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What’s steward leadership? What do you have to do to embrace this leadership style?

Stephen M. R. Covey advocates for a steward leadership style in his book Trust and Inspire. He explains that trusting and inspirational leaders put their stewardship into practice through three primary commitments.

Continue reading to learn what these commitments entail and why they’re important.

Commitment #1: Become an Upstanding Person

The steward leadership style requires you to be an upstanding person that others look up to. This means that you’re strong, true to yourself, and understanding of others.

Covey says that upholding this commitment is important for two reasons. First, becoming an upstanding person naturally makes you an inspirational role model for others because your characteristics make you credible and a source of moral guidance. Second, being an upstanding person means you model the characteristics necessary to reach your full potential—by being this person, you encourage your followers to do the same.

Requirement #1: Be Strong

The first requirement of becoming an upstanding person is to be strong. Being strong means doing, and advocating, what’s right—putting your ego aside, recognizing when you’re wrong, and valuing others’ opinions. For example, this may mean admitting to others when a decision you made backfires, or standing up for someone who’s being bullied. Covey explains that being strong also requires you to be brave—putting yourself out there can be intimidating.

Requirement #2: Be Authentic

The second requirement of becoming an upstanding person is to be authentic. Being authentic means aligning your actions with your values and words and expressing your genuine thoughts and feelings. Essentially, be your true self without putting on a mask for anyone. Covey explains that many people struggle to do so out of fear that they’ll be judged. To overcome this, embrace your vulnerability—accept that you’re not perfect and be OK with sharing your imperfections, despite what others might think.

Requirement #3: Understand Others

The third requirement of becoming an upstanding person is to understand others. Understanding others means realizing people’s feelings and experiences from their perspective and doing so without judgment. Understanding others increases your ability to work effectively—people will be more open and collaborative toward you, which will enable you to develop effective and creative solutions.

Commitment #2: Extend Faith to Others

Covey explains that the second commitment of the steward leadership style is extending faith to people. Extending faith means not only seeing that everyone has a higher potential, but also believing that they have the ability to achieve it. Extending faith also requires leaders to give employees autonomy rather than micromanaging.

Covey says that extending faith to employees is important because it allows them to reach their full potential and maximize performance. Expressing your belief in someone’s abilities to perform at a high level, and granting them autonomy to do so on their own, inspires them to meet—and even exceed—your expectations. Further, having confidence in others is contagious: Your choice to believe in others will gradually ripple outward, increasing collaboration and strengthening relationships throughout the organization.

Covey says that effectively extending faith relies on two foundations: setting clear expectations and practicing accountability. 

Foundation #1: Set Specific, Mutually Agreed-Upon Expectations

Covey explains that employees can only meet your expectations if you’re specific about what they are. Otherwise, misunderstandings are likely to arise and both parties may end up disappointed.

To ensure a positive outcome, first, nail down specifics—what does “success” or completion of the task look like? What are the deadlines? What resources are available?

Then, discuss these expectations with employees and come to a mutual agreement. Genuinely consider any amendments employees may want to make. For example, if you want a task to be completed by Monday but the employee thinks Wednesday is better, accept the request as long as there are no major issues with it. Mutually agreeing on expectations provides employees with a sense of meaning behind their work—they’re doing things because those things are important and make sense, not just because you said so.

Foundation #2: Create an Accountability Plan

To ensure expectations are met, Covey says you must hold others accountable for progress and results. It’s unrealistic to tell someone what you want and expect that it will be perfect without checking in throughout the process. If things veer off track or an employee needs help, you want to be available to provide guidance.

Further, Covey emphasizes mutually agreeing upon accountability methods. Your methods of practicing accountability may compromise your extension of faith if the employee feels micromanaged. To avoid this outcome, co-create an accountability plan with the employee to instill a sense of autonomy and accountability.

Commitment #3: Foster Connection

Covey explains that the third commitment of the steward leadership style is to foster connection—connection to their source of inspiration, among their followers, and between their followers and a larger vision. Connection provides people with meaning and purpose, the building blocks of inspiration. Employees who feel connected are inspired to reach their full potential and to use that potential to produce quality work for the organization. 

(Shortform note: Simon Sinek (Start With Why) agrees that meaning and purpose are the building blocks of inspiration, motivation, and action. To foster meaning and purpose, Sinek says you must define the “golden circle” of your organization. The bullseye of the circle is why—the purpose, cause, or belief that underpins why your organization does what it does. The inner ring of the circle is how—the principles and processes the organization follows to accomplish its why. The outer ring of the circle is what—the service or product the company offers and what the employee does.)

Connection #1: Connect to Your Source of Inspiration

Covey explains that, to inspire others, you must first identify your own source of inspiration. To do this, ask yourself what’s most important to you and why. 

For example, if you run a laundromat, reflect on why this business matters to you—why did you want to start it? Maybe it’s because your family couldn’t afford a washing machine when you were a child, and you were embarrassed by wearing dirty clothes. Your underlying inspiration might stem from the desire to provide affordable laundry services to people so everyone can feel confident and dignified with clean clothes.

(Shortform note: In Start With Why, Sinek similarly emphasizes the importance of connecting to your source of inspiration. However, he warns that many people grow distant from their why as their success grows. They tend to focus on the how and what of the golden circle and lose their ability to inspire. One way you can counter this pitfall is to regularly connect to your source of inspiration. For example, if your inspiration is your desire to make clean clothes accessible to all, you could hold a free wash day once a month and observe the impact you’re having on community members.)

Connection #2: Connect to Others

The second level of connection you must foster is connection with others. To connect with others, Covey argues that you must practice empathy and kindness. Empathy is understanding people’s feelings and experiences from their perspective and doing so without judgment. Kindness is a step past empathy—you use your understanding of others to assist them based on their needs.

Covey cites two reasons for empathizing with and showing kindness to others. First, showing care for someone makes them more receptive to you and therefore more likely to be inspired by you. Second, connecting helps you identify an individual’s personal sources of inspiration. You can then link this to the organization’s larger purpose, motivating the individual to produce superior work to achieve it.

Connection #3: Connect to Something Larger Than Yourself

The final level of connection Covey says you must foster to be inspirational is connection with  something larger than yourself. This requires you to nurture connections among individuals in the group and among individuals and the group’s larger purpose. Doing this inspires people by infusing them with belonging and purpose.

On a smaller scale, building connections between group members fosters camaraderie and establishes a shared identity and sense of belonging. This inspires collaboration and excellent performance among individuals because they want to uphold their roles in the group and make their team members proud.

More broadly, providing an overarching vision for the group makes members feel instrumental in achieving something meaningful. Covey explains that this sense of being part of a larger purpose inspires people, as it fulfills our innate need for belonging and meaning.

Steward Leadership Style: 3 Ways You Must Commit

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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