Stewardship is about choosing service over self-interest. It begins with a willingness to be deeply accountable for a body larger than yourself – for a team, an organization, a community.
Imagine how strong your organization would be if everyone were deeply committed and accountable for its success.
These are not new ideas. The evidence and research results are in, and we know for a fact that partnership and participation are the management strategies that create high-performance workplaces.
Words like empowerment, collaboration and partnership have been tossed around for years.
So how are today’s organizations and institutions doing?
Here in the United States, the answer is, “not so well.” According to Peter Block, author of the seminal bestseller Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest, “A few companies like LivePerson are doing it differently, but most still just give it lip-service.”
This week marks the release of the expanded Twentieth Anniversary edition of Stewardship. Reading this updated edition, I was reminded of how much my thinking was influenced by the first edition 20 years ago. It is so clearly written, the ideas so compelling, and it makes so much sense, it is a mystery why our organizations continue to struggle.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to pose my questions to Peter directly.
Considering how much we know about what creates high-performance workplaces, why aren’t we doing better?
One problem is that too many people think the purpose of a business is simply to make money. The traditional business approach is about focusing on scale and speed, reducing costs, getting bigger, and beating the competition. This approach takes people right out of the equation, and the common good is sacrificed.
In the long run, this approach doesn’t get us far. GM thought the only point of business was to make money, and look how they did. Unfortunately too many organizations, including megachurches for example, are being run with this typical business approach.
Stewardship is about service to something greater. Yes, business needs to make money, but it is also entrusted with the well-being of people, the environment and the planet. When we exclude that, we have a very small purpose that inspires no one, and that evokes neither passion nor commitment.
What is the role of leadership in creating a culture of stewardship?
Most leadership models are based on the idea of being “good parents” – helping subordinates grow, develop and accomplish their goals, rewarding their efforts and successes. It seems benevolent. However, it prevents people from becoming stewards of their organization.
It is not possible to assume deep responsibility and accountability, and at the same time be dependent, expecting someone else to take care of you.
The idea that leaders need to be good parents and that the world is better off when someone is in charge is so deeply held that we simply accept it as true. Even when we intellectually understand the fallacy of these beliefs, they are so deeply ingrained in our muscle memory and automatic responses that we continue to act in a paternalistic manner without realizing it.
We must let go of the need to try to control the world around us. This requires a level of trust that we are not used to holding. But it is possible to make the conscious effort, and it benefits not only ourselves, but our organizations, and everyone around us.
Stewardship is a worthy alternative to leadership.
What kinds of things can we do to shift from leadership to stewardship?
Stewardship asks us to be deeply accountable for the outcomes within our organizations without trying to control others or trying to take care of them. It requires a redistribution of power and privilege, moving choice and resources closer to the edges of the organization. Here are some examples of the kinds of things leaders can do to become stewards:
- Give choice to people at the edge as much as possible.
- Meet in a circle, not auditoriums. Circles allow people to see and talk with each other. Auditoriums are for people to be talked at.
- Stop performance appraisals where bosses evaluate their subordinates. Peers should be talking about how we’re doing together.
- Let go of the idea that everything needs consistency. There are just a few areas that need it, like how you report finances. IT and HR should be consultants, not in control.
- Eliminate the privilege system. Don’t give bigger and nicer offices to those at the top. If you have a special parking spot, give it up.
- Be willing to say, “I don’t know what’s best for you.” Ask them what they think, and then look them in the eye and listen to what they have to say.
Peter Block is a global bestselling author and consultant, and a partner in Designed Learning, a training company that offers workshops that build the skills outlined in his books. The recipient of numerous awards including ASTD’s Distinguished Contribution to the Workplace Award, he was named to Training Magazine’s HRD Hall of Fame. His bestselling book, Stewardship has just been re-released in a 20th Anniversary, Revised and Extended Edition with a foreword by Steven Piersanti.