Participatory leadership and the Art of Hosting: a personal and collective journey

Participatory leadership

Last week I took a 3-day training in participatory leadership, which is how the European institutions have repackaged the ‘Art of Hosting’ approach.

I had wanted to join this training for a couple of years now but never had the chance to do so due to conflicting priorities. Now that I moved to the European Commission, it was an opportunity too good to miss. And right I was!

I had a fantastic time, connecting with like-minded colleagues, learning about them, about the organisation I work for and about myself. And I was pretty amazed to hear that the European Commission has already trained over 1,500 people in participatory leadership, making it one of the few organisations in the world where this approach, although still marginal, is gaining ground and becoming more legitimate at all levels of the organisation.

What is participatory leadership?

Rather than go into an in-depth article about what participatory  leadership is according to the textbooks, I will tell you a different story, in participatory leadership style: what this training taught me and what I ‘harvested’ from it. Bear with me for one more minute and the jargon will make total sense, I promise 🙂

Here’s my personal mind map of what I learned at the training:


Participatory leadership is a way of doing, but it’s also and foremost a <strong>way of being. The two dimensions can be found in the concept of participation (participation as a process but also as a value) and that of leadership (being a leader and doing what a leader does).

The values of participatory leadership

One of my paintings representing the infinite circle of energy, a classic zen symbol. image By Yon Costes

A mind map is a circle and just like any circle it has no beginning and no end, so I’m taking ‘Values’ to start with but it only reflects a personal preference. The circle metaphor, also used as one of the preferred formats to host meaningful conversations, speaks to me not just as a person with a background in anthropology but also as a practitioner of martial arts: the circle is indeed a zen representation of the infinite flow of energy, and that’s what you get when you sit in circles, uninterrupted energy flows.

Just as the circle could be the visual representation of the participatory leadership approach, the values underpinning this approach can be represented in a circle, as no value is more important than the other, but all feed into each other:

Commitment: whether you are a host to a participatory event or process, or a participant, you commit to making the best out of the time you spend on this.

Trust: it’s about trusting others, but yourself too. Getting rid of the deep fears of not being loved, not fitting in and not knowing about all things is a prerequisite for reaching a higher level of conversation with others.

Respect: accepting the polarities in others and in ourselves, recognizing that diversity is what characterizes the incessant movement of life, that’s the essence of the participatory leadership approach.

Presence: probably the most difficult and the most rewarding of values to harbour. Accepting to be fully at what you do and with the people you are sharing this moment is tiring. Yet it fills the heart with joy and the body with a sense of filling that only meditation usually achieves for me.

Authenticity: come as you are and accept others as they are. When exploring meaningful conversations, we need to be prepared to be ourselves and to stand true to what we believe in most. Otherwise, how can be feel engaged in and committed to a follow-up? 

The process behind participatory leadership

Although you would roll out the below order of steps of the process to organise a participatory event or design a participatory process around a project, they are not meant to form part of a linear process.

The iterative nature of participatory leadership requires you sometimes to get back to one or the other elements of the process to adapt it to the current dynamics in the group, to revise your purpose or to learn from the follow-up to take your conversations to the next level.

You first need to define your purpose, ideally a shared purpose with the group, or at least be ready to realign your individual purpose with that of the group or organisation. This usually translates into an overarching question. Questions are open-ended and always more powerful and engaging than a problem statement.

Once you know what you are looking for, identify the real needs behind the purpose: here you need to do some research, capture feedback, map the context and distinguish between what is fixed and what is open for negotiation.

You can then move on to designing your process, focusing your attention of the invitation and the preparation phase, both largely determining the success of your process.

Hosting the event or process will require a lot of energy and commitment, so make sure you are well prepared for this part too.

The whole process starts to make really sense once you get into the harvesting and follow-up phases. Harvesting is the act of collecting all the data that was shared during the process and making sense of it, moving from a state of divergence (different ideas, opinions, etc.) to one of convergence (some patterns emerged in the process).

Follow-up and action are the concrete translation of what you’ve harvested and should be by the participants themselves, never only the host or organiser.

If the circle is the tangible representation of the participatory leadership process, then the spiral is its true, underlying nature. Remember what DNA looks like? Did you know that Earth is travelling at high-speed across the galaxy and that the galaxy is revolving around itself while also moving across the universe. We are all on a spiraling trajectory, at micro and macro levels. Spirals allow you to short-circuit linear processes, they enrich our understanding. And who knows, they might even be the answer to time and space travel!

The tools of participatory leadership

Graphic recording is an interesting way to harvest the outcome of a participatory process:

As this process is about practical wisdom, it is not surprising that participatory leadership has developed or adapted a vast array of techniques that align with its values and design process. I’m not going to explain each and every one of them (some are listed in the mind map) because I don’t think the focus of this process is on tools.

Tools are just there to reassure those unfamiliar with the process that there is some structure :-). So the more trust and respect there are in the room, the less you will need tools and methods to progress on your collective participatory journey. Instead I suggest that you follow a participatory leadership or art of hosting training. After all, the beauty of the training is that it’s organised like a participatory process, where the students get to shape the course and learn by doing.

I have to admit that this was one of my favourite parts of the training. I loved that hosts and trainers empowered participants to try things out, to not be afraid to stand out, to make mistakes, to be themselves. You can also check out this page on ‘Art of Hosting‘ methods.

People in participatory processes

Bees and butterflies are two roles you can take during a participatory event[/caption] If you are like me, you tend to take the “It’s all about people” pitch from big corporations or organisations with a huge grain of salt. The thing with participatory leadership is that it’s REALLY about people, because as the trainers used to repeat to us throughout the training, “the right people are in the room” when some people arrived late and we couldn’t wait for them to start. So whoever accepts your invitation and is present during the training, they’re the people that shape the process, that take ownership of the process.

And the beauty of it all is that you don’t even need to keep the same role throughout the process! While hosts will probably remain hosts (although even that can be subject to change if the group takes full ownership of the process and comes well prepared), you can be a participant, someone harvesting, you can submit ideas (a caller) or you can help with follow-up and implementation. There’s a role for all types of personalities and no one is left behind.

But again, you can only really understand this if you actually take part in a participatory process. Otherwise, you’ll probably take my words with a pinch of salt too!

The models and paradigms of participatory leadership

Models and paradigms are the underlying values, assumptions and mental patterns we carry around. As soon as you make those visible, you allow participants to reach a higher level of personal and collective understanding.

Here are links to some of these models and paradigms explained during the training – the only theoretical part of the training, yet certainly not the least interesting:

A personal journey towards participatory leadership

Throughout my career I have been exposed to several events organised in participatory leadership style – including some I organised,  I trained in adult development theory with Otto Laske and have read Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer and other systems thinking authors.

Still I learned a lot during the training, because it is not the knowledge that you gain that matters, but what you do with it. The training resonated with several of my strongly-held beliefs that organisations need to open up to systems thinking, trust their staff, let them be authentic, and leverage the power of (their) networks. The training gave me a great confidence boost and I now feel full of positive energy to tackle the more challenging aspects of working for a big international institution.

It also taught me to reflect more on my own feelings and my limitations. And as good things don’t come alone, I have already been contacted by colleagues in different parts of the organisation to help them with an innovative project or to discuss digital strategy with senior officials.

This is just a beginning and I’m already looking forward to the next opportunity to apply participatory leadership in my work and my life.

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