The Practice of Leadership and Hospitality: Welcoming Stranger as Guest

2 September 2018

We vacationed this summer on an island nestled on a remote lake in Maine. Guests had their own cottages and the lodge was the only location to access Wi-Fi. I had no phone service whatsoever. However, what I did have – we all had – was an abundance of hospitality from staff and guests alike.

At breakfast and dinner, we dined together on the outdoor porch, overlooking the rocky lake ledge trimmed with flowers, frothing water and pine. Otherwise, we’d meet on the dock, swimming or kayaking in the lake, hiking up a mountain or under the spectacular northern stars.

Commonality was established in the moment: The shy son giggling and playing pranks while his parents beamed at his exuberance. A teenage son fired up about the release of his first CD, and his sister eager to begin her freshman year in submarine engineering. Or the hikes to avoid when your knees hurt and where to spot the moose.

We blended together easily, readily, happily. Remarkably, I never once heard a discussion on politics. There seemed an unspoken agreement to leave the labels behind – back on shore, stuffed in our steaming cars.

And that’s the secret to hospitality. Leaving the labels behind to engage in curiosity and shared values. This is the recipe for success, and it’s the same whether we’re gathered together in the board room, staff room or in political dialogue.

To be hospitable (as defined by Webster and Merriam dictionary) includes: Receiving one as a guest – friendly, kind and solicitous to guests – favoring the health, growth, comfort of new arrivals – readily receptive – and open, hospitable, to new ideas.

Leadership also necessitates the practice of hospitality – the act of welcoming strangers – strangeness – differences – as guests at our table. This requires of us a genuine curiosity, active listening and intention to establish commonality. The outcome is that we unleash collective creativity and innovation, and achieve integrated problem-solving and solutions.

Senator John McCain, a man known for his skills in creating commonality, died this past Saturday. In an NPR interview on Monday (August 27, 2018), Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) talked about meeting McCain at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She had been the pilot of a shot down, Black Hawk helicopter and lost her legs in the attack.

The interviewer asked Senator Duckworth about the obvious policy differences between her and Senator McCain. Duckworth responded that McCain was “inordinately kind” and this made it “easy to handle any – the differences.” She continued that he, like her, loved his country more than anything. As a result, they found the common ground to pass legislation to benefit the veteran community.  

Returning to the guests and our Maine vacation, I wonder how might we interact together in a Board room or around a hot political topic? I know I’d be inclined to listen more thoughtfully to their opinions – and I suspect they would do the same for me.

Calling leadership and hospitality to our tables – to our staff meetings, board meetings, community meetings and congressional meetings: 

May we receive one another as guests.

May we be hospitable to new ideas – others and our own.

May we have the courage and commitment to embrace diversity with curiosity and kindness.

May we find solutions through a community of discovery.

May we open our hearts and minds to the healing intention and transformation of hospitality.