Leader As Convener by Peter Block

This article, Leader as Convener by Peter Block, is part of our Witness the Common Good series.

We know that leadership matters. Traditionally, we have defined the function as visionary, role model, designer, inspiration, and voice of where we are headed. We ask our leaders to be coach, listener, and a gardener who grows people.  

We also, as an expression of their importance,  “hold” them responsible when things go wrong. They have a cash drawer where the buck stops.

And we think that activism and social change are achieved by a heroic leader.    

Now is a moment for us to reconsider this construction. The option is to ask the leader to create connection among the led. Citizens. Employees. Siloed organizations and functions.  As many have said, move from hero to host. What is new is our decision to make this the top priority of leaders. As to the leader as role model, yes. But that is true of each of us. As well as to coach and nurture those who matter to us.

Leaders, by their position, hold something unique, in addition to their personal qualities: the power to change the context of where accountability and care for the whole reside. To use their position to engage citizens and members in relational activism. For whatever the purpose, decide that social capital and peer engagement is the first priority in high performance, and building a civic world that longs to be safe, educated, economically viable, and healthy.


When we become connected, we become accountable to each other. We know the ways to do this. Every facilitator and organization development person, every community builder, has this capacity.  If we seek accountability and belonging, these relational methodologies are what work. Especially in this hybrid, virtual, volatile time we live in. The problem is that these methods are in the hands of helpers, not most leaders.

Our invitation is to shift the content of what we teach leaders. This involves how we gather, how we occupy a room, both live and virtual, and how we learn. These ways of being and doing are how we best produce accountability in citizens and employees.

Leader as role model, visionary, people developer, and one who holds others accountable is a habit that will be hard to let go of. That notion creates comfort in that it encourages dependency, entitlement, and constant looking at the corner office. Leader presence and behavior as the center of our attention is popular because it lets citizens and employees off the hook.    

The demand for a redefinition of the leadership function is reinforced by the current crisis in social isolation. The challenges and opportunities of working virtually and remotely have been with us for a long time. We are constantly told that we are polarized, siloed, likeminded, and attracted to tribes. All this was intensified by the pandemic and invited us to reconsider how leadership might attend more powerfully to the need for a stronger community and chosen accountability. The future will not be a return to something. It will be the reimagination of something.

The major challenge for leaders will be to develop the skills and mindset to convene and engage people in new ways. Ways that overcome isolation, deepen connections, and prepare people to live into the uncertain realities of all workplaces and communities.  And to do it quickly.  

This shift in how we think about leadership is served by making a distinction between management and leadership. Managers create order in the workplace. They know how to plan, organize, delegate, and control work and people. The value proposition of managing is speed, predictability, and convenience in a disordered world.  

Leadership needs management, but it is much more than that. It holds a larger possibility than creating order and clarity. That possibility is the capacity and power to invite us into an alternative future.

The Leadership Task

The leader’s task is not to promise or define the alternative future. This is too often a marketing campaign. Managing the news. An alternative future does not occur by offering certainty. It begins by increasing authentic connection. Relational activism. Especially with the stranger. This means creating new habits of how we convene people. The purpose is to engage them in co-creating a response to a shifting market, technology, and supply world. To engage them in a response to volatile and fragmented elements of places we care about.  Good leadership has to become more sophisticated in engaging people with each other. The value proposition for this kind of leadership is accelerated trust building, accountability to peers, and adaptability in a complex and fluid setting. These are the benefits in the shift from hero to host and convener.   

We already know a lot about the protocols of convening and engagement. The problem is that they exist primarily in the hands of facilitators, team builders, community organizers, and human resource and organization development people. What is new here is not the actual tools of convening. They have been around for quite a while.

Unfortunately, we have used those tools mostly for out-of-the-ordinary intentions. When we want peers to truly engage, or to set aside times for thoughtfulness and relationship building, we call on retreats, team building, focus groups, recovery groups, spiritual practices, block parties, summits, and special events. As if building trust and accountability and change were needed only on occasion.

Leaders and citizens have had to purchase these skills rather than embody them.  We need to learn how to transfer this convening-and-engagement thinking and its tools into the minds, hearts, and hands of leaders and people who run things. And make these common good protocols a habit. This is how we create impact engagement, a more powerful and authentic alternative to surveys, questions and answers, or requests for feedback.   

Principles of Leader As Convener

There are several principles of leading for this relational activism or high-impact engagement.

  1. Questions are more powerful than answers
  2. The small group is the unit of transformation
  3. Purpose is to go deeper rather than faster. Slow and small is more powerful than speed and scale.    
  4. Conversations between peers are more vital than the interactions between leaders and followers.
  5. Horizontal connection among peers or citizens produces accountability and commitment to the well-being of the whole. The common good.
  6. Highlighting people’s gifts and capacities is what is important. Let their deficiencies rest in peace.

This kind of engagement accelerates building trust and social capital when treated as a first priority. The research is convincing that this produces better outcomes, whether looking at organization results, safety in a neighborhood, healthier citizens, raising a child, or social and economic equity.

We are calling these convening tools Common Good Protocols. This set of tools includes learning the power and specific framing of questions of possibility, dissent, crossroads, ownership, commitment, contracting, and gifts. We need to teach and learn how leaders can use these questions in a variety of settings. This work is both simple and hard. There also must be ongoing support to make the shift.

In addition to the questions, the Common Good Protocols include a range of convening designs built around Open Space, World Café, Appreciative Inquiry, and Art of Convening gatherings.  The challenge to leading through convening is that it relocates and diffuses control, violates employee and citizen-dependent expectations, and asks us to surrender our belief in top-down and bottom-up theories of change and improvement. It also asks us to stop complaining. To give up waiting for people on top to change or people at the middle and bottom to “get on board.”

The Invitation

The invitation is to shift leadership to convener wherever we are together. Any situation where three or more people are gathering. Staff meetings, cross-functional teams, special focus and town hall gatherings, strategy sessions, and education events. Each time people gather––on the phone, a digital platform, or in a room together––is an opportunity to accelerate trust, and to produce peer accountability.

If we care about institutional and community outcomes and transformation in a volatile world, these Common Good Protocols become everyday practices. Every part of every day. It is not about devaluing typical problem-solving, predetermined agendas, and the devices for predictability. It is simply putting management where it belongs, as a useful but second priority. First in line are specific protocols designed to bring us together to connect for the larger purposes of our existence.   

Are you interested in shifting to this kind of leadership? If so, we invite you to join our program, Leader as ConvenerTo recieve more columns, pamphlets, and invitations curated by Peter Block, subscribe today to Witness the Common Good.

Change the Conversation – Change the Culture

By Jeff Evans

“How do we change the culture?” It is a question I have been asked many times while facilitating Flawless Consulting® workshops. The answer? “One conversation at a time.” 

Participants of Flawless find a lot of value in the tools and concepts we cover to be more collaborative and to get their expertise utilized. However, they share that a big barrier to collaborating is the culture- in particular, the behavior of upper management. I spent over 30 years inside large organizations, and I have felt the same way at times. I found myself thinking and saying, “I could be more collaborative if my boss and my clients let me.” For some reason, I felt I couldn’t change if they didn’t change. What I have learned is if I wait for others to change, at any level, I will be waiting a long time. I need to focus on my own behaviors and attitude about how I want to work and relate to others.  

Exchanging Wants

A key element and skill of Flawless Consulting®Ω is exchanging wants with the people I am trying to influence. This means getting curious about what the other person wants as well as being clear about what I want. Easier said than done in organizations where the culture values hierarchy, command, and control. When I am in a support role, trying to influence others with position, power, and authority, it can be easier to focus on their wants and ignore my own. When I do this, I am putting myself in a position to be an “order taker” or “pair-of-hands.” It seems that this is the role many managers want their people to take. “I’m the boss/client/leader; just do what I ask you to do.” This is the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) belief in many organizations.

It Takes Courage

The antidote to being a non-assertive order taker is to change the conversations you are having with your clients, bosses, and leaders. The first step is to get clear about what you want, and the second step is to have the courage and skills to ask. Ask yourself, “What do I want from this leader in order to do my best work?” We aren’t asking for what we want to be selfish. On the contrary, we want to do our best work for the organization. To do this, we have things we want from others.

Getting clear about what we want is the easier step of this process. The more difficult step is having the courage to ask, especially if the culture doesn’t support asking for things from upper management. Ask yourself, “What is the risk of asking for what I want?” Then ask, “What is the risk if I don’t?” Start having these conversations with the people where the relationship is strong. Don’t start with your most difficult relationship. You will build confidence and courage the more you try it. 

Will the culture of the entire organization change from this conversation? Probably not. However, the culture within your sphere of influence will begin to change when you change the conversations you are having. We are operating under a social contract based on command and control. It’s time to renegotiate the social contract. As more people in the organization move toward this collaborative conversation, the culture will begin to shift. Don’t wait for others to change the culture. Have the courage to change your conversations to create a culture of your own choosing.

Get the skills you need to get clear on your wants and help to inspire larger transformation and change within organizations and communities.

‘Yes’ is the right question

 Something in the persistent question, “How?” expresses each person’s struggle between having confidence in their capacity to live a life of purpose and yielding to the daily demands of being practical. It is possible to spend our days engaged in activities that work well for us and achieve our objectives and still wonder whether we are making a difference in the world. What if ‘Yes’ is the right question?

My premise is that this culture, and we as members of it, have yielded too quickly to what is doable, practical, and popular. In the process, we have sacrificed the pursuit of what is in our hearts. We find ourselves giving in to our doubts and settling for what we know how to do or can soon learn to do instead of pursuing what most matters to us and living with the adventure and anxiety that this requires.

We often avoid the question of whether something is worth doing by going straight to the question, How do we do it?” In fact, when we believe that something is definitely not worth doing, we are particularly eager to start asking How? We can look at what is worth doing at many different levels: As an individual, I can wonder whether I can be myself and do what I want and still make a living. For an organization, I can ask for whose sake does this organization exist, and does it exist for any larger purpose than to survive and be economically successful? As a society, have we replaced a sense of community and civic engagement for economic well-being and the pursuit of our private ambition?

Too often, when a discussion is dominated by questions of how we risk overvaluing what is practical and doable and postponing the questions of larger purpose and collective well-being. With the question, we risk aspiring to goals that are defined for us by the culture and by our institutions at the expense of pursuing purposes and intentions that arise from within ourselves.

While there are many positive values to our desire for concrete action and results, it does not ensure that what we are doing serves our own larger purpose or acts to create a world that we can believe in—in other words, a world that matters. Thus, the pursuit of how we can act to avoid more important questions, such as whether what we are doing is important to us, as opposed to being important to them. While we do create value when we pursue what is important to others, it is different from doing what is important to us.

If knowing how offers us the possibility of more control and predictability, then we may have to sacrifice them to pursue what matters. The choice to worry about why we are doing something more than how we do something is risky business. It is risky for us as individuals, for our organizations, and for society.

Choosing to act on “what matters “is the choice to live a passionate existence, which is anything but controlled and predictable. The alternative to asking How? is saying Yes – not literally, but as a symbol of our stance toward the possibility of more meaningful change and change that promises real commitment to what draws us into what matters. 

To commit to the course of acting on what matters, we postpone the how questions and precede them with others that begin to shift us from “what works” to “what matters.” Taken in isolation and asked in the right context, all how. The questions are valid. But, when they become the primary questions, the controlling questions, or the defining questions, they create a world where operational attention drives out the human spirit. 

How Question 1: How do you do it? 


Yes Question 1: What refusal have I been postponing?

How Question 2: How long will it take? 


Yes Question 2: What commitment am I willing to make?

How Question 3: How much does it cost? 


Yes, Question 3: What is the price I am willing to pay?

How Question 4: How do you get others to change? 


Yes Question 4: What is my contribution to the problem I am concerned with?

How Question 5: How do we measure it? 


Yes Question 5: What is the crossroad at which I find myself at this point in my work/life?

How Question 6: How are other people doing it successfully? 


Yes Question 6: What do we want to create together?

When we look for tools and techniques which are part of the how question, we preempt other kinds of learning. If we want to know what really works, we must carefully decide which are the right questions for this moment. Picking the right question is the beginning of action on what matters, and this is what works. This is how we name the debate, by the questions we pursue, for all these questions are action steps. Good questions work on us; we don’t work on them. They are not a project to be completed but a doorway opening onto a greater depth of understanding and action that will take us into being more fully alive.

From The Answer to How is Yes by Peter Block.