Which Do You Need: Management, Leadership or Stewardship?

[Excerpted from The Age of Thrivability: Vital Perspectives and Practices for a Better World.]

I write often about the need for a stance of stewardship in our living organizations. What, then, of management and leadership? Are these approaches obsolete?

The answer lies in our familiar set of patterns [in which all thriving living systems — including organizations, communities and economies — exhibit (1) divergent parts, (2) consistent yet responsive patterns of relationship between parts, (3) convergent, emergent wholeness, all animated by (4) self-integrating, self-organizing life].

Management Controls

Management continues to be appropriate for the useful, surface-level busyness of the day-to-day, with its focus on controlling the parts — rather than on the system as a whole — through tactics, action plans, performance goals, and expert-driven solutions in a push to achieve certain, generally known, outcomes.

Leadership Guides

As we shift our focus from efficiency of parts to effectiveness of interactions, leadership becomes the stance of choice. Where patterns of relationship and supportive, connective infrastructure are the primary leverage points, leadership offers guidance (rather than control) through strategies, structures and processes. The leader shapes human dynamics through influence and incentives, as well as through shared values and principles. While management helps us get to known, predictable outcomes, leadership helps us get to what fellow thrivability champion Jean Russell calls “guessable outcomes.”* When a team works on new product design, for example, we can guess what the outcome will be, but we can’t really know with certainty. The situation is simply too complex to predict. But it can be guided with effective leadership.

Stewardship Nurtures

While intervening around strategies, structures and relationships can bring about significant results, if we seek adaptability and regenerativity — if our aim is to grow the capacity of the system — then we shift from managing the parts and leading for effectiveness to stewarding the health of the whole, in all its potential. Here, control and guidance are replaced by encouragement and invitation, with continuous iteration and attention to emergent patterns of “what wants to happen.” The goal is not to control, but to create the fertile conditions for something new and unknowable to emerge. The intention is to nurture the system’s intrinsic and ongoing capacity for learning, innovation, self-organization and, ultimately, thriving.

When a community has identified the need for revitalization, for example, the traditional approach would be to create a strategic plan behind closed doors, plotting the course with precision and carefully controlling the flow of resources. Instead, with faith in the life that exists throughout the community, a process of invitation and encouragement can be set into motion, connecting people to each other and to their unspoken dreams for themselves and for their shared experience of community… revealing hidden gifts and releasing pent-up energy… and cultivating the community’s inherent capability to thrive.

Though most every organization has need of management and leadership, only the call of stewardship guides us toward continuous generativity — toward cultivating fertile ground and manifesting new possibilities for the future.

To enable the system to take on a life of its own and to help it become truly, gloriously generative, the challenge of stewardship is to navigate a thoughtful mix of control, guidance and nurturing; to tend to both individual and collective; and to support the system’s wisdom, learning and enrichment, as well as its accomplishment of tasks and milestones. Along the way, the wise steward’s questions include: What would bring the most life to this situation? What is the wisdom that is needed now? What seems to want to come to life here? How can I serve this unfolding, either by disturbing things, by planting a seed, by cultivating a freshly sprouted initiative, or by compassionately hospicing something that needs to die?

Throughout, stewardship embraces uncertainty and invites learning, innovation and play. It recognizes emergent collective wisdom, developing individual and shared disciplines to listen for the voice of the whole even as it honors the needs of the parts. Stewardship requires thoughtful crafting of structures and systems. It necessarily takes a holistic view — which in organizations means linking purpose with passion, brand with culture, and worker with customer and community. And it acknowledges that the inherently fertile ground of place, art and nature have a vital role to play in every sphere of our lives.

* Jean Russell writes about these three approaches — which she describes as Control, Guide and Nurture — in a very insightful model called the Action Spectrum. I’ve drawn significantly on that model here. You can learn more about it here. This and more of her writing can be found at www.thrivable.net, as well as in her book, Thrivability: Breaking Through to a World That Works.