Peter Block's classic book, The Empowered Manager, began the empowerment movement in thousands of businesses, public agencies, schools, and nonprofit organisations. Here Block takes the next step beyond empowerment in his revolutionary book, Stewardship. Organisations that practice stewardship, Block explains,...
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Peter Block's classic book, The Empowered Manager, began the empowerment movement in thousands of businesses, public agencies, schools, and nonprofit organisations. Here Block takes the next step beyond empowerment in his revolutionary book, Stewardship. Organisations that practice stewardship, Block explains, will succeed in their marketplace by choosing service over self-interest at every point and by a far reaching redistribution of power, privilege, and wealth. Individuals who see themselves as stewards will hold themselves accountable to those over whom they exercise power while surrendering the need to control and take care of others.
As a successful managing strategy for corporate. governmental, and nonprofit organizations, "stewardship" is, fundamentally, the spirit of partnership and service. Stewardship explains how to integrate the management of work and the doing of work to redistribute purpose and power within an organization.
PETER KOESTENBAUM was a professor of philosophy at San Jose State University for thirty-four years. He has applied his knowledge of philosophy to business, leadership, management, marketing, and strategic thinking. He is the author of Leadership; The Inner Side of Greatness, Is There an Answer to Death?, Managing Anxiety, Choosing to Love, The Heart of Business, The New Image of the Person, and The Vitality of Death. Koestenbaum and Block are the co-creators of the videotape The Language of the Leadership Diamonda. Peter lives in Westlake Village, California. ýPETER BLOCK author, consultant,
to the Second Edition
What Has Changed?
REVISING A BOOK after twenty years is an occasion to reflect on what has changed in that time. There is, of course, the wish that the world had gotten better. You want to believe that there is less suffering, more kindness, and, for all peoples, a world of more possibility. This wish to see progress is even stronger considering the practice of stewardship, a clearly idealistic and spirit-based undertaking.
Stewardship as used here is meant to be a choice to (1) act in service of the long run, and (2) act in service to those with little power. In historical terms, this has meant to care for the well-being of an unborn king or the next generation. For today’s world, it translates into creating accountable and committed workplaces without resorting to increased control or compliance as governing strategies. This is not an easy assignment, considering the still-dominant paradigm of leadership, which is about good parenting and its stronger cousin, patriarchy. Patriarchal leadership, the common practice in most organizations, acts in service of the short term and works in the interest of those with high power, not low power.
Stewardship, then, is an intention to distribute power widely, especially to those at the lowest levels of the organization. It calls us to organize workplaces based on relatedness and collaboration as an alternative to the bell-curve ideology of competitiveness that is used to rationalize patriarchy.
Stewardship also is a call for a purpose larger than today’s drive for material gain, and it pays attention to supporting the common good for our communities, the earth, and people outside the usual cast of stakeholders. This takes us a step away from the individualism and self-interest that is so prevalent.
Against this backdrop, here are reflections on developments over the last twenty years that make stewardship an even more urgent form of governance.
It’s a Digital World
The biggest change in organizational life is that we have been beamed into all the joys and sorrows of the virtual and digital world. It is a romanticized world, riding on the wings of speed and frictionless transactions with no human beings involved. It is mesmerizing to grasp the world in a handheld device, much smarter than we will ever be. Technology is credited with bringing the world closer together, spreading democracy, changing the nature of business, supplying round-the-clock connectivity. Geography has been made obsolete. Here are some noteworthy aspects of this life in a work context:
• Workers are members of teams made up of people they have never been in a room with. This has given rise to the question “How do we build a team that never or rarely meets face-to-face?”
• We have willingly given up the forty-hour workweek. We are online and in touch and reachable most of our waking hours. If you ask people to park their cell phones at the door, 40 percent say that this is not possible.
• We work at home. Our bedroom has become our office. We can work in our pajamas most of the time. This allows us to move our residence anywhere, supposedly take better care of our family, and have more control over our time. We can also go to school at home, so our dining room becomes our classroom.
What is new is the wedding of futurism to what might be called “virtualism”: a vision of the future within which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy.
—Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft
• With a device in our pocket and plugs in our ears, we can have background music or be in phone contact all the time. You go to public places and you see that most people have something in their ear and are somewhere else. There is no longer a need to be here now. You can go anywhere but here, anytime you wish.
• We all participate in this electronic world, one where speed is a value in and of itself. If something is quicker, it is attractive. If we are quicker, we are attractive. Slow food is considered a revolution. Fast food, a value proposition.
• Controlling costs is now the dominant value for most organizations, replacing the priority once given to the customer and the employee. We can now outsource most every job and function (except top management) in order to reduce labor and benefit costs. We cut down on travel costs and training on the rationale that current audio and video technology approximates the sights and sounds of being in the room together in real time.
The virtual world is sold on these features. A promise of more freedom to the individual. Work at home, learn at will, and control your time. Get information you need on demand. Be a global citizen. All true. Big change in twenty years.
What Is Good for Business Is Good for the World
A second major shift is that the private sector has fully come into its own power to name the debate and create the context for what matters. It is the dominant sector. In other times, the church and the military set the tone for the society. Once it was the government and concern for the social good. Not so now.
The lens for assessing our common interests and institutional well-being is the business lens. It is the focusing device. This defines the conversation: Government is primarily assessed on its waste. The social-service sector is encouraged to merge, eliminate overlap, increase leverage and productivity. The private sector sings, “Why can’t a school be like a business?” Our answer to the “public education problem” is to institute variable pay for performance and stronger measurements as tools for reform. Pure business plays. Intuition and experience have been replaced by evidence. Evidence-based medicine, evidence-based learning, evidence-based decision making. All business terms. This language and reverence for business seeps into all conversation about a better future. We are also looking for businesspeople to run every institution: the hospital, the school, the prison, the government, social services, the church, even the Girl Scouts. We consider business success the ultimate credential.
This is not an argument against business, for businesses are the stabilizing institutions in most communities. They contribute to communities in many more ways than creating jobs. They are the institutions most open to change and adaptation to the new world. They also bring to the community talented and committed people. Businesses provide some of our best foreign policy too; the globalization of business puts a crack in the class structure, has fought racism, and helped create a middle class where none existed. The point is not to paint business as a villain. The point is to recognize its power to frame the culture, to frame the context for how we choose to be together.
In recognizing the power of the business perspective, we see how it affects not only the way we work but also who we are becoming. It defines our new heroes. The contemporary hero is now the entrepreneur. A single soul with faith in an idea that reinvents a marketplace, disrupts a whole industry, takes everything to scale, creates new needs, and provides an escort service into the future. This inventive instinct can also take over domains once reserved for God. We clone sheep today, humans tomorrow. We are in the process of creating synthetic versions of aliveness; we send avatars to meetings, watch a screen more hours than we can count, create video games to simulate experience. In all this we are witnessing the second creation of the world, as if to say, “Thank you, God, for your hard work and the good beginning; thank you for providing a good role model—we can take it from here.” This economic usurpation of God produces a certain amount of guilt, so now we put the word social in front of entrepreneur. The social entrepreneur speaks to our wish to integrate our surrender to consumption and materialism with the universal desire to do good in the world.
These two concurrent forces—the growing virtual and digital world and the preeminence of the business perspective—have their grip on us. They live on a set of assumptions so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we rarely question them and so cannot ever solve the fundamental issues that keep us and our organizations in patriarchy’s power. These assumptions have a cost. What we see in the last two decades is increasing isolation, anxiety, fear, and concentration of wealth and power. This reality is what calls us to stay interested in the idea of stewardship. The point of this book.
In this journey to the stewardship possibility, we can note some ways in which these cultural forces are shaping our lives:
• Electronic connection, while touted as valuable for building relationships, has the effect of isolating us more deeply. Take Phil, a friend who works at home for a large technology company. This allows him to move around the country, following his wife’s career. The price he pays is that his time on the computer is minutely monitored by the company. The normal workweek is fifty hours, but he is expected to deliver fifty-eight billable hours a week.
• Phil works in a world where there is little travel budget for him to be in the room with other employees or to see how what he has designed is being used. There is no budget for his development. The digital revolution that promises more freedom also impinges on our privacy and provides infinitely more control than we thought possible. It creates more instrumental relationships. Thus the isolation.
• Stewardship requires a level of trust and relatedness and is about putting choice close to the edge. The electronic world shares information widely, but that does not necessarily mean it builds relationships. It may sustain them once built, but something is lost by not being in the room with other human beings. If we want to decentralize choice and power, the virtual world has ushered in vast surveillance capacity. Jobs that once held some privacy, like driving for a living, are now monitored closely. Your workstation can now be monitored from afar. The virtual world also has eliminated incidental contact, like passing in a hall, eating in a lunchroom, chatting before and after meetings, or going in and out of work. These peripheral moments, captured in sideways glances, are what build social capital; unplanned, face-to-face encounters encourage the informality where trust and connection are built.
• E-mail and social media are another substitute for seeing each other. We have come to believe that we are communicating with each other when we send an e-mail. Maybe, maybe not. Facebook creates the illusion of having five hundred friends. We can exchange photographs, be up to date with the smallest details of our lives, but even so, we are still watching a screen. The handheld device becomes an extension of our arm and has made eye contact a rarity among strangers. We have confused an amazing information gadget with a tool of relatedness.
• The divide between personal life and work life has become blurred. We all have a major concern about work/life balance, how to balance work life and personal life, which means we are way off balance, and not in the direction of too much personal life. If as stewards we care for the common good and well-being of a community, yielding so much sovereignty to the workplace makes that care harder to act on.
• The current business narrative is fundamentally one of scarcity. No amount of earnings, no amount of productivity improvement, is enough. Even in good economic times the narrative is one of fierce competition, more cost reduction, grow or die. One effect is increased fear at work. People seem more afraid of their bosses now than twenty years ago. The fear is joined by a schizophrenic sense of enormous business growth and success at the same time as individual earnings and well-being are declining or staying flat. Stewardship is a narrative of abundance: it says that what we have is enough, that there are limits to growth, and it expands our field of vision to care for something larger than profitability.
• The rush of globalization destabilizes our sense of place and security. While globalization has the advantages of increasing our cultural competence, increasing our understanding of other cultures, and providing a positive kind of foreign policy, it moves our center of gravity into unknown territory. Being global citizens can cost us our sense of place, our stability, and the experience of knowing where we belong. Stewardship relies on trust, familiarity, and continuity to do its work.
• We are consumed by our anxiety about success. Parents are more worried about the employment future of their children. We have tiger moms and helicopter parents who want their children to win in the competitive world we have constructed. Home has become a child-management-services bureau where every day is scheduled for positive outcomes. In some cases, when you hire an employee, you are also hiring the person’s parental management team; one day you might have to answer to his mom or dad on why you rated their son only above average. Stewardship supports the assumptions of a cooperative world; it replaces competition with collaboration, self-interest with service. It asks us to care more about meaning and impact than about the traditional concern for upward mobility.
• Finally, we continue to be disappointed in our leaders, which means our expectations of them are beyond fulfillment. We seek transformational leaders and relational leaders. We want our mentors, and everyone who can afford it wants a coach. We still love leadership; we just want it to be more benevolent. This focus on leaders tends to centralize accountability instead of distributing it. It says that leaders are cause and employees are effect. Stewardship inverts this and suggests that employees are the central point and bosses need to earn their right to govern.
Goods We Can Build Upon
All these forces create some positive counterforces that support and reinforce the shift in our thinking toward stewardship. For example:
• The longing for hope, stability, and optimism is as strong as ever. In the world of religion, while participation in the traditional churches has declined in the West, the emergent churches here have strong growth. They make fewer demands to embrace specific beliefs and focus more on creating a successful lifestyle and being part of a community. They give their members an opportunity for connection that has disappeared from the neighborhood and the workplace. Around the world we see growing resistance to the materialism of the West. It is frightening in some of its forms but is clearly a reaction to witnessing the disruption of tradition and culture in the West.
• The environmental movement is touching our lives and our organizations. At a surface level, every business has turned green, at least in its advertising. Government is now also turning green, and proud of it. This is a good thing. This means that conversation about the environment is commonplace. The social responsibility of business is on the table. All these support the steward.
• There are always organizations that strive to create an alternative to the traditional command-and-control cultures. Most high-tech companies seek less social distance between levels. They create more informal ways of being together, make the office more like home, and encourage sociability. They are valuing more ownership from employees and more decisions at lower levels. Some older major companies, like Mars and Crown Equipment, still value the importance of employees, appreciate the importance of learning, and work to keep trust strong by using high engagement and many of the stewardship practices described in this book.
• One response to the increased isolation and cultural force of the digital world is the growth of localism. This is a face-to-face, close-to-home effort. It is the decision to work, shop, and play within walking distance. Given the downsizing and loss of faith in larger institutions, the choice may not be entirely voluntary, but it has become a strong social movement, a convergence of the food, environmental, and anticonsumer movements. Cooperative enterprises are in a growth mode. Local agriculture, neighborhood building, and the desire to buy less and create more on our own are all on the rise. Just one example is that at this writing there are more than thirty cohousing efforts in the United States alone. In cohousing, fifteen or more families buy a common property, and on this property they have private houses but also common space for eating, raising children, and feeling connected to others close at hand. It is the re-creation of the village and community life that the industrial and information ages have set asunder.
• Finally, as always, there is a large group of young people seeking something more than economic success. They want to serve society. They are open to larger purposes for an organization than being successful in a marketplace, necessary as this might be. They are choosing stewardship and service over self-interest.
The hope of this new edition of this book is that the ideas and practice of stewardship are still a useful framework for thriving in the complexity of this modern age. Stewardship provides a spiritual, values-based anchor in an era that constantly drives us in the direction of speed, control, and efficiency. Stewardship is an alternative way to create a future that transcends the pressure of lower costs and short-term results. It holds a restorative set of values, centered on creating high performance by putting the future in the hands of each member of an organization. It is a voice for the common good as an answer to the growing individualism of the culture.
If the idea of stewardship is elusive, it is because this idea changes with the times, and it is not formulaic and so gives great latitude on the form it takes. It also suffers from ambiguity and having no definitive template or compelling testimony or evidence. Sorry about that. The good news is that it invites you to cocreate the idea and practice and thus imagine its possibilities, and make sense and meaning of it in your own way, out of your own context. Which is what we have to do with our lives anyway.