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Host leadership

What is 'host leadership' and how can it help leaders attend to the health and wellbeing needs of their staff? Find out more in this video.

Having considered the power and importance of developing emotional self-awareness as the foundation for your management and leadership, in this step we turn our attention to a model of leadership that can helpfully guide your action.

When it comes to our workplace health and wellbeing no one wants to be rescued or saved. The trouble is, there are some powerful beliefs about leadership out there that assume for leaders the role of saviour and hero. In the video above, lead educator Mark Doughty explains why it’s important to move beyond old heroic ideas about leaders, and towards a contemporary practice of leadership that is more sophisticated in its understanding of real-world complexity and human relationships. These post-heroic ideas about management and leadership rely on a skillset that is emotionally intelligent, fundamentally relational and prioritises attending to others.

One such model is ‘host leadership’.

What is it?

The idea of ‘leader as host’ is both a new and ancient metaphor and practice. The key role of a host – receiving and entertaining guests – is deeply embedded in human cultures the world over. And while hosts do sometimes have to act heroically – in stepping forward, planning, inviting, introducing, advocating and providing – they also act in service to their guests by stepping back, encouraging, making space, facilitating and joining in. The key to host leadership then is moving between these roles thoughtfully and with clear intent.

Hopefully we have all had an experience of being well hosted by someone. (And we will probably also know what being a good guest looks like!) One helpful way to approach this model is to think about what a good host actually does and how and where they spend their time.

Developed by Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey, host leadership is organised around six roles, summarised in the diagram below.

Diagram illustrating the dynamic between personal and systemic factors. The content of this diagram is available to download in a more accessible format at the end of this step.

Host leadership in practice

Initiating action and change is a key power for any manager and leader. When thinking about staff health and wellbeing, the first question to consider is, do I need to do something on this issue? Your answer to this will be particular to your circumstances, and be informed by your awareness of what’s going on in your organisation already, as well as any limiting factors like time. Before you initiate anything ambitious, it’s a good idea to sound others out and spend some time listening, but it could be that the ‘thing’ that needs initiating isn’t a project at all, but a conversation with a colleague you are worried about.

Using soft power and influence to bring people together in ways that feel purposeful, clear and safe is a key management and leadership skill. Whether it is for a one-off conversation or a more ambitious project, the act of convening colleagues to get something done is an obvious catalyst for change in the workplace. With this power though comes a responsibility to use it in ways that pay attention to experiences of inclusion and exclusion.

Making the time and space to do some work on health and wellbeing is a good opportunity to model what is often missing in the workplace. And while there may be constraints on how comfortable you can make the space, or even how much of it you can create in busy schedules, you can still ‘create’ opportunities and permissions to talk about health and wellbeing and achieve a particular quality of relational conversation (and therefore relationship) that would otherwise find it difficult to emerge.

Because of the authority vested in your position, you are inevitably a gatekeeper and creator of culture in your team. As a manager or leader you have the power to encourage or discourage, to permit and reward, or to silence and sanction. What you communicate both verbally and implicitly by your actions is worth paying attention to. However, another way of approaching this gatekeeping role is to co-produce it with colleagues. Creating a group agreement together that describes how you want to be and work together (in other words your expectations and needs of one another) can be another way of modelling a more emotionally literate kind of conversation and creating a shared gatekeeping role with the team.

Good hosts make introductions and help ‘guests’ to connect and get to know one another, particularly where they may have things in common. Attending to those around you and noticing where people are emotionally is a leadership practice that is social and empathic, and that seeks to keep people in relationship with one another. In practice connecting means noticing, attending, and listening to colleagues in ways that helps them to manage change and ‘disagree well’, making fractious conflict less likely and improving the social and emotional quality of the workplace.

Improving the health and wellbeing of the staff around you means taking care of yourself. The participant role includes what you model by your own attitudes and behaviour, and what you do for yourself. It also invites managers and leaders to find ways to transcend the organisational hierarchy they will inevitably work within. To be seen as a colleague and peer in the eyes of others, as well as a manager or leader. To be recognised as a whole person with wants, needs and flaws, and not a dehumanising job title or objectified hero.

We would like you to try out some or all of this leadership model for yourself. To help get you started, use the coaching questions below to do some thinking about the six roles and what you may want to do in terms of staff health and wellbeing.

  • What do you need to do? (Initiator)
  • Who needs to be involved and how? (Convenor)
  • What needs to be in place? (Creator)
  • What are your expectations? (Gatekeeper)
  • Who do you need to attend to and how? (Connector)
  • How will you show-up? (Participant)

When you have finished, use the discussion below to let your fellow learners know what happened next and what you learned.

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Leading Well for Staff Health and Wellbeing in the NHS

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