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  • Ari Betof

4 of the Most Vital Characteristics of Steward Leaders

Leaders who achieve success over the long term often see themselves as stewards. This is the paradigm supported by Rajeev Peshawaria, CEO of Stewardship Asia Centre and author of Open Source Leadership: Reinventing Management When There’s No More Business as Usual. Steward leaders focus on conserving and enhancing assets for the benefit of future generations of stakeholders.


Writing in Forbes magazine on September 22, 2020, Peshawaria further explored steward leaders. Like most leaders, they think in terms of achieving success for their organizations—with accompanying success for themselves personally. Notably, however, their definition of success also includes creating policies that meet the needs of a wide swath of people beyond their immediate circles.



What Does a Steward Leader Look Like?


They focus on balancing the needs of other individuals, both now and in the future. This goal is pursued in conjunction with the need to improve society and the necessity of preserving life-sustaining environments. Their ultimate goal is to make things better for individuals across multiple stakeholder groups.


They give before they take. Additionally, for every tangible return they receive in the form of material advancement, they look for further ways to give back. They draw on their resources and energy, whether as an individual or as part of an organization, to redouble their investment in the public good.


Numerous books and articles, in fields ranging from spirituality to business, have described the concept of steward leadership. While Peshawaria focuses on a few clearly defined central concepts, his definitions are aligned with others that are broad and flexible enough to be fairly universal.


Peshawaria’s steward leader is a person who embodies four key values. These ideals include interdependent prosperity, intergenerational vision, psychological ownership, and intellectual humility. Here’s what you need to know about them:



1. Steward Leaders Believe We All Depend on One Another


Steward leaders focus their energy on interdependent prosperity. They are not playing a zero-sum game. A believer in the principle of interdependent prosperity views life as an interconnected web. This means that one person’s success is bound up with that of countless others.


These leaders see inequities and address them for the good of others, believing that organizational success and employee success are synonymous. If employees cannot make ends meet on their current salaries, a steward leader will consider steps such as a personal pay cut in order to address the problem.



2. Steward Leaders Are Focused on the Future


Intergenerational vision helps leaders become the kind of person philosopher Roman Krznaric calls a “Good Ancestor” in his book of the same name. This kind of steward leader thinks of the organizations they are building in terms of their usefulness across a succession of generations.


They do not operate with an “I’ve got mine” attitude. Instead, they take future needs into consideration. When a CEO ensures that her organization is operating in the most environmentally sustainable way possible, she is demonstrating intergenerational vision.



3. Steward Leaders Take Responsibility


As for psychological ownership, steward leaders adopt the outlook that Peshawaria describes as, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” Steward leaders committed to psychological ownership take responsibility for problems, solutions, and the long-term success of any organization they are part of. They do this regardless of where they are on the organization’s hierarchy.


Cashiers in a grocery store can improve everyday customer service—and their own future advancement prospects—by cultivating a sense of psychological ownership. Executives who practice psychological ownership accept responsibility for the well-being of the employees whose jobs depend on them.



4. Steward Leaders Are Humble, but Ambitious


The fourth value on Peshawaria’s list, intellectual humility, may be the most difficult of all for highly successful people to maintain. Success is rightfully accompanied by self-confidence, but it is a fine line between self-confidence and hubris. Yet those who have achieved longevity and true long-term prosperity in their industries are those who are willing to admit there is more for them to learn.



Humility May Be the Most Important Trait of Steward Leadership


An October 15, 2018 piece in the Harvard Business Review uses similar insights into the importance of staying intellectually humble—and hungry—a step further. Citing recent psychological studies that stress the value of humility in corporate managers, the HBR draws on additional research into the characteristics of good leaders to posit the optimum blend of humility and ambition as “humbition.”


In this framing, humility harnessed in service to ambition offers the best advantages of both. It gives leaders the most leverage to navigate business environments filled with unknowns. An ambitious person strives toward success. However, once it’s been achieved, this individual reflects with humility on the good fortune involved. They then put renewed effort into reinvesting that good fortune back into the common good. This is a crucial step of steward leadership in practice.

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