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Defining Steward Leadership

Defining Steward Leadership

By  Kent R. Wilson Ph.D.

In the past three decades there has been an increasing interest and reference to steward leadership. But for all of the articles, books and seminars that have been given on steward leadership, I find one fact that stands out: we have yet to agree on a core definition of steward leadership.

There are great sources concerning the characteristics of the steward leader (see especially the writings of Dr. Scott Rodin), and many have discussed what the steward leader does, but our core definitions still vary widely. If we can agree on a core definition, I believe our understanding of the characteristics; activities and outcomes of steward leadership will be strengthened as a result.

I won’t take the time to review all of the definitions of steward leadership that have been proposed. But a few definitions will demonstrate the current range of definitions. Bobby Clinton (Leadership Emergence Theory) defined steward leadership as a philosophical accountability model “in that a leader must give an account of his/her ministry to God.”

Peter Block (Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest) wrote one of the most popular business books on stewardship in which he defined (or mis-defined as I believe) the model as “the choice to preside over the orderly distribution of power. This means giving people at the bottom and the boundaries of the organization choice over how to serve a customer, a citizen, a community. It is the willingness to be accountable for the well-being of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than in control, of those around us.”

Peter Brinckerhoff (NonProfit Stewardship) provides a more refined definition, “The stewardship philosophy of leadership […] reminds us that the not-for-profit sector organizations actually belong to the communities they serve, and leaders have temporary stewardship over their assets. The key concept here is this: as a steward, your job is to manage your not-for-profit with the same care, the same attention to detail, the same level of responsibility that you would give to someone else’s property—because that’s the reality.”

After spending the last 15 years researching the role of a steward in both classical and biblical sources, and in studying the unique characteristics of steward leadership, I have concluded that a core definition of steward leadership must involve fundamental concepts that I have woven into the following definition:

Steward leadership is the efficient management and growth of organizational resources, through leading the staff and activities of the organization as a non-owning steward-servant, in order to achieve the mission according to the objectives of the owners or stakeholders.

This definition of steward leadership has concepts that are critical to a consistent understanding of what a steward is and does when overseeing and leading an organization.

1.     The steward leader knows he/she is not the owner

Non-ownership is a critical understanding of any effective steward leader. He/she knows that he is only an agent serving on behalf of others who are either explicit owners (e.g. stockholders, private business owners) or implicit owners (e.g. the stakeholders of a nonprofit organization).

2.     A major goal of steward leadership is to grow the resources

In almost every historical example of stewardship, a primary goal of the owner of the resources is for the steward to make the resources grow through efficient and effective management. God wants mankind to “be fruitful and multiply,” and the owner in the parable of the talents expected his stewards to grow his resources by “putting them to work.”

3.     The steward leader stewards a wide range of resources

Enterprise stewards manage resources that range from things to people to intransitive concepts. They manage other  people, steward and grow their own personal skills and abilities, the company’s brand and reputation, the work environment and culture, the skills and abilities of others, etc.

 4.     The steward leader serves

Classical stewards were generally slaves, albeit the highest ranking slave. In our modern society, the steward leader is owned by no one, but he or she is still a servant of the owner(s) and leads with an attitude of service and altruism for the benefit of others. This means the steward leader is a servant leader, but also much more.

5.     The steward leader tries the achieve the goals of the owner

When an owner, stockholder, stakeholder, or community entrusts an enterprise into the hands of a steward leader, they expect the steward to manage the business or organization in order to achieve their objectives and goals. One of the early distinguishing characteristics of the classical steward was said to be “The steward knows what the owner knows.” This is a critical concept that is unfortunately missing from many definitions of steward leadership.


Kent  R. Wilson Ph.D. is a business practitioner and nonprofit leadership specialist. After running  companies for 30 years, he now serves as an executive coach with Vistage International in Colorado Springs, is the co-founder of Steward Leader Initiative,  and as the Program Manager for Leader2Leader, CLA’s peer advisory program for nonprofit executives.

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