Knowing What to Do vs. Having the Will To Do It
Are You the Cause or the Effect?

From Hero to Host: Giving Up on Being "The Expert"

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post on social artistry, on how I am shifting my understanding of what I do and how I do it, seeing myself more and more as a "social artist." Since then, I've been doing a lot of reading, thinking and exploring on the concept, particularly on how we can better use conversations for learning and to dig into the meaningful issues that we aren't addressing right now

This has opened up a whole new world for me and how I think about the work that I do. 

If I go back to what I loved initially about blogging, it was the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions with other people through the comments and back and forth blog posts. If I look at my face-to-face work, it has always been about finding ways to facilitate and engage in meaningful conversations because in my experience, that's where learning and change take place. Always. 

I'm currently reading Meg Wheatley's Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now. In it, there's a chapter on Columbus, Ohio, where leaders are giving up on being heroes and learning to become hosts, instead. 

You can read more about it here, but I wanted to pull a quote that gets at the concept of leader as host, not as hero. 

America loves a hero. So does the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s our desire to be saved, to not have to do the hard work, to rely on someone else to figure things out. Constantly we are barraged by politicians presenting themselves as heroes, the ones who will fix everything and make our problems go away. It’s a seductive image, an enticing promise. And we keep believing it. Somewhere there’s someone who will make it all better. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s visionary, inspiring, brilliant, and we’ll all happily follow him or her. Somewhere . . .

Well, it is time for all the heroes to go home, as the poet William Stafford wrote. It is time for us to give up these hopes and expectations that only work to make people dependent and passive. It is time to stop waiting for someone to save us. It is time to face the truth of our situation—that we’re all in this together, that we all have a voice—and figure out how to mobilize the hearts and minds of everyone in our communities. . . 

If we want to transform complex systems, we need to abandon our exclusive reliance on the leaderas-hero and invite in the leader-ashost. Can leaders be as welcoming, congenial and invitational to the people who work with them as they’d be if they had invited them as guests to a party?

Leaders who act as hosts rely on other people’s creativity and commitment to get the work done. Leaders-as-hosts see potential and skills in people that people themselves may not see. And they know that people will only support those things they’ve played a part in creating—that you can’t expect people to “buy in” to plans and projects developed elsewhere. Leaders-as-hosts invest in meaningful conversations among people from many parts of the system as the most productive way to engender new insights and possibilities for action. They trust that people are willing to contribute, and that most people yearn to find meaning and possibility in their lives and work. And these leaders know that hosting others is the only way to get largescale, intractable problems solved

I hope you took the time to read that quote in it's entirety. It is profound.

This is where I try to be, acting as a host, not a hero, on this blog and in the work that I do face-to-face and online.

One thing I'm realizing, though, is how hard it is to play this role, especially when so many of us are looking for a hero to save us from the tough decisions and the hard work of figuring out where to go next. I see this a lot in the career creation work I do. People just want answers and I become the Answer Woman. 

I'm clear that there's a part of me that WANTS to be the hero, to play this role. Most of us who are in the business of helping people tend to have at least a little bit of the savior complex in us because it makes us feel important and good about ourselves. But that's ego and it's not the best way to get things done.  

What I'm seeing ever more clearly is how damaging this hero/expert dynamic can be. It implies that somehow the power for change  is in ME (or whoever else we are turning to for leadership), not within YOU. I know in my heart how wrong this is and I work hard to stay out of my tendency to be pedantic, to have all the answers. But I can tell you it's hard. And you have to be mindful of what you are doing. 

I think that in many ways, I'm trying to be a good host, both on and off-line. But I see that there are places where I can make shifts, get better at inviting conversation and helping people feel welcome, rather than acting as though I'm the white knight riding in to save the day. 

It's clear to me that as I transform my practice and the ways that I work with people in the world, I need to pay closer attention to how I act as a host. How do I invite and facilitate conversations? How do I create space for people to have meaningful discussions and gain from our collective wisdom?How do I become a better listener? Better at connecting conversations and people and building up the heroic potential in all of us, not just in my own ego? 

This will be hard work, I think, but fun and exciting and where I need to go. I don't want to be the hero. I want to be the host. How can I be that with you? 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I love this post. Meg Wheatley has always been an inspiration, a pioneer. What you are talking about here - of course - requires a leap in consciousness. We've got to get off the hero/leader/helper addiction. And yes, even us "helpers" have to reframe our thinking (and feelings) to birth this transition to true collaboration and sharing.

Thanks for an enlightened post,

Thanks, Louise. It's interesting that we have such a hero addiction in society. I remember when President Obama was elected, it was like he was going to "save" us. We wanted him to be a hero. But no one person can solve all the problems we have. That's why the leader as hero is terrible for everyone--the person who is supposed to be the hero and everyone else who waits for him or her to do the saving.

For me, I'm seeing so many opportunities and healthier ways of being in the "leader-as-host" model. For me, personally, to really move there, though, I will also have to address my own addiction to being a helper. There's definitely an ego hit you get from feeling like you "saved the day."

Thanks Michelle! I love the idea of the leader as host and you are completely right about it being challenging. It's much easier to just tell the answer than engage the person in the learning. If we take the time and energy to do that, we'll not only help them, but that will likely ripple out further. To get to a place where we truly collaborate, we will have to embody the host idea. A hero can inspire but when we want to do great work, we need to have a solid group of leaders who come together with knowledge and strength across many areas to create real change.

Anna, you are so right! One thing that really struck me about the idea of hero vs. host was that while heroes can be inspiring, they also carry with them the idea that they will "save the day," leaving those around them passively watching. But as you point out, for real change to take place, you need people to feel individually empowered to take up their piece of the change. I really believe that only happens when we take off our super hero capes. :-)

This is absolutely right. I believe people will always look for a hero. We'll seek the counselor or consultant to right the ship, to make the pain go away, to do the work for us. A host-leader, if I'm understanding your definition correctly, will transform the relationship, creating a culture of self-leadership, instead of dependence. Such surrogate relationships, if they lead to a stronger sense of personal direction and responsibility, are profound and life-changing. Few things are more rewarding for both parties.

Andrew F. Robinson
People Change People

Yes, Andrew, you're correct--a host-leader creates the space for self-leadership and independence. Each individual draws on his/her individual strengths and sense of accountability to make things happen. For me, it's an incredibly inspiring and transformative model that shifts how I look at the work that I do in some pretty profound ways.

Could use some advice: How do you handle a situation in which you have been brought into a company, it seems, to be the hero -- to save the company from its previous bad practices and help manage/control certain personality types and systems? I have this fear that I've walked into something I should not have. Nevertheless, I'm here, and I want to do the right things to help the company (a small nonprofit) and, in turn, help the people.

Michele –
Comments give date and time. The posting shows only time, no date. Much easier to properly cite your good work if postings also show date. Please let me know the posting date.
Thanks, best – Dick Webster
P.S. – Assume the posting was at or close to 12/21/2011 – as shown in the first comment.

Hi Dick--yes, that was the original posting date. In doing my blog redesign, I accidentally removed the blog post dates but have now restored them. Hope all is well with you!

The comments to this entry are closed.