It's Time for the Heroes to Go Home

By Deborah Frieze and Margaret WheatleyFall 2011 | Print
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. 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 along. Somewhere. . . .

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.

Time to Stop Waiting for Someone to Save Us

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.

If we want to transform complex systems, we need to abandon our exclusive reliance on the leaderas- hero and invite in the leader-as-host. Leaders who act as hosts rely on other people’s creativity and commitment to get the work done. Leaders-ashosts 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. 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.

The Story of 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 actas hosts, calling on people from all parts of the system to work together to solve seemingly intractable problems. In Columbus, Ohio—a mid-size, Middle America city—a mirror of the U.S. mix of race, income, origins, neighborhoods, and problems, citizens are rethinking how to solve hunger for the 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.

The story in Columbus began in 2002, when this new approach to leadership began to take root in Phil Cass, CEO of the Columbus Medical Association and Foundation. Phil attended the Shambhala Institute—Authentic Leadership in Action (ALIA), where he met skilled practitioners of circle and community building from around the world who profoundly changed his whole approach to leadership. They were practicing the Art of Hosting, conversational processes that resolve conflicts, develop strategy, analyze issues, and create action plans. But the Art of Hosting is more than a collection of problemsolving tools. It is, says Tuesday Ryan-Hart, an Art of Hosting practitioner who works closely with Phil in Columbus, “a practice, like yoga or meditation. There are tools in it, for sure—social technologies like circle, Open Space, and World Café that surface a group’s collective intelligence through conversation. But there are deeper patterns present in the Art of Hosting that invite us to be authentic, to stay in inquiry, to build community.”

This may sound a bit vague, but its very real outcomes and benefits are visible throughout Columbus and beyond, as people have come together to tackle issues of poverty, healthcare, homelessness, education, public safety, and more.

From Finding Food to Ending Poverty

In October 2009, the Mid-Ohio Foodbank relocated to its new headquarters: a 204,763 square foot former mattress outlet that now has the capacity to move 33 million pounds of food per year onto the tables of central Ohio’s hungry citizens. Like Phil Cass and Tuesday Ryan-Hart, the Foodbank’s president and CEO , Matt Habash, is relying on the unconventional practice of hosting to tackle the all-too-conventional problem of hunger.

Matt Habash was introduced to the World Café in March 2005, when his friend Phil Cass invited him to attend an Art of Hosting training. Co-founded in 1995 by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, the World Café is a conversational process that links and connects ideas to reveal the collective intelligence in the room. What got Matt’s attention, he says, was the power of intentional conversation. “I spend so much of my time in conversations that do not matter,” he explains. “I just didn’t want to have another useless conversation.”

So in the fall of 2005, he decided to take a leap. “I ordered round tables, four chairs at every table, even checkerboard tablecloths,” he recalls.“I put out an invitation to 100 people; 60 showed up. And then I asked them a question: What does ending hunger mean to you?”

That first Café sparked new questions that would transform the Mid-Ohio Foodbank’s approach to its mission. Attendees participated in a regional food movement across seven counties exploring how to shift the proportion of food produced locally from 1 percent to 10 percent. They turned over the design of the on-site food pantry to its stakeholders—nutritionists and clients—who opted for a revolutionary grocery-store-like “Choice Pantry” that gives power back to its clients. They developed new kinds of partnerships with local organizations that reconnect schoolchildren to local food and support urban agriculture and local farmers.

For Matt, these changes point to a profound shift in the Foodbank’s purpose: from handing out food to transforming the system that links food, hunger, and poverty. To maintain that focus, he has integrated Art of Hosting practices throughout his organization— in fundraising campaigns, at senior staff meetings, with the board. “I hardly talk at board meetings anymore,” he says. “I used to run them—you know, the world according to Matt. Instead, we move to a strategic level of conversation by using Café or sitting in circle.”

The results, he says, are giving the Mid-Ohio Foodbank a leading role in the transformation of Central Ohio’s food system. But what’s most important to notice is that Matt is just one of many leaders throughout Columbus who are laying out checkered tablecloths and welcoming the whole community to create new solutions to their most intractable problems.

Affordable, Sustainable Healthcare for All

In March 2005, several healthcare practitioners found themselves in a conversation about the role of community in changing the healthcare system. Dr. Marc Parnes, an OB-GYN physician, with Phil Cass and other community leaders, dreamed up a plan to launch an exploration into affordable and sustainable healthcare. They experimented with a number of processes for engaging the community—physicians, hospital administrators, insurance company CEO s, community organizers, politicians, and patients—ultimately creating a series of assemblies where more than 100 participants showed up each time to identify strategies for advancing healthcare.

And then they discovered they’d been asking the wrong question.

It was at the third assembly when Phil realized that in all the forty years he’d worked in healthcare, no one had ever asked the question about the purpose of the healthcare system. So he asked the 120 people at the assembly a simple question: “What should be the purpose of the healthcare system you want and need for this city and its future?” The question lit a fourhour conversational fire. Everyone was saying the same thing: We want optimal health.

Optimal health, as this group defined it, is about being as healthy as you can be, given what you’ve got—your individual physical, emotional, and mental abilities. That means that optimal health is different for everyone— and utterly attainable for all.

Our Optimal Health is inviting citizens to explore ideas around a new and different system of healthcare in Franklin County. Here’s just one example: In Clintonville, residents are seeking to organize their own parallel healthcare system. They’re experimenting with Health Block Watches, where neighbors pay attention to one another’s well-being, inviting each other into local walking clubs, spreading the word about yoga classes and nutrition events, and checking in on seniors and homebound residents. They are recruiting local dentists to provide free care to neighbors who can’t afford it. And they are enrolling volunteers in transporting people in need to medical appointments.

“Clintonville is a microcosm showing what’s possible,” Marc Parnes says. “A group of people are saying, ‘We can do this. We don’t have to wait for it to trickle down.’ The only way I know to change the national conversation is to experiment with it locally and invite others into the conversation.”

Which is exactly what happened to the conversation around homelessness.


A National Conversation on Homelessness

It was the summer of 2009 when Barbara Poppe got a call from the Obama administration. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan needed to present a new national plan to end homelessness to Congress by May 20, 2010, and was tapping her to head up the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. By the time she was hired, Barb had a month left to tie up loose ends at the Community Shelter Board in Columbus, where she had been hosting a community-based strategic planning process on homelessness. Her new national mandate was to get federal, state, local, and private agencies working well together and innovating strategies that finally will bring homelessness to an end.

Less than two months after she moved to D.C., Barb was ready to roll out her new national plan. Over a four-week period, more than 750 people in six cities gathered in World Cafés to inform the national strategic plan on homelessness. They represented the full range of stakeholders, including the homeless themselves, who seldom if ever are included in the conversation about their future. The output of the Cafés was sent to a 60-person decision council that Barb assembled from the 19 federal agencies that needed to approve the plan. She laughs as she describes the reaction to her process by a jaded advocacy worker, who exclaimed, “What do you mean every person had a vote? There was democracy in the federal government?!? Has that ever happened before?”

Barb has bigger plans yet ahead. In June 2010, Phil and Tuesday offered an Art of Hosting training to Barb’s staff to strengthen the hosting skills they’d need to implement the federal strategic plan in communities throughout the United States. “Our old practices don’t work,” Barb says. “I’ve been wondering whether we should tell people what we’re doing or just be stealth—this is just how we do things. We’ll see whether it becomes viral, whether people start using it simply because it works.”

As for Columbus, hosting has unequivocally gone viral, becoming an important influence in how people choose to do their work. It’s worked its way into the Ohio State University, the Chamber of Commerce, government-convened task forces, the city of Upper Arlington—where America’s archetypal heroes, the police force and fire department, are experimenting with hosting as a leadership practice.

Leaders as Hosts, Citizens as Heroes The citizens of Columbus, Ohio, are slowly but steadily walking out of a model of heroic leadership that most Americans assume is the only way to lead. “This country’s culture, its basis for understanding itself, is based on rugged individualism,” Phil says. “It’s been what we’ve been proud of, counted on, and pointed to as our success over the years. And it’s fundamentally not working anymore. People like the solutions that come out of a more collective way of operating. I believe hosting taps into a basic human need to be connected.”

Leaders who journey from hero to host have looked beyond the negative dynamics of politics and opposition that hierarchy breeds, they’ve ignored the organizational charts and role descriptions that confine people’s potential. Instead, they’ve become curious. Who’s in this organization or community? What do people care about? What skills and capacities might they offer if they were invited into the work as full contributors?

Columbus, like any major city, is a collection of institutions locked in hierarchy and politics trying to do useful work. Yet leaders here didn’t begin by trying to dismantle hierarchy. They chose a simpler way based on their belief in people. They invited people to come together to explore a good question: What does ending hunger mean to you? What is the purpose of the healthcare system? How can we create the community people are longing for?

They used their positional power to convene people, not to tell them what to do. They learned that their city—any city—is rich in resources, and that the easiest way to discover these is to bring diverse people together in good conversations. People who didn’t like each other, people who discounted and ignored each other, people who felt invisible, neglected, left out—these are the folks who emerged from their boxes and labels to become interested, engaged colleagues and citizens. Hosting meaningful conversations isn’t about getting people to like each other or feel good. It’s about creating the means for problems to get solved, for teams to function well, for people to become energetic activists. The leaders of Columbus have created substantive change by relying on everyone’s creativity, commitment, and generosity. They’ve learned that these qualities are present in everyone and in every organization. They’ve extended sincere invitations, asked good questions, and had the courage to experiment.

Their courageous efforts moved across the city, state, and nation, gaining ground where heroes had once prevailed. And now, people are discovering what’s been there all along—fully human beings wanting to make a difference for themselves, their city, their children, and the future.


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