Is 'Host Leadership' a Better Term Than 'Servant Leadership'?

Is 'Host Leadership' a Better Term Than 'Servant Leadership'?


When my grandfather made a toast, he often raised his glass first higher than the other glasses and said, “Never above you,” and then lower, below the others, and said, “Never below you,” and then clinked the glasses at the same level, finishing with, “Always beside you.”

Apparently, the quote originated from Walter Winchell, reminding us that our place is often best, not in command or in servitude, but together, in unity. Might this be best in leadership as well?

I admit that I’ve never been entirely on board with the term “servant leadership” or the often stated sentiment in agile circles that managers need to “get out of the way.” Luckily, in most organizations I work with, teams understand that servant leadership is not meant to devalue the talents of the leaders, but rather to be in opposition to a traditional command-and-control style of leadership.

Servant leaders are taught to empower self-organized teams by trusting them with more decision-making responsibilities and to eliminate unnecessary micromanagement waste.

The term “servant leader” was originally coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf in his essay, “The Servant as Leader.” The idea is to “serve first” and in so doing, become a stronger leader. While certainly giving employees and teams more autonomy has been proven to lead to higher-performing teams, it seems that “host” leadership rather than “servant” leadership, would align more closely to the emphasis on teamwork focused in agile.

Pierluigi Pugliese, in the article, “I’m Not a Servant – I’m a Host! A New Metaphor for Leadership in Agile?” provides several examples of why “leader as host” seems to be a better description than “leader as a servant.”

Host leadership, a leadership style alternative developed by Marc McKergow and Helen Bailey, see the leader not as a hero nor a servant, but as a host who receives and entertains guests.

The host leadership model is described in the book, “Host: Six New Roles of Engagement for Teams, Organizations, Communities and Movements,” published in October 2014. The six roles: initiator, inviter, space creator, gatekeeper, connector and co-participator, can be played from four different positions: on the stage, among the people, on the balcony, and in the kitchen.

The combinations resulting from mixing role to each position result in 24 styles that might be used for leadership, depending on the context.

For example, the space creator role is used to create an environment, either physical or emotional. The on the stage position is used when the host leader is the center of attention. An example of the combination of the space creator + on the stage would be when a host leader explains the purpose of a meeting.

In my opinion, understanding and applying the complete host leadership model is not necessary to becoming an effective leader. My issue is not with servant leadership as it’s being applied in today’s world, but rather with the term “servant.”

I believe team members as well as servant leaders are all meant to both serve and lead, depending on the circumstance and context. Though servant leadership was a big step in the right direction as an agile leadership model, host leadership may be an even better model for developing strong teams.


Yvette Francino has more than 30 years in the software development industry, and is an independent consultant, experienced agile leader, coach, author and trainer in various methodologies including SAFe, Scrum, Kanban and large-scale custom methodologies.

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