Leading as a Steward

If Christian schools require their leaders to act as stewards, it is useful to think about what exactly a Steward Leader is. It is easy to think that Steward Leadership is just a Christian version of Servant Leadership, a concept familiar to many of us. However, once explored, one can see significant and fundamental differences. What anchors Steward Leadership is acknowledging God’s ownership of all creation.

A helpful biblical example of a Steward Leader is the Old Testament character of Joseph. In every circumstance, he sensed his role of responsible caretaking in that corner of the creation. In a blogpost on Bible.org, Dr. Kenneth Boa wrote the following:

We want to rush to the end, where Joseph is large and in charge, reconciled to his brothers, enjoying luxury, and they all live happily ever after. But Joseph models something more important for us. Stewardship happens in the meantime. Regardless of his circumstances, whether he was on an upswing or a downturn, Joseph utilized the resources available to him for great good.

This determination to represent the interest of another is a true differentiator and goes much further than Servant Leadership. Servant Leadership may well grasp the call to lead. But Steward Leadership includes the “for whom.”

In the field of business, most good leaders focus on the customers and the employees. Robert Greenleaf, the father of Servant Leadership, said that business “exists as much to provide meaningful work to the employee as it does to provide a product or service to the customer.” These are good priorities, but the characteristics of Servant Leadership don’t go quite far enough as to truly represent the owner. While admirable, the encouraged characteristics (humility, listening skills, courage, integrity, open-mindedness, selflessness, confidence) are more the characteristics of one who has a strong desire to lead well rather than one who has submitted to leading on behalf of a master.

Thinking about governance, Steward Leadership takes on a unique import related to the interests of the owner. This focus can help organizations find a healthy balance of power and engagement between the executives, the board members, and the needs of the organization itself. Apart from a well-developed view of Steward Leadership, a board can over-focus on board control tasks with the assumption that board effectiveness is a function of its independence from management. When both boards and executives operate on a Steward Leadership approach, they can create an environment where debate may cause new interactions to arise, resulting in better board monitoring performance.

How can boards carry out their stewardship functions well? Interestingly, this very practical approach almost obscures any philosophical discussion of the importance of this board role. The link between stewardship and effective governance becomes clear when one understands both the correct view of a trustee and the correct relationship between board and the executive. While there is room for variation on how the two interact, the relationship between board and executive is most optimum when, as Brian Simmons, former President of ACSI, says, “Boards do board stuff and the CEO does CEO stuff.” A trustee is one who has been given a trust. An effective trustee is one who carries out the trust role effectively. There is no ownership implicit in the role, though it may also exist. In a healthy board/executive relationship, the board has one employee in the CEO and has a healthy level of engagement. In the end, both boards and CEOs have one eternal owner—invisible, but moral and ultimate. Holding a Steward Leadership mindset, both executives and board members recognize God’s ownership of all creation, including their organization.

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