The image of a leader as a hero rallying the troops on to victory is engrained in business. But a new concept of leader as host instead of hero is replacing that old idea and causing corporations in many fields to re-evaluate what it takes to lead. As that occurs, the missions of communicators are also altering.

“For many leaders, what made them successful in climbing the traditional corporate ladder won’t translate to success in the future,” explains Sherry Scott, president of Gagen MacDonald in Chicago. “The days of ‘command and control’ and ‘tell and sell’ are over. Today’s best leaders are focused instead on creating experiences for employees that capture their imagination, tap into a sense of purpose and meaning, and unleash their potential.”

The difference goes deep, according to Jim Olson, chief communications officer at Dallas-based Steward Health Care. “There is a seismic shift occurring in leadership from command and control leaders to servant leaders,” Olson says. “The days of transmitting a single message or directive from the C-Suite and expecting tens of thousands of employees to read it, believe it and embrace it are over. Today's leaders must pivot from talking, directing and controlling siloed divisions to supporting, enabling and inspiring teams of teams.”

“The ability of a leader to take a command and control approach to leadership is outdated and doesn’t work. 

Today’s best leaders today are skilled at active listening, showing empathy, being persuasive and demonstrating foresight, adds Luke Lambert, CEO of G&S Business Communications in New York. “More important than anything is a deep commitment to the growth of your people and your leadership team,” Lambert says of host leaders.

Factors Forcing the Change

Behind the shift from hero to host are a slew of forces that have rendered old ways obsolete, according to fans of the leadership style. Olson says the changing realities of business are driving leadership evolution. “The problems, challenges and opportunities that organizations face today are too large, too complex and too fast-moving for a single leader — CEO or otherwise — to tackle on their own,” he argues. 

This shift is also being driven by leaders’ need to compete in the ever-hotter sweepstakes for the best employees. 

“Employees increasingly want the relevant, convenient and engaging experiences they have outside work to be replicated on the job,” says Scott. “Someone’s last best experience is the minimum threshold for a meaningful experience at work.”

“They have to attract and retain talent globally,” Lambert says. “And unless you focus on culture and collaboration and empowerment today, I don’t think you’re going to win that battle.”
Traditional styles of leadership arose in hierarchical organizations, notes Dave Samson, general manager for public affairs at Chevron. “People no longer work in hierarchies,” he adds. “The ability of a leader to take a command and control approach to leadership is outdated and doesn’t work. People work in networks today. They work across teams. They work across geographies and across functions. That takes a different and more engaged kind of leadership.”

Internal Communications and Host Leaders

Olson describes this leadership style as based less on job titles or policies than on commitment fostered by communications. “It starts at the top, but at truly servant led organizations it’s a mindset infused throughout the organization,” he says. “From a communications perspective, that transformation from hero to host culture starts with having the right shared purpose and values. A common ideology that rallies everyone on a common journey and illuminates the road ahead.”

Communications professionals help accelerate this shift by counseling and coaching leaders to engage and communicate more effectively and strategically, Samson says. They also smooth the transition by facilitating greater direct engagement. That can take the form of face-to-face meetings with leaders, town hall discussions and fireside chats. “It’s incumbent on communications teams to drive greater engagement and create continuous dialogue and listening within the organization,” he says. 

Internal communicators should already have moved on from defining success as having communications expertise and a task orientation, Scott says. “Next-in-class communicators see themselves as strategic advisors and business partners. They have a cross-functional mindset, and their core competency is the ability to convene conversations that advance enterprise goals. This is how they show up as transformational leaders,” she says.

“As your C-suite begins to have a shift in leadership mindset, the role of internal communications is critical,” Lambert says. “They have to collaborate very closely with the C-suite and understand the mission of the organization. They have to collaborate extremely closely with the human resources function, and they have to communicate this leadership mindset across the organization.”

The Challenges of Host Leadership

Moving to a host style of leadership, however, is not always easy or smooth. One of the challenges is to spread the leadership style beyond the C-suite to leaders at other levels. 

“The mantle of leadership isn’t held only by one pay grade,” Scott says. “You would not want just your C-suite to be the organization’s sole host. The true power is engaging leaders throughout the organization, especially those who have the span and breadth to be critical influencers.”

Olson says this evolution presents communicators with one of the hardest challenges they can face. “It’s especially daunting at older, legacy companies with highly tenured staffs and leaders averse to change,” he says. “Surrendering control, authority and the sacred cows of the past are huge obstacles.”

The job may be more difficult today than in the past because of the expanded diversity of the typical workforce, Lambert adds. “The workplace today is shared by up to five different generations of employees,” he notes. “Understanding the diversity of the workforce and how to communicate to it is really important.”

Solutions for Host Communicators

Communications in a host-led organization, first and foremost, has to flow up as well as down, according to Lambert. “You have to not just communicate but leave a two-way line of communications open with your employees,” he says. 

 “It’s incumbent on communications teams to drive greater engagement

Samson also emphasizes the importance of two-way communications, and adds that channels should be both digital and face-to-face. “Even with the technologies that we have available today to connect through social platforms internally, there’s no substitute for direct engagement with employees,” he says. “Lasting trust is not built in a virtual world.”

Perhaps the most important overall skill for communicators contemplating a shift from hero to host leadership is the ability to quickly pick up new skills. “Find out what are the biggest areas of business opportunity and figure out how to attach what you do to what really matters,” Scott says. “Learn fast, fail fast.”

Communications professionals may justifiably place themselves at the center of this significant change. But Scott urges humility and recognition that they don’t have all the answers. She says, “While we continue to hope for the story of heroes – leaders who have all the answers and organizations that seamlessly fall in line behind them, the reality is that we live in a complex and fragmented world where actually no one is in charge.”