Reasons steward leadership is powerful and effective

By David R. York 4 minute Read

In 2016, I was meeting with Gail Miller, one of the wealthiest women in the United States. Gail was nearing completion of the transfer of her sole ownership in the Utah Jazz to a trust she had carefully designed to keep the team in Utah well into the future. During the course of reviewing various documents with her I asked, “Gail, does it bother you at all to give away your ownership in the Jazz?”

Gail looked up from the documents and said flatly, “I don’t own the Jazz.” Her response surprised me and gave me pause. “But you actually do own the Jazz,” I replied. I will never forget her response.

“No, I don’t,” she reiterated, sitting back and looking me straight in the eye in a way that told me she knew exactly what she was saying and doing. ‘I’ma steward of the Jazz.”

Her simple yet powerful reply has reverberated in my mind ever since, and launched me on a journey researching, studying, and exploring the essence of stewardship and how it can be a transformative and freeing way to both live and lead. At their essence, steward leaders are fully invested in something bigger than themselves. They combine both deep personal engagement with a bigger-than-them transcendent perspective that allows them to make lasting impacts in the lives of others. In the course of looking at Gail’s life and the lives of other steward leaders I studied, I came to identify four unique and powerful ways in which stewards lead in a fundamentally different way.

They use a Because/Therefore model for life

Because stewards have clear knowledge of who they are, what they value, and what they believe, they are able to use a distinctive model for leading. Most of the non-steward world operates within an “if/then” mindset. In other words, if I do X, then Y will happen, or if I do A, then the world/others will do B. This mindset renders life mechanical, transactional, and outcome-based.

In contrast, stewards lead with a “because/therefore” view of the world. This unique perspective makes life infinitely more relational, intentional, and transcendent. “Because” (transcendence) leads to “therefore” (deep personal investment). Their personal transcendence is the driver, and stewards are the agents, investing their energies in something bigger than themselves. The expectations are on the self, not on the outcome: Because I value X, I expect myself to do Y. A “because/therefore” orientation also makes decision-making easier. As Roy Disney once said, “it’s easy to make decisions once you know what your values ​​are.”

They care more about their successors than they do about success

One of the most distinctive characteristics of steward leaders is their connection with the timeline of life. They see their role as a temporary one. This perspective makes them both forward thinking and openhanded, allowing them to take on goals and projects they cannot accomplish alone or within their own lifetimes. Steward leaders aren’t concerned only with how their group or organization functions while they are alive and in charge; they look to the life of their business, family, organization, community, and even their country, after they are gone. This perspective makes them intentional about how they allocate their time, talent, and treasure, and also makes them generous and openhanded when it comes to investing their resources and encouraging others to do the same.

They are all about purpose, not possessions

In the field of positive psychology, a major focus of research today is on the concept of purpose and how it affects the way we view and approach life. researchers have come to the general consensus that purpose should be defined as follows: “Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self. ”

Within this modern definition of purpose, we find both of the building blocks of stewards. Transcendence involves the focus on “some aspect of the world beyond the self,” and investment relates to the “intention to accomplish something,” which leads to “productive engagement.“Steward leaders know that, unless we are incredibly careful, what we own tends to own us back–whether it’s our businesses, our homes, properties, it all come at a cost. Stewards are unique because they aren’t held down by anything, because they are owned by nothing but their purpose. This makes it much easier for them to sell assets, change positions, allow others to get credit, or even step down, as long as their overarching purpose is advanced.

They don’t seek balance, they seek counterbalance

Counterbalances are used in a wide range of everyday devices, such as elevators, cranes, drawbridges, and even metronomes. The purpose of a counterbalance, or counterweight, is to provide a strong opposing force so that a machine can more effectively accomplish the task for which it is designed. Far from acting to limit or diffuse its opposing force, a counterbalance is meant to bring added strength, focus, and direction to the force it is countering. Steward leaders counterbalance transcendence (their “why”) with investment (their “how”) and allow the force of each to magnify the other. In addition, because steward leaders adopt the long-term perspective that goes along with taking on something bigger than themselves, their lives acquire a deliberate cadence, which allows them to move at a measured and intentional pace without burning out.

The path of the steward leader is both challenging and rewarding. It is at the same time both deeply personal and outwardly expressive. Those who embrace the way of the steward leader not only find peace stemming from having a clear direction that comes from counterbalancing transcendence and investment, they also leave an indelible mark on the lives of their employees, friends, families, and communities—and on the world itself.


David R. York is the author of The Gift of Lift: Harnessing the Power of Stewardship to Elevate the World.


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