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Main Street: Nov. 28, 2018

November 29, 2018

“Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources.” — Wikipedia.

There is a lot of buzz these days about being a good steward. We talk about the stewardship of financial resources, the environment, our institutions and physical buildings of a campus.

Professionals who manage others’ financial resources have come under scrutiny to manage them in a way that puts the clients’ interest first. They have a stewardship and fiduciary obligation to avoid conflicts of interest that benefit the manager at the expense of the client.

The past 20 years also has seen a major shift in how we view natural resources such as the air, water, minerals, plant and wildlife. As we are finding out, there are tradeoffs that are not easy to resolve. For example, in Kankakee County, we have seen disagreements regarding the installation of solar farms.

Stewardship is also a common topic of discussion in religious circles regarding how individuals spend their financial resources and time. The conversation usually includes why people should share a portion of those resources to help their church or synagogue carry out their mission.

These organizations generally vest oversight responsibility in a board of trustees and, in many cases, a board of stewards. Most of the same issues also apply to nonprofit organizations that receive donations or grants and seek to advance programs to solve tough problems and/or to enrich society.

What is clear in all of these situations is protection of resources is not automatic. It takes planning and wisdom to preserve what is here now and plan for the future.

The vast majority of these discussions focus on physical things such as buildings, financial resources, the environment and natural resources. What generally is missing, though, is a dialogue about the stewardship of people.

Most organizations say, and in some cases actually mean it, people are their most important resource. But to what degree do we think about applying the concepts of stewardship to people. As parents, managers, leaders in the work environment and members of service organizations, do we really see ourselves as stewards of other people?

Not in the sense that we own them or that they are “property” to be manipulated or used for our objectives but rather as children of God with imminent worth.

We can apply stewardship concepts to those in our care, those who work for us or with us, those we teach and even to ourselves. We are not talking about condescending paternalistic or patronizing behavior but rather a genuine care and concern for others. Let me share three ways we can do that.

First, we really must see people as our most important resource. We have seen the tragic Gulf Coast hurricane and California fires. Families have lost everything. Yet if their loved ones and pets survived, they have a profound sense of gratefulness.

Too often it takes disasters such as these to get those of us not directly affected to realize how, day-in and day-out, we take those around us for granted. With stewardship in mind, we need to find ways to overcome small irritations, disagreements and disputes to preserve our relationships.

Secondly, just as financial managers are required to put their clients first, we need to think about what others want for themselves rather than what we desire for them. Many of us as parents have faced this dilemma.

We want what is best for our children. We strive to provide wise counsel, but in the end, as good stewards, we must let them make their own decisions, including their own mistakes. As managers, we need to apply the principles of appreciative inquiry, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

We need to look beyond a person’s present position and job role. We can ask them in what ways they could better use their skills and abilities to help the organization improve. Furthermore, we can give employees assignments that will help them grow and develop in a direction they want to go. The most successful businesses and organizations do this. To do otherwise means you have destined many high potential employees to a mediocre career.

Third, don’t just recognize people’s potential, but tell them about it and demonstrate it by showing your confidence in them. While we all have dealt with arrogant self-important people, a large percentage of individuals we encounter tend to underrate their potential. Too often one’s true abilities are inversely proportional to the amount of self-promotion and bragging they do.

Whether it is our children, students, employees or co-workers, we have a stewardship responsibility to develop people. The first step is recognizing their excellence and/or potential excellence.

As a professor, every year, I had three to five students who so underrated their abilities they were afraid they would not pass or at least get a good grade in the challenging strategy capstone course I taught. With my encouragement and their hard work, they frequently turned out to be among the very best students.

One of the things that gave me the most fulfillment as a professor was when I could write a letter of reference for one these formally under-confident students where I could genuinely say, “This student is among the top 5 percent of students I have ever had at the University of Iowa, Florida State University and ONU.”

It wasn’t about me at all. Rather it was proactively using my position of stewardship that was granted to me to teach these young people.

In summary, while we usually think about stewardship regarding things, places and money, the stewardship of human beings is potentially a higher calling. Look around. We all are stewards of others.

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