Stewardship Is an Alternative to Leadership

StewardshipStewardship 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 BlockPeter 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.

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20 comments to Stewardship Is an Alternative to Leadership

  • Jesse, I am a big fan of meeting in circles. So many fantastic ideas here. I have this book on my desk and you have inspired me to read it as soon as possible.

    • I’m a fan of circles too, Karin. It’s difficult to have a team conversation when everyone can’t see each other. I try to avoid long boardroom tables where people sit in long lines on both sides. I think you’ll really enjoy Stewardship. Reading it is like eating a great meal – it makes so much sense and is so easy to read you could breeze right through it, but you want to read slowly to savor each morsel.

  • Hi, Jesse

    Thanks for the fascinating interview with Peter Block.

    The comment about the fallacy of parental leadership particularly rings true, in my experience. Even the most benevolent of leaders will often justify keeping and wielding control for other’s well-being. It’s hard to let go of the idea that I can take care of someone else better than they can of themselves:)

    I did not read this title OR “Flawless Consulting” first time around, so I’m enjoying the immersion in Peter’s ideas. Now I have to make time in my reading schedule for both, because I can tell there is treasure within.

    John

    • It rings true for me also, John. I think sometimes we are just trying to be helpful and don’t realize we are acting on a flawed assumption that we know what’s best for them. Considering the implications has me also rethinking my approach to my 25 year old son. I think I’ve been a little too free with unsolicited helpful advice. As good as my advice is, it does not support his autonomy and independence.

  • Jesse,
    Thank you for the post. This is helpful in my business and my volunteer positions. I think the idea of “owner stewardship” makes the difference in growing companies and organizations, no matter your position. Hopefully the leader is leading the way!

    Best regards,
    Don J.

    • Absolutely, Don. When people are acting as stewards, they feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for the success of the enterprise, and when leaders “lead the way,” people will follow because they want to, not because they have no choice. Too often leaders assume they should either be in control or abdicate. One of my recent posts was about what leaders do in the space between space between supervising closely and delegating.

  • If I follow this to its natural conclusion, Congress tries to LEAD us when, in fact, we must become stewards of each other, our community, and our world. In fact–there are too many “positional” leaders who are lousy stewards. The word steward implies and careful tending of people and items outside of one’s self. I am not sure one could or should refrain from advice.

    • Indeed. The natural conclusion is we need to assume personal responsibility for the success of our country and not blindly follow leaders who are not acting as stewards or complain that they should be taking better care of us. When one assumes stewardship, speaking out becomes an imperative (as you well know, my friend).

  • Jesse,
    Thank you for this . What a great read. I am a fan of circles too ( having suffered being ‘talked to’ for much of my corporate career ).Letting go of the need for consistency in certain areas is another great point. Come to think of it, what we presume to be consistency is actually an illusion at that point in time. What I personally see missing in the corporate world today is kindness. All the more so in organizations that claim ‘people are our greatest assets ‘. Cheesy as it sounds, a little bit more of kindness by the leaders could do wonders to the teams and the organization.

    • Kindness… it is indeed too rare. I think we could see more of it if we stop considering employees to be human assets and see them as Human Beings. Appreciate your thoughts, Sridhar. Thanks for extending the conversation.

  • Alan Eccleston

    Jesse, this is a nice reminder of some bedrock principles. My current focus on stewardship relates more to individual and corporate responsibility for preserving a liveable planet. The principles of shared responsibility still hold–and there needs to be consideration for the seventh generation. Peter Block’s observation that maximizing profit is not the best leadership guideline is timely.

    • Hi Alan, it was not possible to do justice to such a deep subject in an 800 word post, so I focused on leadership. Stewardship implies “holding in trust for future generations” and I really appreciate your demonstrating that that there are many ways to focus our energies on making that contribution. What’s important is that you are taking action in service of something greater than your own self-interest. Peter makes some points in his book that I think you’d find interesting for reflection – one is about use of power. How do we use power (or not use it) to influence individuals and corporate responsibility? And the other is about the personal work we each need to do to embody these principles. Thanks so much for extending the conversation, Alan.

  • Gurmeet singh Pawar

    Nice Article Jesse, Interesting interview.

    Thanks

  • Dave Howe

    Thanks, Jesse, I will be looking for Peter Block’s work! I proposed a stewardship model for our organization, but often people, not knowing what else to do, want to dish the responsibility that goes with stewardship to someone else. Wouldn’t it be greatif entire communities adopted the value of true stewardship!

    • It would be great. It’s powerful and empowering to adopt a mindset of stewardship. We can invite others to become stewards and we can make it easier for them by pushing power to those closest to the customer and ensuring systems support empowerment, rather than are control systems. But ultimately, as Peter points out in his book, the place to start is with ourselves. It’s a great book, Dave. I think it will give you more ideas of how to bring the model into your organization.

  • I agree with Peter on many issues. But the old paternalistic model isn’t even very good at parenting kids. My wife and I do not dictate, rather we advise based on our experience, then we let them decided how they want to proceed. In business stewardship is more like coaching, in my opinion, as a coach you layout a play, and provide advice, but in the end the players are expected to react to the conditions and execute the required actions to score. It is a very rare case in any sport that a play works exactly as planned, after all the opposition has their own plays as well. Good coaching provides players the ground work within which to execute goods plays. In business coaching provides the ground work so that staff can make decisions and take actions in order to succeed. There is just no way you can plan for everything so we would be far better off empowering people to make adjustments in the execution of their work after all they are seeing what is happening in real time, something no superior ever sees.

    • You make an excellent point about not being able to plan for everything and so attempts to control from afar will be much less successful than empowering those closest to the situation to respond to it. I also agree that the old paternalistic model isn’t very good at parenting kids, especially as they grow older. A good parent supports their child in learning to think independently and assuming responsibility for their actions as they mature into adults. I think the challenge in organizations today is that when leaders are in a power position, even a benevolent one, they are not in relationship adult to adult. Peter’s views are considered radical by many because he is advocating tossing out the hierarchy and control systems completely and treating adults as adults and not children.

  • I enjoy reading leadership books that have been “updated and revised”. Sometimes they’re just fluff just to get renewed attention and sometimes they actually have some new and essential information. Peter Block’s newly re-released book, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest, does the latter.Block backs up everything he says with great examples, case studies, suggestions, and creativity. You’ll see that your “business as usual” can’t be your “business as usual” anymore.About stewardship, he says in part, “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. Stated simply, it is accountability without control or compliance”. We need to lessen the self-interest and increase the service experience. There needs to be a balance of power.This book gives you the understanding and the tools to create a work plan to get greater business results in the most effective way.

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