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Leadership Q&A: Is there a difference between stewardship and leadership?

This is another column in a series on The Stewardship of Gratitude.  You can follow on Twitter at #stewardshipgratitude.

Is there a difference between being a steward and being a leader?

I’m tempted to say, “No, they are virtually the same.” And I’d be wrong.  However, to make a point here, I will over simplify what is in reality quite complex.

Let’s look at leadership and stewardship as a type of herding function in an organization. We’ve all joked about how leading certain teams or organizations is like “herding cats.” Remember this Super Bowl ad from several years ago?

Herding is creating an environment where a bunch of independent, willful animals are led in a common direction to fulfill a shared mission. The leadership function of herding is getting all the cats or sheep, or goats or American Bison (see picture above) to move in sync to fulfill a mission.  The stewardship function of herding is caring for the herd so that all the members of it arrive at their destination whole and healthy.

In the 19th century, when cattle drives in the western United States brought large herds of beef cattle to railroad heads to be transported to markets in the Midwest and East, the responsibility of the herders was not only to get their cattle to their destination, but to arrive in good shape in order to command a top dollar price for the herd.

The Sons of the San Joaquin, a Western band, in their song Trail Drive, sing about the Trail Boss’s advice to the herders.

“Push ‘em on.

Keep ‘em movin’.

Trail ‘em slow,

or you’ll walk ‘em thin by the time you reach Montanio.”

The Steward of the herd is responsible for getting it safely and intact to their destination. It is a role that is focused on the people and the relationships that they have with one another as a team. If every project or crisis ends up wearing people out, then sustainable progress towards the team’s ultimate mission goal becomes more difficult.

The leader is mission driven. The steward is sustainability driven. Both are needed, and usually they are needed in the same person.

This is the challenge of leading. It is not simple. It is highly complex because there isn’t one day and done, or one project at a time, but many days, and many projects that are completing for resources that are limited and often poorly allocated.

How, then, does a person in a leadership role function also as a steward?

The answer is counter-intuitive.

Lead by being a steward, and create with your team, a collaborative, shared leadership environment. Many heads working together, not against one another, means the group will function in a healthy manner, and remain whole and intact for the next project or trail drive.

Be a steward by focusing the team on the mission or goal to be reached. Herd them together around the mission, and instill in them a shared responsibility for its achievement.

If you are the leader of a large complex organization, the steward’s function is to create an environment where the perception is that the organization’s mission is our mission.  Together, we fulfill our mission by collaborative work, not by work in isolation.

If you are the leader of a smaller organization, care for your people, and be absolutely clear about what your mission and the measurements of success are.  Don’t assume they know or understand what your perception of the mission of the company and their role in it is.

The Leader/Steward is a mission focused / people focused person embedded into the herd of an organization to get everyone to a successful destination. Both functions are required to create progress and sustainability in an organization.  And both are needed in the person who is the leader.

About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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