The DNA of Art of Hosting

My scribbles from an invigorating and thought-provoking room in Columbus, Ohio. —Tim

“What and who is the Art of Hosting now? Are we aligned with our core? Are we evolving or resting on our laurels? What needs to be let go? What needs to emerge? What is the stretch now that will continue to pull us into the future?”

In May of 2018 in Columbus, Ohio, USA, Art of Hosting Practitioners met to dive into conversations on race, power and privilege. Participants came from as far away as Austria, Brazil, Costa Rica and Japan as well as USA, Mexico and Canada. The questions above, from my notes, come from a breakout group re-examining the DNA of our shared practice, a living thing we all get to shape. Check out the provocative and powerful letter to the global community that arose from that small group. This blog introduces the Art of Hosting network, and hopefully entices you to join us in some of our most important questions. —Tim

Imagine someone describing to you their ‘biggest little’ adventure. You’d get it, right? It’s a bit like Art of Hosting (AoH)—a locally global community I’ve been a part of for twenty years. Or perhaps globally local? It’s a contradiction-in-terms that works. If you’ve been a part of it, you get it.

In the late 1990s and early aughts, people in leadership development were committed to being highly participatory, but we were becoming pretty encamped into tribes of one methodology or another. Until we got together in Slovenia and saw a pattern: no matter what your chosen angle, the whole point of the work we do is to get beyond methodology to architecture and mindset—to train for an intellectual and emotional awareness that could let us lead in more participatory ways.

As simple as it sounds now, this was revelatory stuff at the time. There is no single ‘right way’ to lead—only a right way to get people to open up (to more voices and seats at the table) a little more, surrender (power, control) a little more, and share (impact, space) a little more. It’s been formative as to how I do my work since then, as demonstrated by my early mentors such as Toke Møller, Margaret Wheatley, and Bob Stilger.

Over the last decade, I have been lucky enough to work with incredible people like Caroline Blackwell and Tuesday Ryan-Hart. They have helped me integrate the seeking of equity and deeper analysis of power into the work of participatory leadership, which is why I was excited to gather in Columbus, Ohio this past May: to examine our capacity to facilitate big shifts in power, race, and privilege. It was the first large event with this focus in the global community. We brought three AoH essentials on-side, making time and space to put them to work in the interest of all:


1. We don't know everything—and that's a-ok.

Humility may be the polar opposite of the tenets of modern leadership, but the lack of it is why modern leadership has failed the world. Cheer it on.

As facilitators, humility is our prerequisite. The best rooms are those without the answer, but with a shared desire to seek it together. It’s the antidote to the mechanical problem-solving approach that has dominated our attempts and misfires for the past century—and it’s not a small ask.

We’ve all been socialized by a post-industrial world to think leadership is ‘knowing the answer’ (bringing your expertise), and being in control. Letting go so others can enter into the conversation with you—and meaning it, genuinely being open to whatever fresh direction or correction surfaces from that conversation—is only a piece of the fabric.

It takes practice to be self-aware of when we’re reverting to protecting what we know, rather than staying curious and willing to be disturbed. It’s a bit of a habit among leaders, if we’re being honest. We can be territorial, especially when we’re unsure—even more so when it comes to cracking open commonly-held beliefs about equity and the status quo. At AOH, we are really, really good at saying I Don’t Know. All the best revelations begin there.

From the summary of our breakout group:

"In the Columbus practitioners gathering we constantly experienced race falling off the table of the conversations. It is a practice to keep bringing it back in and inviting the consciousness to influence our work. The return requires attention and rigor and the commitment to stay with the discomfort instead of seeking to sedate or bypass it. We all have to keep building the capacity to host the space for discomfort without fear.”

2. We call ourselves practitioners, not experts.

More important than the illusion of ‘expert status’, practice gives us the room to iterate both our efforts and ourselves as leaders.

Participatory leadership creates the conditions for people to solve their own problems. When leaders try to ‘fix’ by swooping in and saving the day—generally with a set of personally-held assumptions or attachments—we most often see a shallow effect, ignored realities, and bursts of well-intentioned but misguided energy that are unlikely to ever be concrete or sustainable.

The challenges we face are complex. Especially when we’re dealing with imbalances in power and privilege. Unless we bring people together to hear out the complexity—acknowledging it and threading it into a sleeves-rolled-up approach from day one—we’ll be misguided no matter our intentions. And that’s the art of hosting! Creating circumstances that allow people to forge their own clarity.

There’s a reason we call it an art: we can’t engineer this kind of participation. There is no technical handbook. The good news? We can practice it.

Perhaps the most important piece for me in the summary of our breakout group that speaks to this:

"In our conversations we identified awareness of race, power, gender, hierarchy, wealth and class as an implicit part of this future driven consciousness. If you are not taking these things into consideration as you invite, plan, design and deliver participatory process, you are not doing Art of Hosting work. These forces are already shaping every context in which we practice Art of Hosting. Hosting conversations where we work with, and maximize, our differences requires our explicit awareness as we take the next emergent steps that will serve our grandchildren.”

3. We have different stock, beliefs, goals.

Differentness gives us not only more interesting ideas, but more interesting views on reality and complexity. With differentness in the room, we’re all smarter. Our differentness is our superpower.

The global AOH community holds outrageous diversity in many ways. Some practitioners bring the intention of organizational development, and others an expression and constant honing of their spiritual path. Some focus on systems change, some on community development, and others use AOH for training and communications—to improve how they show up to work.

This practice holds it all. It’s a diversity not only of people across every measure of every spectrum, but of intention. The commonality of language AOH gives lets people communicate across all those different perspectives, giving us a shorthand that accelerates getting to deeper breakthroughs in individual development, movement and program design, or equity.

The AOH worldview is rooted in being able to be in conversation across difference. Race, power, and privilege needs to be integrated into what we do, if we’re serious about making the world work better. And we sure are. Again, from the summary:

"The global AoH network continues to grow in numbers and diversity of practitioners, it is time to evolve and surface the diversity that has always been there in the field and to allow it to inform the presencing and invocation of the new. … Our ability to combine our hunger for authenticity with a practice of accessibility and willingness to remain uncomfortable is directly connected to our capacity to get results for positive change.”

In May at the Columbus gathering, we connected for these dedicated conversations for the very first time. We brought the above three essentials to bear on race, power, and privilege not as an intention within another container, but as the container itself, through which we’d have the chance to consider the practice of systems change. And it was remarkable.

The hosting team—Marcela Sotela, Maurice Stevens, Aerin Dunford, Eileen Reed, Mary Alice Arthur, Tracy (Meisterheim) Chaplin, and Phil Cass—were a portrait of diversity, strength and dignity and depth-in-practice. It was incredible to be hosted by them. It’s the way I return to my work after almost every AOH gathering: restored, encouraged, fired-up.

I encourage you to check out out the living DNA document that came from our breakout group. It is provocative and powerful not just for Art of Hosting practitioners, but any change leader seeking to get more than superficial results at this time. For me, it is a symbol that the global network that has hosted me since my early twenties is able to continue to expand and grow. Every time I find the limits to push against in the global community (and in in myself), I find others there with me—pushing the boundaries, challenging the status quo, hungry to keep the practice alive and evolving in response to the reality of our work.

Perhaps that is what it is to host the Art of Hosting; a practice of keeping unstuck inside ourselves and as a result, constantly learning as a global network. I couldn’t ask for a better bunch to move forward with. As always, with thanks to the biggest little village ever.