Servant Leaders & Stewardship

Larry C. Spears in his Journal of Virtues and Leadership says:

Greenleaf’s view of all institutions was one in which CEO’s, staff, and trustees all played significant roles in holding their institutions in trust for the greater good of society. Servant leadership, like stewardship, assumes first and foremost a commitment to serving the needs of others. It also emphasizes the use of openness and persuasion, rather than control.

Stewardship feels to me to be something of an old fashioned concept but one I have held dear over my lifetime. There have been two occasions in my life when I felt a strong sense of responsibility akin to stewardship. The first was when I became a Christian and realised my life was not my own but a gift I had been given – it did not belong to me but the one who made me. Whether we realise it or not all of us are stewards of the life we have been given. The second was the moment my first daughter came into the world when I was overtaken by the almost overwhelming sense I had been entrusted with something (someone!) very precious to look after. From that moment on I have parented with an acute sense of stewardship.

It’s interesting to think about how that sense of stewardship has affected the way I have lived my life and parented my children and how it shapes leadership. There are probably many more but here are three thoughts that struck me.

Firstly, stewardship instils an increased level of care. If you think about it whenever you borrow something that doesn’t belong to you, you inevitably feel an increased sense of responsibility and a heightened awareness of the need to look after whatever you’ve borrowed. Borrowing someone’s car comes to mind not to mention looking after someone else’s children. However careful you are with your own children you take it to a whole new level with someone else’s! Leaders who lead with a sense of stewardship are care-full, they are not reckless because they recognise that who and what they lead doesn’t belong to them.

Secondly, stewardship encourages you to be mindful of the thoughts and feelings of those who have invested their trust in you even when they are not present. For example the Executors of a will don’t own the assets of the estate of the deceased person but they have an obligation to distribute them in accordance with the wishes of that person. Stewardship includes a commitment to remain true to the trust invested, in other words it requires integrity and trustworthiness. Leaders who lead with a sense of stewardship are not self-serving but serve the interests of others. They understand it’s not just their opinions or feelings that count, they honour those of the people who appointed them but also those they lead.

Thirdly, stewardship brings a perspective that requires that I lead on behalf of those who have gone before me and those who will come after me, not just those who are in front of me today. I will honour the past, consider the implications for the future, as well as the impact on the present of any decisions I make today. Leaders who carry a sense of stewardship have an increased depth of field of vision which acknowledges the past and embraces the future.

To close, those leading and those being led should be encouraged to use their gifts to serve others. Whatever gift you have been given, but in particular the gift of leadership, steward it well, with care, integrity and vision for the good and growth of those you lead. 

Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant