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The good ships

Your Humble Blogger just shelved half a hundred books about Leadership. It was one of those oddball library things, where we suddenly (and correctly) decided to take all the books out of the special collection on Leadership and shelve them in the stacks with the others. Perfectly ordinary, except that it’s an awful lot of bullshit for one day.

It did remind me, however, of my cranky objection to the emphasis on Leadership in our culture over the last twenty years or so. I don’t mean that Leadership is a Bad Thing—it’s a Good Thing, clearly, and there should be people studying it and writing about it and doing it. But it isn’t the only Good Thing, and its GoodThingness has (in my arrogant opinion) got itself too high up in the cultural chain of being.

I got particularly cranky about this when a recent effort was made to inculcate Leadership into the incoming class at the University that employs me. There was a short list of such values: Leadership, Community, possibly something like Integrity or Honesty. Anyway, my immediate reaction was that this was a foolish and mistaken choice. I mean. It is true that anybody can be a Leader but is not the case that everybody can be a Leader, not unless we want to define Leadership down past all meaning (which many of the books do). And while it would be good for everybody to know something about Leadership, as most people will have some opportunities to exercise that knowledge at some point in their lives, it is also true that it would be good for everybody to know something about pretty much any conceivable topic; it doesn’t follow that Leadership should be one of the three or four things chosen out to emphasize to the incoming class.

My suggestion, made idly in conversation long after the Leadership plank got into our platform, was that students would be better off being inculcated with Stewardship. Most people will have the opportunity to exercise knowledge about Leadership at some point in their lives, I admit, but most people will pass up their opportunity to act as Leaders, and that’s all right. That is, in fact, in the nature of Leadership. But not only can anybody exercise Stewardship, everybody can exercise Stewardship, all at the same time, and it only gets better.

What is Stewardship? Essentially, Stewardship is taking responsibility for something without claiming ownership of it. Taking care of stuff—of communities, of people, of the environment, of buildings, of knowledge, of capabilities, of life. It’s a tremendously important thing for a college kid to know about—most kids come to college having been taken care of most of their lives, and having consciously extended their responsibility to perhaps a car or a computer, but little else. They have acted as Stewards, sure—they have taken care of their sports teams or their gangs or their wardrobes, probably, but they haven’t known what they were doing, or how, or why. Some clear thought and argument on Stewardship is bound to help them, and can’t really hurt those people who have been doing a good job of it beforehand.

Now, it is true that Stewardship has become a buzzword for socially reactionary religious groups to cover environmental activism. I don’t want to endorse those groups (although given that they exist, I would rather they put some effort into environmental Stewardship rather than spending that effort in persecuting minorities and supporting the Other Party), but I don’t think it’s a problem to subsume their buzzword into a new buzzword. There’s the possibility of a positive effect on those organizations, and even if, as I admit could happen, some people take the use of the term as a kind of dog-whistle rhetoric that indicates tacit approval of their other policies, that could work to my advantage as those people might then be more open to the greater fields of Stewardship that might lead them away from the more mean-spirited policies of those groups.

That’s all in my imaginary world, though, where the shift in emphasis from Leadership to Stewardship is something that would be seriously considered by my University or others like it. All I do about it is gripe on this blog; I don’t have the reach to change the actual mission statement. And—just to say it again, I don’t think it’s a Bad Thing to teach college frosh about Leadership. But in our catalogue, Stewardship as a keyword search turns up only 21 items; Leadership turns up over a thousand. That seems like the wrong ratio.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


As it goes in your academic niche, so it goes also in mine, though I will say that, as as women's college, my home has somewhat more reason than some others do to emphasize leadership as a skill that our students should learn because they may not have considered "leading" as a role they could themselves take on.

Happily, however, we haven't directly implanted "leadership" into our general education curriculum--it is stated as a value, but not operationalized as an outcome. On the other hand, "social responsibility" is included as a major outcome. That's not the same thing as "stewardship," but it's attitudinally related. Fortunately for us, "leadership" isn't in the mission statement, but "social responsibility" is.

I'd be happy to chip in on a campaign to make "stewardship, not leadership" a meme. If we could induce a little guilt in the plutocrats, that'd be a start.

Stewardship is also a buzzword for progressive religious groups, who actively use it to cover environmental activism as well as responsibilities in other areas.

I agree that our society needs far more emphasis on stewardship, but I do think most people can or should take a leadership role in some areas of their lives at some times. You can be a leader at work or at home or in one of your communities without having to be a leader in all of those areas. Learning good leadership can not only prepare you to take on that role when appropriate, it can also help you recognize bad leadership and rebel as necessary.

What leadership and stewardship have in common is engagement. I prefer that to the apathy and inward focus that pervades much of our society.

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