By Peter Block
Stewardship asks us to be deeply accountable for the outcomes of groups, institutions and communities without acting to define purpose for others or control them. It requires us to systematically move choice and resources closer and closer to the bottom and edges of the organization and can be most simply viewed as giving order to the dispersion of choice and control.
Leadership, on the other hand, gives order to the centralization of control. It keeps choices and resources at the center and places choice at the bottom and edge only as an exception to be earned. When we train leaders, the topics of defining purpose, maintaining controls, and taking care of others are at the center of the curriculum. We were raised to believe that if we were to be accountable, we needed the authority to go with it. How many times have we heard the cry, “How can you hold me accountable without giving me authority?”
Stewardship questions the belief that accountability and control go hand in hand. We can be accountable and give control to those closer to the work, operating from the belief that in this way the work is better served. Instead of deciding what kind of culture to create, and thus defining purpose, stewardship asks that each member of the organization join in the conversation about what this place will become.
Stewardship also asks us to forsake caretaking, an even harder habit to give up. We do not serve other adults when we take responsibility for their well-being. Many individual “leaders” understand the issues and have the desire to serve, in the best sense, but the machinery of how we manage is still filled with prescription and caretaking.
The desire to see stewardship as simply a different form of leadership is to miss the political dimension of the concept. When we hold on to the wish for leaders, we are voting for the status quo on the balance of power. When employees keep looking for better leadership, it is a way of liking the idea that someone up there in the organization or society is responsible for their well-being.
Setting goals for people, defining the measures of progress toward those goals, and then rewarding people for reaching them does not honor their capabilities. Even in its best form, control becomes some variation of supervision by a loving parent. Stewardship asks us to serve our organizations and be accountable to them without caretaking and without taking control. Shift from parent to partner. Let caretaking and control go, hold on to the spiritual meaning of stewardship: to honor what has been given to us, to use power with a sense of grace, and to pursue purposes that serve future generations and transcend short-term interests.
Human resources practices do not shape the culture of an institution; they are the culture. And most of our common HR practices reflect our love of consistency and control. When HR participates in seeking great leaders, we create practices that produce great followers. HR is the primary messenger for communicating the kind of relationship an institution wishes to have with its members and, through them, with its customers. Whatever the name of the current change effort—continuous improvement, agility, resilience, leanness, self-management, entrepreneurial government, evidence based education and health care—nothing will get institutionalized until HR practices in these arenas are redesigned. HR is well served when it designs its practices against the template of the stewardship idea.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, you can contact us in the US at 513-524-2224/www.designedlearning.com.