If you are a business, division, or team leader who does not personally own the business or organization in which you have a leadership role, congratulations. You are in the majority — executives hired to manage privately-held or publicly-traded companies, government or nonprofit organizations or divisions, on behalf of the owner(s) or community. You have been given such endearing names as “hired gun” or “professional manager.” And whether you know it or not, you are a steward, a historically significant — but often misunderstood — term for anyone who manages the resources belonging to another.
In ancient Greece, Rome and Israel, stewards ran most of the commercial enterprises, estates, farms and even political services. They were given considerable latitude and freedom to manage the business or estate with the trust and confidence of the owner. Yes, they were generally slaves who were elevated to a position over all of the other slaves, but more about that later. Stewards created the techniques and management practices that allowed enterprise owners to entrust their businesses and resources into hands that were often more knowledgeable concerning how to run a business and make it grow than the owners themselves. They were the precursors of the modern professional manager.
In your role as a steward leader, you lead with a different mindset than the owner-operator. You know that you are there to maximize the value of the business for the benefit of the owners. If you are a nonprofit leader, you are leading the organization to accomplish its mission for the benefit of the stakeholders: the donors, constituents, and community. You are able to personally benefit from the results of your good leadership, but your first concern is the value you are bringing to the owners as a result of your leadership. Leading like a steward involves a number of unique attributes, behaviors, and perspectives:
When an owner, stockholder, stakeholder, or community entrusts an enterprise into the hands of a steward leader, they expect the steward to manage the business or organization as if they were running it themselves. One of the early distinguishing characteristics of the classical steward was: “the steward knows what the owner knows.” The steward needs to know the owner’s desires and goals for the resources and then manage accordingly. Plato and Socrates considered the steward’s role so important they referred to it as a “science” and called it oikonomia, or household management. Our modern word economy comes from that same word.
Since the steward leads and manages resources on behalf of others, the steward is accountable to the owner, stockholders, or stakeholders for how he or she has managed the enterprise. In the modern corporation, financial accounting is one of the main ways that stewards account for their stewardship. In fact, modern accounting originated out of the ledgers and means by which classical stewards accounted for the performance of the business or estate under their care.
We have already remarked how classical stewards were generally slaves, albeit the highest ranking slave. In our modern society, the steward leader is owned by no one, but he or she is still a servant of the owner(s) and leads with an attitude of service and altruism for the benefit of others. Today’s frequent business emphasis on servant leadership is a useful foundation for understanding how the steward leader serves others.
Enterprise stewards do more than just try to make businesses grow. They also steward and grow their own personal skills and abilities, the company’s brand and reputation, the work environment and culture, the skills and abilities of others, etc. It’s a highly responsible position with wide-ranging resources and responsibilities.
Finally, steward leaders don’t try to do it alone. They develop stewardship in the employees so that together everyone can manage the resources of the enterprise with the same mindset and goals. Steward leadership is one of the oldest, and most contemporary, leadership models around.
Wilson is an executive coach with Vistage International and the Nonprofit Leadership Exchange in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.