On Stewardship

by Scott London

What motivates people to work on behalf of the common good? In a study I’m leading for the Harwood Institute, I’ve been exploring this question with community leaders from across the country — civic entrepreneurs working to reduce homelessness, address poverty, work with inmates, clean up the environment, and generally strengthen our communities. A word that comes up again and again in our conversations is stewardship. They tell me that a sense of caring and responsibility for the commons is at the center of what they do.

This was an unexpected finding. To better understand this idea, I turned to Peter Block’s valuable 1993 book, Stewardship, still one of the best management books I’ve seen on enlightened leadership practices. The book is aimed primarily at business leaders, but it also applies directly to those working to improve our neighborhoods and communities.

Stewardship, as Block defines, means to hold something in trust for another. Traditionally, it was a way of protecting a kingdom in the absence of its ruler, or a way of governing for the sake of an underage king. According to Block, stewardship serves as a metaphor for a different way of thinking about leadership, organizations and communities. It suggests that people are most effective when they participate as caretakers or stewards, when they put service before self-interest, and when they operate from a sense of ownership and accountability.

It’s a bold vision, one that contrasts sharply with the conventional view of leadership. “The governance system we have inherited and continue to create is based on sovereignty and a form of intimate colonialism,” Block writes. “We govern our organizations by valuing, above all else, consistency, control, and predictability.” But this top-driven, patriarchal approach to management comes at a high price. Without the spirit of democracy, organizations become places of helplessness and compliance, places that stifle creative expression and ultimately fail to create product, guarantee quality or serve customers.

According to Block, the best hope for reforming our organizations lies in reshaping the politics of our work lives — how we each define purpose, hold power, and balance wealth. In practical terms, this involves nine principles:

  1. Maximizing the choices for those closest to the work
  2. Eliminating management classes by reintegrating the managing and the doing of the work — “no one would be able to make a living simply planning, watching, controlling, or evaluating the actions of others”
  3. Allowing measurements and controls to serve the core workers by means of, among other things, team and peer agreements
  4. Yielding on consistency across groups and supporting local solutions
  5. Making service the highest priority
  6. Deglorifying management job titles and demystifying staff functions
  7. Eliminating secrecy in the organization
  8. Demanding a firm commitment from each participant with the recognition that freedom and accountability “are in every case joined at the hip”
  9. Redistributing wealth since “reward systems need to tie everyone’s fortunes to the success of the team, unit, and larger organization”

Block explores the challenges standing in the way of reform at some length. Much of the difficulty, he points out, stems from our deep-seated assumptions about the role of leadership. Leaders maintain that they are needed to “set the vision” and to assume ultimate responsibility, while followers often look to superiors to take care of them. “We cannot be leaders without followers, and we cannot be good parents unless we have good children,” he observes. “This dependent mindset justifies and rationalizes patriarchy and keeps it breathing.”

Shifting away from patriarchy must begin with an understanding of how we have helped to create it in the first place. Therefore it requires not only structural and policy changes but also a new way of thinking for each member of the organization. Reform efforts implemented from the top down are guaranteed to fail. “We do not need common vision, least of all one articulated by a small group at the top. We need common mission, a common membership contract, but not a process to induce common values.”

At bottom, Block says, stewardship and self-governance go hand-in-hand. Our workplace is a microcosm of democracy. What we do there “makes a difference. This is where democracy will revive itself, not in the voting booth. Our own unit becomes the place where the economic war will be won and democracy rediscovered.”