Why business needs ‘steward’ leaders


Does your organisation want its leaders to be the best in the world or the best for the world? In an ideal scenario of course they would be both but getting the balance right is a real challenge for today’s organisations.

Added on 13 September 2013 by Kai Peters

Why business needs ‘steward’ leaders

Does your organisation want its leaders to be the best in the world or the best for the world? In an ideal scenario of course they would be both but getting the balance right is a real challenge for today’s organisations.

Competition is intense economic times are difficult and organisations need leaders who can deliver results for shareholders and ensure a sustainable future for the business. At the same time we are operating in an age of total transparency where unscrupulous behaviour can’t be swept under the carpet and consumers are increasingly vocal about their desire for companies to demonstrate social conscience as well as pursuit of profit. These changing times call for a radical departure from the leadership styles of the past. We need to break away from the traditional high-achieving ‘hero’ leader and abandon the command and control approach to leadership which despite reports of its demise is still alive and well in many organisations.

What we need instead are ‘steward’ leaders who have both the desire and the skills to develop organisations which are sustainable in every sense of the word.

What does a steward leader look like?

Steward leaders are those who are motivated by justice and dignity and who can see the bigger picture. They are able to break out of the traditional selfish and narcissistic mould to become leaders who care about others. Their emphasis is on delivering results with others – and they are skilled in bringing networks and resources together in pursuit of a common aim.

There are of course leaders who already take this stewardship approach (although they may not recognise it as such) – but our research has shown that they tend to be at the more mature end of the age spectrum. Many executives beyond a certain age develop a concern or orientation for the ‘common good’ and become interested in issues relating to society-at-large. They may get involved in community outreach programmes for example mentor others or seek to influence more sustainable behaviour through their networks.

This tendency to become less self-interested and to engage constructively with others is a natural part of the process of maturing. But if we are to develop truly sustainable organisations we need to see this stewardship approach develop much earlier in people’s careers and lifetimes.

Can stewardship be developed?

In our new book ‘Steward Leadership’ we identify the nine essential dimensions of stewardship and debate what they are and how they can be developed.

Development of a stewardship mindset cannot however be ‘taught’ by a teacher or external facilitator – it requires the individual to have some kind of internal impetus to evolve in this way and a willingness to move away from conventional approaches. Our research suggests that non-rational resources such as dreams insights creative and spiritual experiences and emotions are important in developing sustainable leaders. People who are prepared to step outside of the ‘norm’ and draw on these resources have less to fear from being authentic and wearing their heart on their sleeve.

What does this mean for organisations in terms of talent management and leadership development processes? First of all they need to broaden their talent pools and think more widely and creatively about the kind of people most likely to be capable of leading the business in a sustainable way in the future. Managers who are most likely to progress successfully towards this style are those who are resilient flexible and more liberal. They typically show an inclination towards self-exploration curiosity and experimentation and value novelty. Managers least likely to succeed are those who place high value on ‘conforming’ to the expectations of others. They may think the right thoughts and want to make the ethical decisions but find the accepted social environment of the organisation difficult to break away from.

In practical terms organisations who want to develop steward leaders need to shift their approach to development and place higher priority on providing immersive experiential learning which impacts leaders on an emotional level and motivates and inspires them to embed sustainability in the business. Witnessing the effects of climate change or deforestation first hand for example can be a transformative experience.

The following five points are key to helping organisations achieve real shifts in mindsets and develop new sustainable behaviours:

  • Experiential learning is crucial. Getting a first- hand experience of what today’s global and societal challenges are all about is what makes a rationally understood idea at the back of the mind come alive and makes someone want to act on it.
  • You can’t just give people a random experience; you have to help them work out its business relevance. The best mechanism is a project-based business challenge where participants have to develop some kind of project with business value based on their experience.
  • Clear sponsorship and involvement from the CEO and other senior leadership is vital. This is one area is where walking the talk really counts. The stories those at the top tell must be true consistent and authentic if people are to believe and follow.
  • Unconventional approaches to development may be met by scepticism within the business at first – but it’s important to allow potential leaders to explore their spirituality work on psychological issues (i.e. Perfectionism fear of failure) which may be impeding their progress and to support them in their attempts to embrace a wide spectrum of thoughts and feelings.
  • Provide active support when individuals return to the organisation after an experiential development experience. This helps convert a shift in mind-set to a habitual new behaviour. Consider things like giving people enhanced job roles encouraging line managers to be supportive having a dedicated co-ordinator to provide on-going encouragement recognising and rewarding positive new behaviours.

Steward leadership is a more empowering form of transformational leadership. These developmental activities help leaders adopt the qualities of ‘stewards’ earlier in people’s careers and earlier in their lifetimes to help create a new more sustainable future.

Kai Peters is the Chief Executive of Ashridge Business School. He is co-author together with Kurt April and Julia Kumar of Steward Leadership: A Maturational Perspective published by the University of Cape Town Press (2013).