By Deborah Frieze and Margaret Wheatley, 2010
Something extraordinary is happening in Columbus, Ohio. Leaders in some of America’s largest institutions—healthcare, academia, government—are giving up take-charge, heroic leadership, and choosing instead to engage members of their community.
They’re using their positional power and authority to act as “hosts,” calling together people from all parts of the system to work together to solve seemingly intractable problems. In this mid-size, Middle America city—a mirror of the U.S.’s mix of race, income, immigrants, neighborhoods and problems—citizens are rethinking how to solve hunger long-term, how to deal with homelessness, how to transform healthcare from sickness to wellness, and much, much more. Here, in this absolutely ordinary city, citizens are discovering their capacity to engage together to create a healthier, more resilient community. This is a story of how small, local efforts move laterally through a network of relationships to emerge as large-scale change.
From Hero to Host
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.
Why do we continue to hope for heroes? It seems we assume certain things:
• Leaders have the answers. They know what to do.
• People do what they’re told. They just have to be given good plans and instructions.
• High risk requires high control. As situations grow more complex and difficult, power needs to be moved to the top (with the leaders who know what to do.)
These beliefs give rise to models of command and control that are revered in organizations and governments worldwide. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy submit to the greater vision and expertise of those above. Leaders promise to get us out of this mess; we willingly surrender individual autonomy in exchange for security.
But the causes of today’s problems are complex and interconnected. There are no simple answers, and no single individual can possibly know what to do. Not even the strongest of leaders can deliver on the promise of stability and security. But we seldom acknowledge these complex realities. Instead, when things go wrong, we fire the flawed leader and begin searching for the next (more perfect) one.
If we want to transform complex systems, we need to abandon our exclusive reliance on the leader-as-hero and invite in the leader-as-host. 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 large-scale, intractable problems solved.