Stewardship in Leadership: Partnering Over Parenting

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  • August 18, 2017

The similarities between management and parenting are well-observed—and rightly criticized. Employees are adults, after all, and it is insulting to be compared to children. When employees are treated like children, they feel disempowered, disengaged, and overly dependent on the approval of their managers—an unhealthy dynamic.

But but but—this comparison isn't much of a stretch! I have employees who do act like children.

Consider that it takes two. When managers accept the role of parent, they often enable employees to act like children.

No one is happy in these scenarios. So how do we change this dynamic?

The first step is to acknowledge that paternalistic management (also known as parent-child leadership) is unhealthy and not conducive to employee engagement, productivity, or creativity. The second is to understand its cause: that this is a systemic problem. The parent-child relationship is the first power dynamic we learn, and is often the default role we play when we become managers.

There is an antidote to deep-rooted paternalistic thinking: stewardship, one of the critical characteristics of servant leadership.

What is stewardship?

Stewardship the set of principles and practices that have the potential to make dramatic changes in the governance of our institutions. It is concerned with creating a way of governing ourselves that creates a strong sense of ownership and responsibility for outcomes at every level of the organization. It is a buck that stops everywhere. It means having more of a partnership with customers and creating self-reliance on the part of all who are touched by the institution. It says that the answer to economic problems is not reduced costs or better funding; it is to focus on relationships, reciprocity, and participation first. These are the elements that produce the service we seek. This is what will put us closer to our employees and our marketplace. Stewardship is creating a sustainable connection with the people in our playing field that is the answer to our concerns about economics.

Stewardship begins with the willingness to be accountable for some larger body than ourselves—a team, an organization, a community. Stewardship springs from a set of beliefs about reforming organizations that affirm our choice for service over the pursuit of self-interest. When we choose service over self-interest, we say we are willing to be deeply accountable without choosing to control the world around us. It requires a level of trust that we are not used to holding.

In its commitment to service, stewardship forces us then to yield on our desire to use good parenting as a basic form of governance. We already know how to be good parents at work. The alternative, partnership, is something we are just learning about. Our difficulty with creating partnerships is that parenting—and its stronger cousin, patriarchy—is so deeply ingrained in our muscle memory and armature that we don’t even realize we are doing it.

Choosing partners

Stewardship_Partnership-sm.jpgIn deciding how to govern, one critical choice is between patriarchy and partnership. Patriarchy expresses the belief that it is those at the top who are responsible for the success of the organization and the well-being of its members. A measure of patriarchy is how frequently we use images of parenting to describe how bosses should manage employees in organizations. To create workplaces that provide meaning and are economically sound and strong in the marketplace, we need to face the implications of having chosen patriarchy for the governance system inside our organizations.

The governance system we have inherited and continue to sustain is based on sovereignty and a form of intimate colonialism. These are strong terms, but they are essentially accurate. We govern our organizations by valuing, above all else, consistency, control, and predictability. These become the means of dominance by which colonialism and sovereignty are enacted. It is not that we directly seek dominance, but our beliefs about getting work done have that effect.

We pay a price for our top-driven, parenting, patriarchal governance system:

  • Democracy cannot thrive if we experience it only for a moment of voting every two to four years. If day in and day out we go to a workplace that breeds helplessness and compliance, this becomes our generalized pattern of response to the larger questions of our society—and, in fact, most other aspects of our lives.
  • In a high-control environment, what is personal and sacred to us is denied. Autocratic governance withers the spirit.
  • In the marketplace we operate in now, centralized control, with its strong belief in better planning and clearer strategy, cannot create a more agile or adaptive future.

Partnership carries the intention to balance power between ourselves and those around us. It brings into question the utility of maintaining consistency, control, and predictability as cornerstones of management. It comes from the choice to place control close to where the work is done and not hold it as the prerogative of the middle and upper classes. It also flows from the choice to yield on consistency in how we manage, and thus to support local units in creating policies and practices that fit local situations. Finally, with the world in flux, demanding predictability becomes a form of institutional arthritis.

Choosing empowerment

Stewardship - EmpowermentIn addition to engendering partnership, genuine service requires us to act on our own account. We cannot be stewards of an institution and expect someone else to take care of us. Regardless of how parental our environment may be, we decide whether to support efforts to treat us like children, which expresses our wish for dependency, or to keep deciding that we serve the organization best by creating a place of our own choosing. The well-worn word for this is empowerment.

Opposing empowerment is dependency. Dependency rests on the belief that there are people in power who know what is best for others, including ourselves. We think the task of these leaders is to create an environment where we can live a life of safety and predictability. Dependency also holds those above personally responsible for how we feel about ourselves (we want that positive feedback) and for how much freedom we have. I will never forget hearing a supervisor say to his boss, “I want my freedom, if it is all right with you.” Dependency is the collusion required for parenting and patriarchy to endure.

We cannot be leaders without followers, and we cannot be good parents unless we have good children. This dependent mindset justifies and rationalizes patriarchy and keeps it breathing. If we were not looking so hard for leadership, others would be unable to claim sovereignty over us. Our search for great bosses comes not from a desire to be watched and directed but rather from our belief that clear authority relationships are the antidote to crisis and ultimately the answer to chaos.

Empowerment embodies the belief that the answer to the latest crisis lies within each of us, and therefore we will all buckle up for adventure. Empowerment bets that people at our own level or below will know best how to organize and innovate, make a dollar, serve a customer, get it right the first time, or invent an alternate future. We know that a democracy is a political system designed not for efficiency but as a hedge against the abuse of power. Empowerment is our willingness to bring this value into the workplace. It is our willingness to claim our autonomy and commit ourselves to making the organization work well, with or without the sponsorship of those above us. This requires a belief that my safety and my freedom are in my own hands. No easy task—therefore the adventure.

Choosing service

Stewardship - ServiceUltimately the choice we make is between service and self-interest. Both are attractive. The fire and intensity of self-interest seem to burn all around us. We search, so often in vain, to find leaders we can have faith in. Our doubts are not about our leaders’ talents but about their trustworthiness. We question whether they are serving their institutions or themselves. When we look at our peers and our neighbors, we see much energy dedicated to making sure each gets all of their entitlements. We ourselves are no different. We are intensely career minded, even though there are so few places to go. Or we have surrendered to lifestyle and dream of the day we will have our own business ... a small but profitable guesthouse–marina–landscape nursery–travel agency–bookstore–art gallery conglomerate. We were born into the age of anxiety and become adults in the age of self-interest.

The antidote to self-interest is to commit and to find cause. To commit to something outside of ourselves. To be part of creating something we care about so that we can endure the sacrifice, risk, and adventure that commitment entails. This is the deeper meaning of service.

Let the commitment and the cause be the place where we work, even if we know we won’t be there long, even though we are a contractor and work at home without meeting half the people we interact with.

Real commitment is an act made with no expectation of return. No barter. Not only do we commit to the product or service at our workplace, but also we commit to the culture and texture and efforts to create community. This means self-interest is replaced by a care for the common good. Our task is to create organizations we believe in and to do it as an offering, not a demand. No one will do it for us. Others have brought us this far. The next step is ours. Our choice for service and community becomes the only practical answer to our concern about self-interest.

Accountability ≠ Control

Stewardship asks us to be deeply accountable for the outcomes of a group, an institution, a community, without acting to define purpose for others, control others, or take care of others. Stewardship can be most simply viewed as giving order to the dispersion of power. It requires us to systematically move choice and resources closer and closer to the bottom and edges of the organization.

Leadership, in contrast, gives order to the centralization of power. It keeps choices and resources at the center and places power at the boundaries as an exception to be earned. When we train leaders, the topics of defining purpose, maintaining controls, and taking care of others are at the center of the curriculum. We were raised to believe that if we were to be accountable, we needed the authority to go with it. How many times have we heard the cry, “How can you hold me accountable without giving me authority?”

Stewardship questions the belief that accountability and control go hand in hand. We can be accountable and give control to those closer to the work, operating from the belief that in this way the work is better served. Instead of deciding what kind of culture to create, and thus defining purpose, stewards can ask that each member of the organization decide what the place will become.

Stewardship also asks us to forsake caretaking, an even harder habit to give up. We do not serve other adults when we take responsibility for their well-being. Many individual “leaders” understand the issues and have the desire to serve, in the best sense, but the machinery of how we manage is filled with prescription and caretaking.

In its most benign form, our strategies of control and consistency become some variation of supervision by a loving parent. Stewardship asks us to serve our organizations and be accountable to them without caretaking and without taking control. And in letting caretaking and control go, we hold on to the spiritual meaning of stewardship: to honor what has been given to us, to use power with a sense of grace, and to pursue purposes that transcend short-term self-interest.

When we take this to heart, it means we are all stewards, but we do not define ourselves by the amount of responsibility we have or how central we are in the eyes of other people. Stewardship in an institutional setting means attending to the service brought to each employee, customer, supplier, and community. To be accountable to those we have power over. This is accountability congruent with the redistribution of power, privilege, and purpose. This means initiating political reform so as to govern in service of those doing the work.

This article is an adapted excerpt from Stewardship by Peter Block.

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