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Max St John

Participatory leadership: a new way of leading for complex times

This time last month I was nearing the end of four days shut away in a youth hostel two and a half hours from Copenhagen, with 40 strangers from all over the world.

I was there to learn about the Art of Hosting - or Participatory Leadership – a set of practices, principles and methodologies that allow you to harness the collective intelligence of a group, in order to address and manage complex issues.

The full title of the course was: “The Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations that Matter, in Service of the Common Good”, which gives you something of a feel for the tone of the whole thing. I’d summarise it as soulful and ego-free facilitation and leadership.

It’s a movement as much as it is a methodology – there are Art of Hosting courses popping up worldwide and more than 1,600 practitioners registered on the AoH Ning network.

I met consultants working with the European Commission, a group of masters students setting up a social innovation lab in Sweden, two men – one Palestinian, one Israeli - running an organisation that aims to create a future generation that will live in peace, and a man just about to start a truth and reconciliation process in the Ivory Coast, following its brutal civil war. Fascinating and humbling in equal measure.

Meeting these people, being able to immerse myself in the ideas, explore the practices and reflect on my own journey, left me feeling like I had stumbled into something incredibly powerful, and that is going to be a huge influence on me and what I do from here on.

I left Kalundborg with a lot of new friends and new ideas, and a renewed sense of purpose. I’m already building elements of this into my day job, thinking at how we build it into the social innovation network I’m involved in, and hoping to visit and work with some of the great people I met last month.

I’m not going to try and go into great detail on the principles and practices here (although you’ll find loads of info on the AoH website) but I will quickly say why I think it’s the future of leadership and navigating the complex times we’re in:

  • It promotes mindfulness and reflection – putting awareness of self, others and group dynamics at the centre of everything. This is much needed, particularly in business, right now. Too many conversations happen and decisions made without any real reflection or recognition of the whole self and its impact on our words and actions.
  • It’s highly democratic – the principles and practices (such as Open Space) create a context and culture where anyone can surface anything, every idea is held with respect, and the group decides what is important.
  • It’s fast and effective – whether you’ve got a group of 15 or 150, tools like Open Space, World Cafeor Appreciative Inquiry  are designed to harness the collective intelligence of a group to distill the mass of ideas and conversations into actionable insight.
  • There’s a lot of emphasis on understanding real need and the serving the common good. Whatever that means in your context – change at work, problems in your local community or addressing major conflict – connecting with the questions that really matter (and not wasting your time and energy on those that don’t) and making sure you’re working for a collective and meaningful goal, changes everything.

To close, I want to quote from the work book I was given at the course – as I think it really nicely summarises what this thing is and why it’s needed now:

The art of hosting, or participatory leadership, is about engaging the collective intelligence of the organisation and its stakeholders in creating sustainable solutions. This form of leadership comes as a response to a world that is becoming increasingly complex and fragmented, where true solutions and innovation lie not in one leader or viewpoint, but in the bigger picture that can be grasped only by our collective intelligence.

In the typical current organisational climate, the traditional command-and-control type leadership is no longer adequate, and tapping into the as-yet unrealised potential held in the organisation is crucial.

We need to generate shared clarity of purpose and create spaces for non-judgemental learning. At the same time, we are asked to exercise hierarchical leadership. We are accountable to our stakeholders and must take decisive action when needed. Learning how to stand in this paradox and how to navigate the territory between too much chaos and too much control is the key to leading transformational change.

This was first published on my personal blog, as I felt it was a bit evangelical (since returning from Denmark I’ve been going on about this stuff at every opportunity), but my colleagues encouraged me to share it here too.

I was lucky enough to do this training thanks to the personal training budget we get given here at NixonMcInnes (I made it part of a personal trip, so I footed the travel, NM footed the course fee). It fits in nicely with our major training programme this year which has seen us learn about Organisational Design, Change Management and Facilitation, all part of being able to help our clients deal with the complex challenges that a more digital and social way of thinking and working presents.

This post was filed under Digital transformation, Innovation, The future, Working culture Comments are currently closed.


  1. Nice one Max. In a complex, adaptive world, where, let’s face it, top-down change initiatives have not always let to great results, building from the bottom up through ‘conversation’ makes a whole lot of sense.

    Participatory leadership, of course, requires a new way to reframe leadership. Here’s my crude attempt to help with that reframing

    Posted 23rd November 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  2. Thanks for the introduction to AoH. What have your experiences been applying this at work? It would make a great follow up post.

    Posted 24th November 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  3. Pete – thanks, and I love your article on conscious leadership, it describes the idea of everybody-as-leaders really nicely. I’m pretty sure I am striving to become one of those ‘conscious followers’ too.

    Alice – that’s a great question – I’ll definitely follow up but I can tell you a bit about what I’ve experienced so far. Integrating the personal practices and principles into my work (such as personal reflection, remembering to speak with intent and actively listen in meetings, knowing when and how to act as a host in group conversations) has been reasonably straight-forward and very rewarding. I haven’t yet been able to integrate tools like Open Space or World Cafe into our client work, simply because the opportunity hasn’t arisen. What I would say is that we’ve been using versions of these tools, especially Open Space, for a few years now, borrowed from the unconference movement. What AoH made me realise is that there are many small but incredibly powerful things that need to be done to really get the most out of these tools (from the context/environment you create for their use, to the rules of the tools themselves).

    I did host an event run by another AoH practitioner (“Co-creating people-powered healthcare”) which used Art of Hosting, including World Cafe, immediately after returning from Denmark, which was an excellent chance to practice and notice some of the practicalities of working with these practices in a group that’s unfamiliar with them.

    Through all of the above, what is already clear is that introducing something that has it’s own language and frameworks, into an existing system, means finding the right fit to make it familiar enough for people to open up, but novel enough to hold attention. This is entirely possible, but like anything worth doing in life, requires practice :)

    Posted 28th November 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink