Lately I have been thinking about stewardship. Webster dictionary defines stewardship as the "the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care". What a powerful definition and how relevant when I think about how important responsibility, care and trust are in leading any organization. Therefore, I was surprised to learn that the use of the term stewardship has significantly declined over the last 10 years. I am not sure why that is, but given the complexity, uncertainty and challenges we face, stewardship seems to be the exact thing to focus on as a leader. I find the following key stewardship principles are of particular value:
Responsibility. Responsible leaders encourage and value different perspectives. Instead of falling into their bias traps or holding on to their own beliefs, they have a learning mindset and are interested in various opinions and views. They are even comfortable being wrong. Adam Grant, a professor in organizational psychology at Wharton, defines these leaders as "scientists". Instead of being prosecutors, preachers or politicians in his book "Think Again" he encourages us to develop a scientists' mindset of exploration and learning. Responsible management of something entrusted into our care would certainly benefit from a more scientific method.
Care. Growing up in Austria, my family instilled in me the importance of respecting and caring about whatever you do in your life. I remember my grandmother putting me on window cleaning duty once a week. She was stickler for cleaning them perfectly. She would double-check, inspect my work and ask me to do it again when it was not up to her high standards. From her I learned that any action you perform, any service you provide, anything you own or a job you do, the primary principle is always to do it with the greatest level of care and respect. At times, stress, the need for speed, convenience or the need to just get something done may challenge our desire to do everything with the utmost care. However, I believe that as leaders we need to keep aiming for that higher level of care and push our teams – and more importantly – ourselves in that direction.
Trust. Trust is good but control is better. The older I get the more I doubt this statement, as both are polar opposite. Trusting someone with a task or responsibility or being entrusted to care of something or someone, does not always require control. What it requires is support, care and having someone's back. Throughout my career I have seen so many step-up in countless different ways and only seldomly have been disappointed. Teams thrive when they are supported, when they get the tools to get the job done, when they feel connected to a higher purpose and most importantly when they feel that they and their capabilities and skillsets are trusted. Trust is the core of stewardship and we all need to become more comfortable with trust.
Management. What gets measured gets done. We need to rethink our performance, measurement and management frameworks in support of stewardship. This starts with a management and measurement framework that creates a fair assessment process, sets clear targets, eliminates unintended consequences and reduces the risk of moral hazards. One great example is what my organization, TD Bank, is doing in this space. Through a comprehensive Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) framework the bank is adapting with purpose to achieve a more inclusive and sustainable future for all. Great organizations, like TD, recognize the importance and criticality of the challenges we face and prioritize their resources to help make the world a better place.
People. In the end of the day stewardship is all about people. Great leaders operate in servitude to their teams. They care about their well-being, they provide opportunities for growth and learning, they create a balanced work environment, they encourage risk-taking and they don't blame others for failure or mistakes. Instead of glamorizing overworking or burning the midnight oil, they encourage a more balanced and healthier workplace, allowing time for family, loved ones and non-work-related interests. They encourage their teams to find and fulfill their purpose.
Lastly, I want to emphasize the role stewardship plays in our society. Specifically, environmental stewardship is the one topic I think leaders have the greatest responsibility to tackle. We all are stewards of our environment and are collectively failing at it. The destruction of our natural world is staggering. The loss of biodiversity, the pace of species decline, intensifying pollution, global warming, a changing climate and the loss of habitats everywhere paint a grim picture and clearly indicate a path to global catastrophe. We hide behind statements such as "the challenge is too complex," or "my actions don't make a difference". All of us must make being a "Steward of the Environment" our number one focus. We can start small, in our neighborhood, in our communities, making a shift, recycling more, offsetting our carbon footprint, or planting a tree. Whatever we do, we need to refocus our actions on Environmental Stewardship.