The Leadership Question

We constantly struggle with the question why we have such difficulty implementing what we know about stewardship practices. Often we think what is needed is better leadership. Perhaps not. Though there is great appeal to the concept of leadership, it will not take us the distance we need to travel. It is not easy to question something we have been searching for most of our lives, but it is the right starting point.

The strength in the concept of leadership is that it connotes initiative and responsibility. Good friends in hard times. It is, however, inevitably associated with behaviors of control, direction, and knowing what is best for others. The act of leading cultural or organizational change by determining the desired future, defining the path to get there, and then rolling this out like a marketing or engineering project is incompatible with widely distributing ownership and responsibility in an organization.

To state it bluntly, strong leadership does not have within it the capability to create the fundamental change our organizations require: placing ownership and felt responsibility close to the core work. It is not the fault of the people in leadership positions; it is the fault of the way we all have framed the role. Our search for strong leadership expresses the desire for someone above or below to assume the ownership and responsibility for our group, our organization, our society. The effect is to localize power, purpose, and privilege in the ones we call leaders. Over time, that destroys a distributive culture and prevents the very outcomes we sincerely intend to create.

We have the right language about change. We know it is a process and not a program. We know it is evolutionary, that it takes time and training. We know it requires commitment, not coercion. But then we begin to talk about leadership. It is at this point that we revert to our underlying beliefs about control and direction, and our intent for authentic and lasting change gets undermined.

Consider the price we pay for attributing to people in power the ability to transform whole institutions:

• We reinforce the idea that accomplishment in our organizations and society comes from great individual acts. We credit individuals for outcomes that required teams and communities to accomplish. If you question this, look at all of our recognition and award programs.

• Our attention becomes fixated on those at the top. We live the myth that if you do not have sponsorship from the top, you cannot realize your intentions. We think change starts at the top.

• People in power who succeed begin to believe their own press. They start believing that their institution’s success was in fact their own creation. They think their words and actions are mission critical. Because of this their speeches are written by professionals, vetted by focus groups, packaged by media people.

The interest we have in leadership comes from the desire each of us has to lead and be led. But the concept of leadership does not leave much room for the concept of partnership. Let go of the idea that the “buck stops here,” there, or anywhere. For stewardship to thrive, HR needs to define the way. Of course there is value in the initiative and accountability and vision of the leadership idea. But the partnership idea is also powerful. This means HR has a central role in helping to disown the inevitable overtones of dominance and self-interest.

HR is a major player as an advocate for partnership. For programs and actions that call for a balance of power. For dialogue among equals when special events are planned. For boss as partner instead of good parent. In the end, advocating and organizing a culture of shared responsibility, strong voices from every level, a place symbolized by the circle instead of the triangle, may be the lasting contribution of the HR function. Instead of asking for a seat at the table, host the meal.

Adapted from Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler, 2013). In the last 25 years, Peter Block’s Designed Learning has trained over 1,000,000 staff professionals worldwide using his highly successful Flawless Consulting™ workshops. To find out how you can bring this valuable training to your company or organization, contact our Brazilian affiliate Jacqueline Resch at (21) 258-8213/Email: jacqueline@reschrh.com.br. Or, you can contact us in the US at 513-524-2224/Email: info@designedlearning.com.