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Leaning into the Stewardship Theory in Times of Crisis

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sean Ziller
May 21, 2020

President George W. Bush at Ground Zero, providing comfort to emergency workers, following the tragedy of 9/11

With words like “social distancing” now entering into our collective vocabulary, this has been just a small part of the larger, reverberating impacts on our daily personal and professional lives. Experiences and people that we once considered part of our regular routine, and possibly took for granted, now ostensibly hold greater value. We yearn to return to a sense of normalcy and, importantly, to once again see our friends, family and loved ones. However, another less recognized element that we have come to value during such times is not just leadership in guiding us out of crises, but stewardship within the sphere of public administration.

When it comes to an event as pervasive as a global pandemic, some analysts will often argue that national problems require national solutions. Regardless of the administration or ideology, the President is also often naturally the most visible actor on the stage during such times. It could be argued that it is these times and when faced with these conditions that we logically should turn toward the federal level for guidance. No matter your view regarding the size and scope of government, tradition has often deemed similar periods in our collective history as the time when our national leaders are needed most. Stewardship, however, necessitates not only a centralized approach from the federal government, but acknowledges the value of work of administrators at each level of the public sphere as well as the nonprofit realm in ensuring public service continuity during crisis

The stewardship theory is primarily used in the context of private business, but in certain ways, can be applied to the public sector. As explained by James Davis, F. David Schoorman, and Lex Donaldson in their article, “Toward a Stewardship Theory of Management,” in The Academy of Management Review, stewardship theory is where, “The model of man is based on a steward whose behavior is ordered such that pro-organizational, collectivistic behaviors have higher utility than individualistic, self-serving behaviors.” In the public service environment, the steward—the government leader, agency administrator or nonprofit leader—looks to achieve the goals of their organization (i.e. their constituency). In business, this theory is often geared toward the objective of ultimately reaching greater profitability.

It can be argued that for the public sector, particularly during a crisis, effective stewardship is instead achieved through the proper safeguarding of existing public service resources and mechanisms of delivery, and appropriately adjusting those lines of service delivery, when needed, to maintain levels of output to the people. This does not mean that during a crisis there is no place for the private sector, but that the stewardship approach would likely usher in a more collaborative effort between government and business wherein profit is not the prime driver.

When applying stewardship theory, the same complex hurdles that pertain to the private sector also have their implications for public administration and are particularly heightened during times of crisis. For instance, while local political leaders want to achieve efficient delivery of services to their citizens, the, “Multiplicity of shareholders’ objectives,” as noted by the above authors, can lead to competition in that delivery or otherwise muddy minute decisionmaking.

Who should get what, and how much? In the public sphere, once the tough decisions are made, however, public administrators—the stewards—must do their best to execute their duties without the burden of ideology and with the overarching goal of supporting the extreme needs of the people in mind. As illustrated in the above article regarding enacting the stewardship theory, all of this is not to say that the performance of both a political official or, in turn, an agency leader is not affected by the circumstances or structural situation in which they operate. Yet, it could be argued that unprecedented conditions often necessitate and force political leaders to more significantly lean into the role of steward. While they are still not isolated from political influences, a global crisis can often force into sudden relief the inherent human values that are at stake. In turn, public administrators farther from the political milieu can have their decisionmaking reinforced because they’ve, ideally, been previously trusted to effectively and efficiently deliver public services and resources.

On a more subjective level, citizens simply want to feel comforted in times of uncertainty and, despite overwhelming circumstances, that the public services we traditionally rely on are continuing to be safeguarded. During such events as the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the aftermath of 9/11, United States leaders and public administrators, from the top down, continued to “do their jobs” because it is what the public expected—that life would continue to move forward. As noted by John Meacham in his article on, “Great Leadership in a Time of Crisis,” from The New York Times: “Clarity and candor are essential in crises—and so is generosity of spirit.” Stewardship, a more direct, immediate and less politically encumbered method of supporting the public during unprecedented times, not only helps to protect tangible resources, but also attempts to fortify values paramount during a crisis: clarity, candor and immense generosity of spirit that we need.

Author: Mr. Sean L. Ziller is a Project Senior Analyst with Conduent, Inc. in Philadelphia. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science – King’s College (PA) – and a Master of Public Administration – Penn State University. All opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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