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Who Is the Greatest Leader?

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

By Christopher H. McKinney, Sr.
February 24, 2023

What Makes a Great Leader

From the beginning, we have been infatuated with leaders, from King David to King Arthur to King T’Challa. But what makes a leader great? What things make us want to follow the good ones to the end of the earth?

There is no single trait that defines a great leader. Qualities that distinguish great leaders are visionary, high integrity, courage, passion, caring, industrious, charismatic, decisive, strong-willed and resilient, to name a few.

Yet I think there is one description that is often left out, “steward” or “stewardship.” From my 30 years in military service and 5+ years since retirement, the best leaders I have experienced and observed were great stewards. But what does steward mean?

For the sake of this article, a steward is a person who exercises oversight for something or someone on behalf of the owner. Merriam-Webster defines it as one employed in a large household or estate to manage domestic concerns (such as the supervision of servants, collection of rents and keeping of accounts) or one who actively directs affairs.

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world. – John Muir

Steward Leadership

So, if stewardship is part of what makes a good leader, what exactly does a steward do in a leadership role?

  1. Not the owner: A steward leader acknowledges and understands they are NOT the owner. The steward-leader understands that they are overseeing something on behalf of an owner. I know that may seem elementary, but if we look at the corruption that is and has taken place by “good leaders,” we see that it is not so elementary.
  1. Owner mentality: A steward leader operates as if they are the owner. They are not lackadaisical in their duties. They are quick in their oversight. They desire to see things prosper like they would if they were the owner.
  1. Leave things better: A steward leader seeks to leave things in a better state. They will go to lengths to ensure they leave the next person in a better position than they inherited. It becomes almost an obsession because their “name” is on it, which means their reputation is at stake.
  1. “Big I” – not “little i”: Former Town Manager of Sudbury, MA, Henry Hayes Jr., often says we must prioritize the “Big I” (institution) over the “little i” (individual). This is not to dimmish the individual, as the individual is essential, but the individual cannot put the institution at a disadvantage. A steward ensures that they, as an individual, remain part of the “little i” category. Their decisions are not driven by what is best for them but by what is best for the “Big I.”
  1. Accountability: A steward-leader understands that there will be a day of accountability and readily embraces it. They do not see it as a negative. They see accountability as an opportunity for outside endorsement to prove they have left things better.

Why Stewardship Matters

Why should stewardship matter to you and me? In the Harvard Business review article, “Whatever Happened to Corporate Stewardship?” Rick Wartzman wrote,

In November 1956, Time magazine explored a phenomenon that went by various names: “capitalism with a conscience,” “enlightened conservatism,” “people’s capitalism” and, most popularly, “The New Conservatism.”

No matter which label one preferred, the basic concept was clear: Business leaders were demonstrating an ever-increasing willingness, in the words of the story, to “shoulder a host of new responsibilities” and “judge their actions, not only from the standpoint of profit and loss” in their financial results “but of profit and loss to the community.”

Focus on the greater community is a hallmark of a steward. They focus on more than just the bottom line. There are three primary reasons why stewardship matters.

  1. A leader with a steward mindset is much less likely to abuse people (a significant part of our communities). They understand that their responsibility is to help them grow to their fullest potential.
  1. A leader with a steward mindset is laser-focused on effectiveness, efficiency and efficacy in their oversight of resources.
  1. A leader with a steward mindset intentionally builds and solidifies trust with both internal (staff, board of directors, shareholders) and external (customer, supply chain partners) stakeholders in addition to indirect stakeholders (our communities). It is not an easy task, but this does not deter them.

We must strive to become good ancestors. – Ralph Nader

One impactful leader during my 30-year military career, Major General Stephen Jost, once said, “I am the steward of the office of the Wing Commander.” He then explained his words, and from that day forward, the concept was seared into my mind. From my experience, leaders who embrace stewardship leave our communities better. I hope you choose to embrace it as well.

Author: Christopher McKinney is CEO of 10X Leadership Consulting. 10XLC is a consulting company that identifies/diagnoses impediments to the development/growth of organizations. Chris also served as CEO of a Regional Planning District (COG) supporting 12 cities/towns in South Carolina. He also retired from the USAF after 30 years as a Command Chief Master Sergeant overseeing an 8,500-person workforce and welfare of 31,000+ families/retirees. Email:[email protected]; Twitter: @10XLC; LinkedIn: christopher-h-mckinney-sr @10XLC; www.10XLC.consulting

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