Extending Servant Leadership with Host Leadership
August 06, 2022
This article talks about adding tools to the servant leader toolkit. However, let’s start by examining what servant leadership already contains.
Servant leadership was popularized by Robert Greenleaf and described as a mindset and set of practices. It flips the power pyramid, so instead of the team working to serve the leader, the leader supports the team.
Servant leadership is a mindset and value system which recognizes that the team members deliver the project benefits. So, the best thing a scrum master or project manager can do is serve the team and help them succeed. This maximizes the amount of value they can produce and increases the capabilities and capacity of the group.
Scrum masters and project managers can practice servant leadership by shielding the team from interruptions, removing obstacles from their path, and ensuring the team has what they need to encourage growth. Let’s review each competency in more detail.
1) Sheild the team from interruptions – A leader's critical role is to let the team do their work. Distractions and low-priority interruptions can come from many places. They might be requests from superfluous sources or demands for low-priority admin work. Even quick interruptions cause task-switching and interrupt the flow of the team.
Special-ops and Skunkworks teams have been effective and highly productive partly because they were separated and shielded from interruptions. So, see what you can do to protect the team from low-priority or non-value-adding activities.
2) Remove Obstacles – Clearing the path of impediments, obstacles, and constraints is a vital role for a servant leader. It involves both observing the team and listening to them report issues, concerns or frustrations. Then, remove these blockers and ease the constraints so that team members can be more effective and deliver value.
For example, during a daily standup meeting or team meeting, someone reports delays due to a slow-performing tool and delays from a vendor. The Scrum master or project manager can take on the role of investigating tool upgrades or following up with the vendor. This is serving the team, doing what we can to assist with the smooth operation and maximum throughput of work.
3) (Re)Communicate the project vision - a critical role of a project leader is to communicate and re-communicate the project vision. By creating a clear image of the completed solution and project goals, stakeholders can check and align their decisions and work towards the common project objective. This is the “Reveal a beckoning summit towards which others can chart their own course” idea. Put simply, a shared vision helps keep people pulling in the same direction.
When busy executing a project, it is common for divergent views to develop between well-intentioned team members. Team members' desires for simplicity or to try new technology can diverge from business requirements. Quality analysts’ desires for completeness and conformance can separate from the sponsor’s wishes for rapid progress and completion.
In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes that a trait of Level 5 Leaders (the most effective leaders of great companies) dedicate a much higher percentage of their work time to communicating and re-communicating project and corporate vision. Kouzes and Posner believe it is almost impossible for leaders to over-communicate project vision, which is a critical step for effective leadership.
So, don’t have just one vision exercise at project kick-off and then assume you are done. Continually look for opportunities to communicate the project vision and new ways to illustrate and reinforce that vision.
4) Provide fuel and encourage growth - People need encouragement and support to try new things and deliver in challenging environments. Servant leaders provide what they need, whether that’s help with a new tool, an introduction to a customer, or just some kind words of encouragement. Help make them successful as best you can.
We must celebrate small victories (and, of course, major accomplishments) as we go. It is tempting to save the project celebrations to the end, but we may never meet a successful end without some regular recognition. Celebrations and recognition are momentum-building exercises. We must practice them frequently so obstacles can be broken through and the final project goals accomplished.
Servant leaders look for opportunities to grow the capabilities of the team members. This may be through mentoring, training or providing a safe environment for people to try new skills or roles. Two powerful benefits occur when we show an interest in our team members' long-term success.
First, the team members will appreciate the interest in them beyond just filling a role. When people see the opportunity for personal growth, they are far more likely to be motivated to contribute. Second, by growing the team's capabilities, we are increasing the organization's capabilities and worth. Subsequent projects and operational work will benefit.
Putting these roles together, servant leaders facilitate rather than manage. They shield the team from interruptions, clear the path for the team, frequently remind everyone of the destination and provide encouragement and sustenance for long-term success.
Host Leadership, as explained by Mark McKergow, extends servant leadership with additional roles and activities. It involves stepping forward to invite the right people and create a productive work environment, and stepping back to allow team members to contribute.
As described by Mark McKergow, It’s about “Engaging a community into facing up to complex, collective problems.”
Many of today’s challenges are fuzzy, ill-defined, interconnected and messy - not single-person-led endeavors. Think of the race to develop a COVID vaccine. It was a complex, multi-national, multi-disciplinary collaboration beyond the scope or control of a single manager. However, a host leader can create a collaborative environment, invite the right participants, and help them do their best work. This is the role of a host leader.
Host leadership draws on the dinner-party host metaphor to describe roles and positions. It uses terms such as “working with the guests” to describe learning about the team and their work. Along with “working in the kitchen” to explain the work behind the scenes to get things ready, maintain supplies, and work one-on-one with people.
I see Host leadership as a complementary set of tools to add to servant leadership. It provides concrete names and guidance on activities to expand and improve servant leadership. The stepping forward role also adds a more directive component when it is helpful.
The Six Roles of a Host Leader
The Initiator role is being moved to take action. Seeing the need for change and stepping forward to do something about it. The endeavor can be as large and bold as Greta Thunberg’s or as mundane as deciding its time to clean the lunch room. Leaders step forward and make the first move.
The next role is Inviter. We need to enlist and motivate the right contributors. This is a balance of skill and motivation. The best-qualified people without motivation won't be much help. We might be able to train well-intentioned incapable people. However, those we really want Get-it, Want-it, and have the Capacity to Do it.
If we reach out and people do not accept, that’s likely a sign our proposal did not land well and needs to be rethought. Thinking invitationally is reaching out in a way that invites, rather than insists, people join us on our project or initiative. It’s about seeing participation as a gift, rather than a contract of their employment.
The Space Creator role describes constructing the environment where people can contribute. It includes both tooling (collaboration environments, regular touch points, communication technology) and psychological safety. Timothy Clark outlines a simple model for understanding psychological safety in his book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety.
1) Inclusion Safety is the basic human need to belong and be accepted by a group. People must feel safe to be themselves, including any unique or peculiar attributes. Without inclusion safety, people feel excluded from the group.
2) Learner Safety is the encouragement needed to learn, experiment and grow. It requires us to feel safe when asking questions, getting feedback, trying things out and making a few mistakes along the way. Without learner safety, people will be unwilling to try new approaches.
3) Contributor Safety is having the autonomy needed to build something valuable and make a difference—the feeling of safety required to contribute something and have it judged by others. Without contributor safety, people will guard their work for too long, waiting for it to be perfect and miss out on early feedback. They will also not feel like they are making a difference.
4) Challenger Safety is having the permission and “air cover” necessary to challenge the status quo, question why things are done that way, and suggest ways to make something better. Without challenger safety, retrospectives and improvement initiatives will suffer since no one will be willing to speak up and discuss what is wrong.
The concepts of inclusion, encouragement, autonomy and “air cover” associated with the four levels of psychological safety play an essential role in Space Creator for successful agile teams.
We can help establish this psychological safety by modeling the desired behavior. Admitting our mistakes, asking basic questions and generally “learning out loud” to show people we do not have all the answers, and it is okay and encouraged for people to be open.
The Gatekeeper role covers the work of establishing team ground rules, operating guidelines and boundaries on scope, tolerances and escalation procedures. We need to be clear on the norms and expectations that apply.
Team values and ground rules are helpful to capture. Just as we often develop Definitions of Done, we should talk about Definitions of Broken. What behaviors or situations would trigger an intervention, review or need to take disciplinary action?
The Connector. A good host helps people meet other guests. They make introductions and maybe share common topics. On large teams, we often need to connect people to encourage dialog and early progress; waiting for people to meet and collaborate on their own can take too long. There is also skill in knowing when to step back after an introduction, getting out of the way to let the magic work and possibilities emerge.
Also, we should try to connect ideas too. Visualizing concepts, models and constraints can help people see connections others might not immediately find. The concept of Make Work Visible is powerful and should be encouraged.
The Co-Participant role acknowledges the host leader as a contributor. Often when the other functions of a host leader are not occupying their time, they can participate on the initiative themselves. At a dinner party, once the guests have arrived, with people introduced and settled, we expect them to eat too. So it is with host leadership. They step back into the mix to participate in the work when their other duties are done, or there is an opportunity.
The Four Positions of a Host Leader
In addition to considering how we spend our time as a leader, it’s helpful to consider where we are. This does not mean in the team room or our home office, but the positions we take up concerning others.
Sometimes, as leaders, we are in the spotlight. At the kick-off meeting, explaining the vision or facilitating a workshop are all activities where the leader is front and center and gives off messages. We need to be comfortable with this or at least tolerant of it. Sometimes we need to step forward to help explain the goal, the way to it, or the mud slowing our progress.
Going back to the hosting a party metaphor, a great host understands the value of spending time with the guests. It involves spending time with people individually, asking how they are getting on, and learning about their interests and motivators. Taking the time to enquire and remember individual goals and interests is a great motivator. People appreciate it when we recall their ideas, passions, and shared information.
The gallery is a high place above the action. Somewhere we can observe the action without the distraction of being in the discussions (for now.) Time in the gallery is when we observe from above. In our team environment, this might include:
- Taking a 30,000 ft view of our progress, speed, and the challenges ahead
- Going for a walk and assessing priorities, opportunities, and new allies
- Pausing to look at the big picture, how will our outcomes help the organizational strategy?
As a host, we sometimes retreat to the kitchen. A more private place where preparation is done but most of the guests are steered away from. It is a place we can work in private, reflect and review. Some family members may come and go – our most trusted colleagues we can confide in and share with, maybe get some coaching. Scheduling an hour a week in the kitchen can be a valuable experience.
New Ideas or Just Good Leadership Repackaged?
There are no revolutionary new roles or practices being suggested in Host Leadership. It’s not a radical reversal of thinking or something that requires organizational restructuring to implement. Instead, the ideas of recognizing some activities need stepping forward and others require stepping back, coupled with the six roles and four positions, are more like thinking tools.
This makes them more useful. These ideas can be applied in any organization without special structures or permission. As a scrum master, team lead, or project manager, we can use them to help us better serve our existing teams.
Early in a project or product life cycle, we can think about the Initiator, Inviter, and Space Creator roles. Using these personas to up our game and create better-engaged teams. As the work starts, the Gatekeeper, Connector, and Co-Particpant roles help remind us how we can add more value to our teams.
Knowing about the four positions of being In the Spotlight, With the Guests, In the Gallery, or In the Kitchen can help us reality check where we are spending our time. If we spend the majority In the Spotlight or In the Kitchen, there is probably a problem that needs addressing.
Learning More about Host Leadership
My experience with host leadership is drawn from experiments on a couple of software projects. For much broader coverage, I recommend The Host Leadership Field Book, a compendium of host leadership case studies. They include education, social care, coaching, and organizational change, among many others. You can also visit www.HostLeadership.com for newsletters, videos, and other resources.
To read more about the general role of Leading a Team, see task 1.2 Lead a Team at PMillustrated.com