Steward Leadership: Redefining Leadership for the Future Workplace

Sam Cook


Steward Leadership: Redefining Leadership for the Future Workplace

In a traditional leadership style, the team serves the leader. But in steward leadership, it’s the other way around. The leader acts as a steward or a caretaker. Leadership relationship dynamics continue to evolve in modern workplaces. A strict, top-down leadership structure still exists to some degree, but leaders are increasingly required to act more as team guides than team dictators. That’s a positive change that improves the morale and productivity of workers, but steward leadership may be a new concept for emerging and existing leaders.

In this article, we’ll help you define and emulate steward leadership. Use this leadership style to empower the synergy within your team, increase employee satisfaction, and foster teamwork.

Overview of Leadership Styles

The funny thing about leadership is that it’s often seen as an innate characteristic instead of a taught or learned skills.

Yes and no.

Some people are born with a natural inclination to lead. Unfortunately, some of those people will lead poorly and some will lead well. Individuals who have a personality that lends itself to leadership can go either way. Much of where they land depends on what type of leadership models they’ve seen that they adopt.

Group of coworkers in an office discussion diversity and inclusion topics.

Consequently, just as bad behaviors and habits can be both a function of nature and nuture, so, too, can leadership styles. Bad or ineffective leadership styles are usually those that were developed without any real insight or training. And while some people can develop good leadership styles on their own, more often than not, they received direct or indirect training and mentorship to develop into effective leaders.

Former Aetna CEO Ron Williams would agree. In a Wharton School interview on “Why Most Leadership Skills Are Learned,” Williams explains:

“Many believe leaders are born with some innate charisma, and certainly, there are leaders who do have that capability. But the vast majority of leadership is learned.”

8 common leadership styles

Your leadership style is vital in shaping an organization or team and determining its success. As our concept of work has changed, various leadership styles have evolved in response to the changing dynamics in the workplace, society, and other workforce factors. Adopting these various leadership styles enables organizations to apply a distinctive and effective approach best suited for the unique challenges and team dynamics.

Here is an overview of the most common leadership styles and how they apply to specific work situations.

  • Transformational Leadership: Transformational leaders inspire and motivate employees as they work toward a common goal. These leaders embody their vision and believe they inspire others to do the same.
  • Autocratic Leadership: Autocratic leaders impose their policies, expectations, and defined outcomes on their employees. They like to take control and make decisions without (or little) input from others.
  • Democratic Leadership: Democratic leaders encourage team members to become involved in decision-making and seek others’ input.
  • Transactional Leadership: Transactional leaders use models and rewards to motivate employees. They set clear goals and make the employees aware of the potential benefits of achieving specific goals.
  • Delegative Leadership: It’s a hands-off approach to leadership that involves delegating tasks and decisions to employees, making them feel fulfilled and valued.
  • Bureaucratic Leadership: Bureaucratic leaders value the company’s needs before the employees. They set rules that the employees must strictly follow, especially since predecessors had set them.
  • Servant Leadership: It is also called steward leadership, a type of leader that serves his or her employees (instead of the other way around). These leaders are selfless and see the potential in each employee.
  • Coaching Leadership: These leaders provide guidance and feedback to employees, allowing them to grow and develop to reach their fullest potential.

After nine years of teaching high school at two different schools, I saw almost all of these leadership styles within school administration. And during my time as a small business owner, I had the opportunity to try my hand at a few of these, as well (don’t worry; I wasn’t autocratic in the least!). There’s often a place and time for a mixture of different leadership styles, but without training, most leaders will fall into the bad habit of adopting just one style and never bending from it, regardless of whether or not it’s working.

What Is the Servant Leadership Theory?

Group of employees in an office doing a team high huddle with hands together.

The servant leadership theory is defined as the people-first leadership style. It is when you prioritize the growth and well-being of employees. This strategy empowers them to succeed in various ways, boosting their productivity, engagement, and joy at working with their team.

The primary goal of servant leadership is to create an inclusive environment that encourages people to thrive and become their authentic selves.

It deviates from traditional leadership styles, wherein the leader creates policies and rules, and the employees must adhere to these policies. With servant leadership, the employees come before the leader, whose mission is to help “serve” the employees’ needs for direction, growth, and support.

The servant leadership theory, or the concept of servant leaders, was developed by Robert K. Greenleaf. He popularized the term in the 1970s through his essay, “The Servant as Leader.” He was inspired by the Hemann Hesse’s novella Journey to the East, and specifically its main character Leo.

When Leo was gone, the rest of the servants fell apart and lost their productivity. It gave Greenleaf the insight that Leo was, in fact, a servant leader.

This inspired Greenleaf to develop the concept of servant leaders as critical in enabling workers to relate to those who lead them. This type of servant leadership creates greater trust in the workplace and fosters a sense of autonomy. When a leader adopts the “I serve” mentality and shows selflessness, instead of leading by authority, they create future stewards in the workers and put them in a position to utilize their skills for higher productivity.

Characteristics of Steward Leadership

What does it take to become steward leaders? The following are the most important characteristics of steward leadership that can develop more engaged teams.

1. Personal vision

Steward leaders have a sense of purpose, which helps them align their actions to the company’s shared vision, goals and values.

2. Personal mastery

Servant leaders aspire for development and growth in themselves and those they lead. When needed, they enroll in and take advantage of leadership development programs in the workplace.

3. Mentoring

Steward leaders support their team members and provide opportunities for learning, guidance, and feedback.

4. Shared vision

Steward leaders capture the collective aspirations of the team to foster a sense of commitment and continually engage everyone on the team.

5. Experimentation and risk-taking

Servant leaders like experimentation and risk-taking. In doing so, they quell the fear of failure among team members and encourage them to take risks, as failures could be a valuable learning experience.

6. Value diversity

Steward leaders value diversity in their teams. They understand that each individual possesses unique skills and talents that can benefit the environment by fostering collaboration and innovation.

Impact of Stewardship on Leadership Domains

Steward leaders understand their actions and decisions impact the organization’s mission and shared vision. That begs the question, though: What habits or behaviors really define steward leadership? What are these individuals doing differently that makes them so successful at leading teams in a more effective way?


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Steward leaders understand that they need to adopt this leadership approach to facilitate decisions that have long-term impacts on the organization. On the other hand, a lack of stewardship puts you at risk of making short-term decisions instead of seeing things for the long term.

Take data-driven decision-making, for example. This is a go-to for good leader, but it’s also something that steward leaders do better. Because they recognize that their people are experts in their respective fields, they empower their teams to develop and gather the type of data insights that help the leader make better decisions.

And they have the patience with their team members to know that creating the framework for effective data takes time. Instead of demanding results immediately, they support their teams with what they need to ensure that those team members can provide those valuable insights with more efficacy.

Strategic planning

Steward leaders adopt this style to achieve generative growth potential for the entire organization and its team members. Without stewardship, your strategic plans are limited in their ability to facilitate growth.

Developing others

Leading with a service commitment enables employees and team members to realize their potential. But when you use a different approach, you cannot unlock professional development among employees since they don’t take on tasks beyond their designated roles.

Personal career development

You can establish a good relationship with employees and empower them through your leadership approach. If you don’t adopt the qualities of a steward leader, you risk becoming a bureaucratic leader and becoming too controlling. As a result, you limit the ability of your employees to advance their careers.

Resource management

Servant leadership gives you creative insights on managing your resources better. This type of leadership emphasizes what your team members need most. Instead of unilaterally dictating what you believe is the best tool for the job, you rely on your team members to help you understand what makes them most efficient and successful.

This process results in better resource allocation as team members aren’t stuck using tools that aren’t effective. Using another approach doesn’t provide the same ideas, which could lead to an inefficient allocation of resources.

Consequently, a 2016 study by 1E found that the average company has $259 per computer of unused software. The reason often comes down to a lack of communication and a “one size fits all” approach to software.

Innovation and creativity

With servant leadership, you can leverage your employees’ talent to develop innovative solutions for doing business. Without servant leaders’ characteristics, you cannot tap the skills and talents of those who are part of your organization.

How to Develop Steward Leaders

Developing steward leaders is an important priority for modern organizations. Steward leaders run an effective unit, especially since it is a long-term endeavor. It requires sustained focus to maximize every opportunity and maximize the skills and potential of each employee.

If you want to foster stewardship and utilize the servant leadership theory in your community or company, you must follow these ideas to help achieve your goals.

1. Cultivate a sense of purpose

A sense of purpose and values drives servant leaders. Without it, you will fail in adopting the steward leadership mindset. Organizations must identify values and missions that align with their stewardship principles. As a leader, you must communicate these values to your team members and use them to influence your decision-making process.

Fostering a culture of purpose and values develop employees who share the same sense of purpose. It also creates engaged employees, which can be critical to business success.

2. Look within yourself

Before you can adopt the qualities of steward leadership, you, as a leader, must look within yourself first. You must commit to the pursuit of discovering and refining your talents. Ensure your current work and effort leads to achieving your long-term career objectives.

Examine how you utilize your time and energy toward accomplishing your current responsibilities. Before adopting the steward leadership mindset, you must be fully committed to serving others.

3. Evaluate how you look at resources

Resource allocation is among those areas you must reflect on if you want to ditch authoritarian leadership and adopt a servant leadership style. Aspiring steward leaders should evaluate their perspective on an organization’s human, intellectual, emotional, and material resources.

Specifically, look into your consumption tendencies for these resources. Do you like to hold on tightly to these resources? Are you reluctant to share them with others? Start with these things when you want to adopt the right mindset to become a steward leader. It’s called leading by example.

4. Consider employee well-being

Prioritizing employee well-being is one of the best examples of steward leadership. The goal is to enact a meaningful change that promotes your company’s goals and shows respect and responsibility to your employees. Many organizations are notorious for expecting too much result from their employees to the point of the latter being burned out at work.

You can change this mindset approach in leadership when you choose to become a servant instead of wanting to take full control. A company that develops awareness about employees’ health and well-being tends to have more engaged employees. You create a positive work environment that fosters growth and encourages your employees’ full utilization of skills without risking their health.

Plus, this is something employees want most and are willing to quit over. The Muse found that 70% of workers reported work-life balance as among their most important criteria for working with an employer (yes, even more than monetary compensation).

Take the Next Step in Leadership Development

Steward leadership is the best example of how the leadership approach you use in the company can positively impact the work environment. Cultivating the characteristics of steward leaders can promote leadership development and foster a supportive environment rather than leading by fear or authority.

When you empower employees to become stewards of the company, you can drive sustainable success and positive change within the organization.

Mentoring and leadership go hand-in-hand. In this Mentoring Soundbites video, we explore how you can use mentoring as part of an effective leadership development plan (that works for yourself or others). Be sure to like and subscribe to get updated when we release new content like this every week!

Take the next step in leadership development by doing the following:

  • Assess your own leadership style. Purdue University has a helpful self-assessment worksheet
  • Determine what, if anything needs to change to help you adopt a steward leadership style
  • Enroll in an available leadership development mentoring program
  • If no such program exists, request mentoring from another leader at your organization or within your professional network who fits the steward leadership criteria.

Of course, if your organization has no leadership mentoring, why not be the hero and get started by launching the program? Book a demo to learn how MentorcliQ supports leadership development at some of the largest companies worldwide.

Sam Cook

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