From Hero to Host: A Story of Citizenship in Columbus, Ohio

by Margaret Wheatley January 20, 2011

By Deborah Frieze and Margaret Wheatley, 2010

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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.

Can I Be Fearless?

by Margaret Wheatley September 21, 2008

By Margaret Wheatley, 2008

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Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions. —Hafiz

Human history is filled with stories of countless people who have been fearless. If we look at our own families, perhaps going back several generations, we’ll find among our own ancestors those who also have been fearless. They may have been immigrants who bravely left the safety of home, veterans who courageously fought in wars, families who endured economic hardships, war, persecution, slavery, oppression, dislocation. We all carry within us this lineage of fearlessness.

But what is fearlessness? It’s not being free of fear, for fear is part of our human journey. Parker Palmer, an extraordinary educator and writer, notes:

“Fear is so fundamental to the human condition that all the great spiritual traditions originate in an effort to overcome its effects on our lives. With different words, they all proclaim the same core message: “Be not afraid.” . . . . It is important to note with care what that core teaching does and does not say. “Be not afraid” does not say that we should not have fears—and if it did, we could dismiss it as an impossible counsel of perfection. Instead, it says that we do not need to be our fears, quite a different proposition.”

If fear is this fundamental to being human, we can expect that we’ll feel afraid at times, perhaps even frequently. Yet when fear appears, we don’t have to worry that we’ve failed, that we’re not as good as other people. In fact, we’re just like other people! What’s important is to notice what we do with our fear. We can withdraw or distract or numb ourselves. Or we can recognize the fear, and then step forward anyway. Fearlessness simply means that we do not give fear the power to silence or stop us.

In my own experience, I think there’s an important difference between courage and fearlessness. Courage emerges in the moment, without time for thought. Our heart opens and we immediately move into action. Someone jumps into an icy lake to save a child, or speaks up at a meeting, or puts them self in danger to help another human being. These sudden actions, even if they put us at risk, arise from clear, spontaneous love.

Fearlessness, too, has love at its core, but it requires much more of us than instant action. If we react too quickly when we feel afraid, we either flee or act aggressively. True fearlessness is wise action, not false bravado or blind reactivity. It requires that we take time and exercise discernment. Zen teacher Joan Halifax speaks about the “practice of non-denial.” When we feel afraid, we don’t deny the fear. Instead, we acknowledge that we’re scared. But we don’t flee. We stay where we are and bravely encounter our fear. We turn toward it, we become curious about it, its causes, its dimensions. We keep moving closer, until we’re in relationship with it. And then, fear changes. Most often, it disappears.

I’ve heard many quotes from different traditions that speak to this wonder of fear dissolving. “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” “The only way out is through.” “Put your head in the mouth of the demon, and the demon disappears.”

Some of my best teachers about fearlessness are part of a global network of younger leaders (in their teens, twenties and thirties) with whom I’ve worked for several years. They call themselves “Walk-outs.” They walk out of work and careers that prevent them from contributing as much as they can, they walk out of relationships where they don’t feel respected, they walk out of ideas that are limiting, they walk out of institutions that make them feel small and worthless. But they don’t walk out to disappear–they walk out to walk on. They walk on to places where they can make a real contribution, to relationships where they’re respected, to ideas that call on their strengths, to work where they can discover and use their potential.

From these younger leaders, I’ve learned the importance of asking periodically, “What might I need to walk out of?” It’s a big question and it demands a lot of bravery to even ask it. By posing this question, we’re being brave enough to notice our fears and see them clearly. We’re being brave enough to recognize where we’re called to be fearless in our own lives. This powerful question helps us discover the places, the work, and the relationships that we need to walk on to in order to realize and offer our gifts.

I hold a vision of what’s possible if more of us are willing to practice non-denial, if we look clearly at what frightens us in our personal lives and in our society. With clearer vision, we could walk through our fear and say “no” to what disturbs us. We could walk on and take a stand. We could refuse to be cowed or silenced. We could stop waiting for approval or support. We could stop feeling tired and overwhelmed. We could trust the energy of ‘Yes!’ and begin to act for what we care about.