When I launched the blog Org Sustainability in January, my goal was to offer a resource for leaders who strive to build robust and vibrant organizations that make the world a better place.
These leaders are stewards, regardless of the sector in which they work. Their stewardship often depends on optimizing organizational capacity at the intersection of mission, vision, and action.
Since summer is often the time when vacations cause the pace of organizations to slow (at least a little), it feels like the right moment to dig deeper to the bedrock of underlying principles.
Off we go on an organizational sustainability adventure…
Leadership as Stewardship
Stewardship is more nuanced than the definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary — “the job of supervising or taking care of something, such as an organization or property.” True stewardship involves promoting a culture of organizational sustainability.
Leading as a steward requires drive, restraint, and being relentlessly mindful of the Goldilocks principle. The porridge can neither be too hot nor too cold. It must be just right (or at least right enough).
An organization will not thrive ten years from now if it does not survive the current fiscal year. The same organization that draws down on reserves without the ability to replenish their stores will starve to death like a team of explorers who fails to ration and replenish their food supply during a grand journey.
A stark example of that reality was on full display this week when American Hebrew Academy, an international boarding school for Jewish students in Greensboro, NC, announced it was suddenly ceasing operations leaving students and employees stranded for the upcoming school year. Reports have since surfaced that the school had lost $22.7 million between 2015–2017 and had run in the red every year between 2006–2017.
In contrast, leaders who act as stewards bring a deft awareness as they strive for institutional vitality. They avoid the seduction of false optimism and, as described by Jim Collins, confront the “brutal facts” of their organizational reality.
These leaders align revenue and expenses today as well as the arc of change for key financial indicators. Stewards understand that staffing needs to be robust enough to meet the institution’s needs without being wasteful or redundant. They plan so that the organization can be resilient, but they don’t hoard resources like Scrooge McDuck swimming through his pool of gold coins.
The other end of the spectrum is also true. In an organization’s darkest hours, they recognize that the burden on their shoulders is an obligation to the organization as well as to its multiple constituents. Public criticism of American Hebrew Academy’s leadership and board speaks to this responsibility.
Stewardship Across Sectors
Although the context changes, many of the fundamentals of stewardship remain consistent across sectors.
Consider “higher-ambition leaders” in the private sector. Nathaniel Foote, Russell Eisenstat, and Tobias Fredberg explain in a September 2011 Harvard Business Review article:
We call them “higher-ambition leaders” because, unlike many executives, they are not content with achieving only strong economic returns. Rather, they strive to generate high performance on three fronts at once: creating long-term economic value, producing significant benefits for the wider community, and building robust social capital within their organizations. ~The Higher-Ambition Leader, Harvard Business Review, September 2011
As can be seen in the examples in Higher Ambition: How Great Leaders Create Economic and Social Value (2011), their book written with Michael Beer and Flemming Norrgren, these companies create tremendous financial and societal impact. The companies are remarkably resilient and robust.
Numerous parallels can be seen in the stewardship of thriving organizations in the nonprofit sector.
There are, of course, also important differences between individual organizations and across sectors. Publicly traded companies pose different tactical challenges than nonprofits that derive the majority of funding through philanthropic support. Quarterly earnings expectations bring a different dynamic than quarterly nonprofit board meetings. Scope and scale impact action regardless of sector.
But as I read Higher Ambition, I was struck by the similarities across sectors. There is a similar underlying need to both optimize organizational capacity and deftly manage change in support of bringing to life a compelling vision of the future. These endeavors have all of the idiosyncrasies that come with nuanced organizational culture and complex group dynamics.
There are many for-profit organizations for which this model will not be appropriate. Their focus may be on short-term earnings. A startup may be positioning itself to be acquired and absorbed within a larger company. These are questions of institutional priorities.
Leadership as stewardship as presented here is not an original idea. Its lineage, among other references, can be traced through The Jossey-Bass Reader on Educational Leadership and the 2013 inEducation article, What is Stewardship, and should all great leaders practice it? In the article, the authors describe:
At its most basic level, stewardship is acting upon the understanding that leadership is a temporary role which is outlasted by the lifespan of an organization. A leader is performing the act of stewardship whenever he or she is actively preparing for an organization’s future vitality. ~What is Stewardship, and should all great leaders practice it?, The New York Times inEducation
Readers will notice connections to other leadership models like Jim Collin’s Level Five Leadership and Robert Greenleaf’s concept of Servant Leadership. That is not surprising since many of these paradigms come from the same traditions of considering organizations as human systems within complex landscapes and with a focus on longitudinal health.
The concept of leadership as stewardship is a useful construct for organizations and their leaders who look to add value to society today, tomorrow, and for years to come.
About the Author
Organizational Sustainability Consulting supports the efforts of leaders and board members at independent schools, colleges and universities, membership organizations, and other nonprofits. Ari’s consulting work draws upon considerable experience in nonprofit leadership and governance using a lens of mission-driven, data-informed decision making. He is a collaborative partner with demonstrated strengths in change leadership and group process. Ari combines broadly applicable nonprofit experience in areas such as governance, leadership development, fundraising, strategic planning, and branding with education-specific expertise in areas including enrollment management and integrated curricular design.