader is to welcome newcomers as they cross the threshold – this also gives an excellent chance to share something of the routines and rituals of the organization. Alert readers will remember the story of the Benedictines and greeting everyone as the risen Christ from Chapter 2.

During the research for this book, Mark visited the famous Manoir Aux Quat’-Saisons restaurant and hotel in Oxfordshire, UK. The Manoir, under founder and Chef Raymond Blanc, is noted for high standards of hospitality, and Mark had arranged to meet Director/General Manager Philip Newman-Hall to discover how these standards were achieved. Mark arrived a moment or two after the expected ten a.m., and was amazed and delighted to find Philip waiting for him outside the front door! What a contrast to going to most companies, where the manager is hidden in an office as far from the front door as possible and surrounded by defensive lines of secretaries. We sometimes wonder how it might be if the manager were positioned by the door, so he/she could connect with those going in and out – it could be a hugely valuable position to adopt.


Host Leaders are connectors. They build connections between people, link people and ideas AND know when to leave them to get on with it. Think of a connector in an electrical circuit: it joins two things together and something happens that wouldn’t have been possible without that connection; for example, a light comes on, we hear a sound, or a kettle boils. Similarly, the Host Leader as connector joins people together and creates the possibility of something emerging that would not have happened without the connector.

If we’ve initiated something, invited people to get involved and created a space for things to take place, we clearly want to create something. We want something to happen and it is likely that it wouldn’t happen without people getting together. As connectors, we understand that, having brought people together, at some point we need to get out of the way, let the magic work and allow possibilities to emerge – “Light the blue touchpaper and stand back,” as it said on all British fireworks when we were young.


Co-Participators initiate and provide AND join in along with everyone else. It is no surprise that hosts initiate proceedings and provide for their guests. But do they always join in too?

In hosting terms, this is absolutely obvious. When we are invited for dinner, we expect the host to not only serve us with food, but eat the same food with us. It would be very strange to go to a dinner party and have the host eat in the kitchen! And if we got the idea that they were hidden away in there eating better food than what we were getting, we’d be insulted.

Not only that; hosting etiquette the world over demands that the host serve their guests first. How would it be if the host served themselves a generous plateful, looked disappointedly around and said, “Sorry, there doesn’t seem to be any left for you…?” In hosting terms, this is a clear expectation. In leadership terms, it doesn’t seem to be so clear. When the news is full of stories about bank CEOs who appear to have eaten heartily in terms of massive bonuses and taken their organizations beyond the brink of bankruptcy, we might think that the ancient values of relationship and hospitality have well and truly been abandoned.

Host Leadership is a way to take a leading position, in a way that draws others in, in a natural way. The details of how you do it will depend on your own culture, your own contexts and your own preferences.


This is an adapted extract from new book: “Host: Six new roles of engagement for teams, organizations, communities and movements”, co-written by Dr Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey It was published on 6 October 2014 by Solutions Books in paperback (£11.99) and Kindle formats.   For more information visit



Mark is an author, consultant and speaker. Mark has developed and hosted many aspects of the international Solutions Focus community since 2000 with sfwork, and is co-author of three books including the best-selling ‘The Solutions Focus’. He was closely involved with founding both the SOLWorld network and the SFCT professional body for SF consultants and trainers. Mark is also a visiting research fellow in philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire, where he runs the HESIAN research hub and investigates embodied and narrative paradigms of psychology and change. He edits the SFCT journal InterAction and also plays jazz saxophone.