I got a group of people together to assemble and donate 50 comfort kits to homeless shelters, and I feel lousy about it.

OK, before I explain, let me provide some context. 

In January, I spent two weeks at the Modern Elder Academy (MEA), founded by Chip Conley. The MEA is dedicated to supporting individuals to navigate midlife transitions, personally and professionally. Part of our curriculum focused on the study of stewardship, something I haven’t ever really thought about. It was humbling.

Stepping into stewardship.

Stewardship is defined as:

  • The position and duties of a steward, a person who acts as the surrogate of another or others
  • The responsible overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for and preserving

There are many ways in which stewardship can be talked about- as it relates to the bible and tithing, financial oversight, philanthropic giving and organizationally just to name a few. The curriculum and conversation on stewardship was fascinating, and I walked away with a deeper understanding of its true meaning.

  • Stewardship means deeply listening to what is needed, and not necessarily applying our own interpretation or assessment of need.
  • It means operating in service of and not in control of.
  • It also means remembering that we don’t necessarily own things, but are instead often in positions of managing them. 

I found myself thinking about where in my life I believe I am stewarding and whether or not I really am. In fact, it led me to contemplate how to discern between helping, supporting, serving and stewarding.

After a robust discussion, we were asked to reflect on our own experience and relationship to stewardship. Full disclosure- this exercise left me feeling a little bit uncomfortable, especially as I thought about the endeavor I mention above, which I undertook just a few days before leaving for the academy.

For the past year, I have watched the number of homeless people standing at major intersections in the New Haven, CT area holding signs that ask for help increase in number and frequency. Each time I drive pass them, I wish I could contribute to getting food and other necessities into their hands. I am often caught feeling pulled to help (directly) others less fortunate than myself, but I also know how important it is to support the organizations that serve others, in this case the homeless. So, I decided that I would organize the assembly of 50 comfort bags (bags filled with snacks, water, and other essentials) that would be donated to shelters. I selected one women’s shelter and one men’s shelter, and solicited friends and family  for donations for the bags and to join me one evening to put them together. I thought it would be a wonderful way to gather a group together, share a giving experience and assemble 50 bags.

The truth hurts.

As I found myself sitting in our circle discussing stewardship, questions swirled in my head:

  • Had I really listened?
  • Was I acting in service of, or was I coming from a place of orchestrating a solution before really understanding the need?
  • What was my true motivation?
  • Did I initiate this project for me, or for the good of the homeless I was professing to serve?

Ouch. 

If I’m honest, I hadn’t actually given too much thought to what the organizations managing the homeless shelters really needed, nor had I reached out to them in advance to learn more. I was driven more by “doing something good” than being in service;  I simply felt the urge to “help”  and took the action I believed would be most helpful. 

While I am not marginalizing the effort my friends and I made or the fact that the bags were a nice thing to do and got into the hands of shelter residents, after this exploration of stewardship, my gesture felt selfish and out of touch. It was about me, not them.

Once I had the opportunity to regroup (after licking my wounds), I began to think about what this looks like in organizations.

Organizational Stewardship.

At InspireCorps, we partner with organizations to help them grow through igniting and sustaining inspiration in their people. We know that when people are inspired, they have their best days more often, and when this happens, everyone wins. We have worked with and interviewed thousands of employees,  and our findings  (as with those of major research studies), gives us a good sense of what they want and need.

Individuals spend approximately 90,000 hours of their life at work.

We believe it is a birthright for them to do work they love and to be acknowledged for it. We also believe that it is an organization’s, and its leaders, responsibility to provide the environment and conditions for inspiration and happy, fulfilling work experiences to occur. This is how a leader stewards.

In a recent NYT article, Bekele Geleta, Former Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC), shares this definition of stewardship,

“a leader is performing the act of stewardship whenever he or she is actively preparing for an organization’s future vitality. This act of stewardship takes form at different organizational levels. At an individual level, stewardship focuses on promoting well-being for each person within an organization. One of the many ways to promote this well being is to ensure that each individual is generally happy in his or her working environment.”

All to often, however, we see organizations taking action, implementing initiatives or offering new policies that miss their mark and neither align to what their employees need nor meet that need. It is usually those in senior leadership positions, and often with the best of intentions, that forget what their role as stewards really are.

The most important question. 

In thinking back to my MEA discussion, organizations lose their way because they haven’t asked the right question: whether or not they are acting as stewards of their most important resource or not.

They forget to check in with what stewardship really means:

  • Have we really listened to what our people need or are we applying our own assessment of what is needed?
  • Are we acting in service of, or are we merely taking control?
  • Is our lens on how to best lead or are we pushing solutions from a place of believing we know best?

As I had, organizations often take their eyes off of what matters most: the needs of their people. 

It is easy to confuse good intentions with what it truly means to steward. Had I not had the chance to participate in a comprehensive discussion about stewardship, I most likely would continue to act in the same way, missing not only the opportunity to be the kind of leader I want to be, but to have the kind of impact I hope to make.

Perhaps it is time for organizations to ask themselves the same question: 

Are you acting as stewards of you most important resource, your people, or not?