The Many Faces of a Steward Leader by Kent R. Wilson, Ph.D.
Steward leaders are not just confined to the nonprofit sector. It can be safely said that virtually 99.9% of people who work in education, civil service, politics, and the military are stewards of resources they do not own. Therefore, there are many faces to steward leaders. Here are just a few:
Steward leadership among professional managers
Many larger companies have absentee owners who have placed control of the company in the hands of professional managers and leaders. These people are the true embodiment of steward leaders who are managing the resources belonging to a known owner or owners. Most of them are aware of their non-ownership role, but they have probably never been given the language and understanding of steward leadership to focus their identity and responsibilities.
Steward leadership among publicly traded company leaders
Like professional managers with absentee owners, stockholders of publicly traded companies merely constitute a pool of owners whose input to the managers is dictated by rules and bylaws. Similar to nonprofit stakeholders, stockholders rarely speak with one voice, but the policies surrounding stockholder meetings and input are generally defined. Why, then, has there been a spate of bad publicity surrounding the abusive actions of public company leaders? I would venture to suggest that the vast majority of these failures of leadership have been failures of stewardship. The lure of money and acting like an owner may be too great, but the only solution that I can see is for these leaders to be selected based as much on their character and stewardship attitudes as on their business expertise.
Steward leadership in education
Most people that I know in education have a high respect for the public trust that they are given to educate our children and workforce. Many have never heard of steward leadership or have limited views of stewardship. School boards and academic committees present a unique challenge to governance and stewardship, but those who best understand how they work can apply the tenants of steward leadership to these important community roles.
Steward leadership in the military
The military seems to be one place where every recruit is indoctrinated into their role as servants of the nation, so this is one sector where the language and concepts of stewardship and steward leadership should be able to find quick adoption. But as in education, it will take the work of those who know this sector to best translate the concepts into language and images that are appropriate.
Steward leadership in civil service and politics
People in civil service share many of the altruistic characteristics of nonprofit employees. They know they are there to serve the citizenry and all the resources at their disposal belong to the community at large. So why are there higher levels of dissatisfaction with their roles than in the nonprofit sector? Is there a failure of emphasis on the important stewardship role that they play for the benefit of the rest of us? Who wouldn’t stand up and cheer a politician that came out unambiguously and continuously with the identity and character of “a steward of the people”?
Steward leaders. They served at the center of society for thousands of years, and can be in even greater positions of influence today because of the growth in opportunity that individual citizens can experience. Imagine what society would be like if we were surrounded by faithful steward leaders and individual stewards?
Kent Wilson Ph.D. is a leadership coach and nonprofit leadership specialist. After running nonprofit organizations for 30 years, he now serves as an executive coach with Vistage International in Colorado Springs, is co-founder of the Steward Leader Initiative, program director for CLA’s Leader2Leader initiative and frequently trains boards in steward-governance.
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