Leadership Notes #74 – Stewardship

(This series of “notes” first appeared in the YahooGroup “VenturingList” and are written by Michael Brown. I thought that they were worth sharing with the Commissioner Corps.)

Peter Block’s work, “Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest” (1993) is his take on the servant leadership concept. He’s not unaware of the concept, contributing to the “Insights on Leadership” collection for the Greenleaf Center. “Stewardship” is usually defined as ‘keeping something in trust for another.’ We speak of stewardship when we talk about public lands like parks and forests, keeping them maintained for future generations. We speak of stewardship when we maintain stuff for future generations. We could also speak of stewardship in terms of organizations, keeping the organization running and viable for future members.

In the book, “stewardship” is defined as ‘the choice to preside overly the orderly distribution of power.’ Traditional ideas of leadership, the ‘command and control’ structure, is too much built around certain people taking power. With servant leadership, this is turned on its head, with power coming from the leader and given (back?) to the followers.

For the author, 4 elements must be present for authentic service to exist:
• Balance of power. (basically empowerment of followers)
• A primary commitment to a larger community
• Everyone joins in to define purpose and decide the culture of the group.(instead of it being only the leaders doing this)
• A balance and equitable distribution of rewards. (as compared to the leader taking all the credit/glory)

The author sees traditional leadership as composing self-interest, dependency, and control. In stewardship, this should be replaced with service, responsibility and partnership.

Most of us have probably heard of the term “command and control”. It is the traditional organizational/leadership structure of most companies and organizations. A very top-down structure where control flows from above. The author also calls this “patriarchy”. Controls is very important here. Consistency, doing the same thing the same way, is also important. The problem is that such structures are very rigid. Organizations that need to be able to adapt quickly can’t do so if they have a rigid structure. The alternate is “partnership”. Here, power, ownership, and responsibility is shared among several, and the rigid top-down structure is flattened. For partnership to work, 4 things must be present:
• Exchange of purpose
• Right to say No
• Joint Accountability
• Absolute honesty

What do these mean? In exchange of purpose, we are talking about vision and values, which we’ve touched on in prior Notes. In a top-down structure, these are defined at the higher levels, then pushed down to the lower levels. With the exchange of purpose, we are each responsible for defining vision and values. We all have a part to play in this.

Saying no is very powerful. If we can’t, saying ‘yes’ is meaningless. Here is a video of Peter on this concept: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkLdXjDkMVc

Joint Accountability means we are EACH responsible for outcomes and the current situation. We can’t push it off to others. Here are 2 videos of Peter on this concept. Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYRMhCtU54A Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWyL2irmfrY

And critically, there must be absolute honesty. In a top-down structure, there is often an avoidance of honesty. Not just from subordinates to their bosses, but from bosses to subordinates. In a partnership, this can’t work.

Empowerment is the second big part of stewardship. And the author has an interesting take on it. (I should point out that the author’s earlier work is on empowerment). He speaks of empowerment as responsibility and adventure as opposed to dependency and safety. Being empowered is about risk. You now have the power to make decisions, which entails risk. Again, too often the top-down hierarchies are very risk adverse.

Finally, service over self-interest is the third and final part of stewardship. Those of us who understand servant leadership understand this importance. Service is then realized in both the “language of service” (we use phrases like “we serve our country”, “we server our customers”, “doing service is important” and the like) and the “experience of service” (actually DOING service). The author feels the problem is that we often have the language of service (we toss out those phrases), but we lack the experience (not just that we don’t do service, but that we do service within the structure of organizations that don’t model servant leadership). This is due to the attitude of self-interest both in ourselves and our organizations.

Hence, to have real service, we must have the 4 elements I mentioned earlier. The book is divided into 3 parts. The first, fairly short, goes over the basics of stewardship. The second, more substantial, gets “practical”. It shows how stewardship will look like. Sadly, the examples are all given in terms of companies, not organizations. For us, dealing with groups like finance or HR is probably not of interest. And the third section goes into details of how to get to stewardship. Again, sadly, coached in terms of companies.

Since this work, the author has moved to other areas, in particular the area of building community, tho his works all do have a connection with underlying beliefs. Despite this work being a bit too business focused, there are some good ideas in looking at this different take on servant leadership.

Here is an interesting short video of Peter explaining what he has been doing lately: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sqjy9_Y8EWA