Stewardship and Business Perspective

By Peter Block

There was a time the church and the military set the tone for the society. In other times, it was the government and concern for the social good. Not so now. The perspective for assessing our common interests and institutional well-being today is the business perspective. It is the dominant focusing device. It defines the conversation.

The business perspective affects not only the way we work but also who we are becoming. It defines our new heroes. The contemporary hero is now the entrepreneur––a single soul with faith in an idea that reinvents a marketplace, disrupts a whole industry, takes everything to scale, creates new needs, and provides an escort service into the future. We consider business success the ultimate credential.

This is not an argument against business, for businesses are the stabilizing institutions in many places. They contribute to communities in many more ways than creating jobs. They are the institutions most open to change and adaptation to the new world. They also bring to the community talented and committed people. They also are out best foreign policy.

The point is to recognize the power of the business perspective. In doing this we can re-frame the way we choose to work together and relate to one another. Its assumptions are so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we rarely question them and so cannot ever solve the fundamental issues that hold us and our organizations in a world of increasing isolation, anxiety, and concentration of wealth and power. This reality is what calls us to stay interested in the idea of stewardship.

The current business narrative is fundamentally one of scarcity. No increase in earnings, no improvement in productivity, is ever enough. Even in good economic times the narrative is one of fierce competition, more cost reduction, grow or die. Stewardship is a narrative of abundance: it says that what we have is enough, that there are limits to growth, and it expands our field of vision to care for something larger than profitability. Stewardship supports the assumptions of a cooperative world; it replaces competition with collaboration, self-interest with service. It asks us to care more about meaning and impact than about the traditional concern for upward mobility. As it cares about the next generation, it cares about the earth.

This is where HR comes in. For today’s human resources professionals the ideas and practice of stewardship are a useful framework for thriving in an age dominated by the narratives of modern business. It may even be a survival strategy. Stewardship offers an anchor in an era that constantly drives us in the direction of speed, control, and efficiency. Stewardship points to an alternative future that transcends the pressure of lower costs and short-term results. It holds a restorative set of values, centered on creating high performance by putting the future in the hands of each member of an organization. The best news is that that it invites you to co-create the idea and practice of stewardship, to imagine its possibilities, and make sense and meaning of it in your own way, out of your own context.

We are drawn into HR for its values. Period. Its care for the human being. We thought HR was expert in compensation systems, and benefits and training, and safety, leadership development and talent recruiting and management. It is all these things, but they are not the point. They can all be outsourced and automated. There are whole disruptive industries to put these functions at the fingertips of home workers around the globe. HR is, in the end, a function committed to the restoration of our humanity. Our value of relationships. Our belief that income disparity works against the future of our institutions.

This is not idealism. It is the most hard core reality that any of us can talk about. If we as HR people, think our institutions –– business, religion, social service, education, government –– can cost-cut, make efficiencies, consolidate us into a sustainable future, then we are fools destined to serve at the table, and not sit at it. The possibility of restoring the humanity of the workplace is there for the asking.

If these ideas resonate with you, or if you want learn more practical strategies on how to implement Peter’s ideas, consider attending one of our Flawless Consulting Workshops.

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