A New, Old Take on Leadership

February 7th, 2012

by Bill Peel

We live in an age of quantification. We want to know how much, how many and for how long. We like to grade skills, measure behaviors and add up accomplishments. But leadership is broader than skill and expertise. It's deeper than what a leadership assessment can reveal. And it's more profound than accountability to shareholders for financial gain. Business consultant Peter Block suggests that the essence of leadership is stewardship.

If the word stewardship conjures up church budget campaigns and building programs, think again. In the ancient world, stewardship was not a religious term. It was a key component of commerce. Almost every business had a steward who served somewhat like a chief operating officer, running the daily affairs of the master and his home. Simply put, a steward was someone entrusted with the management of someone else's affairs.

Fast forward two thousand years and consider Block's definition of stewardship: “The willingness to be held accountable for the well-being of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than control, of those around us.” Sounds familiar.

In Greco-Roman culture, a household [oikos] was the basic economic unit of the community, and it included family members as well as everyone else who lived and worked at the house or estate — slaves, hired servants, skilled workers of various sorts, teachers and tutors. The influence of an oikos extended into the community to all those who did business with the household. And, if a church happened to meet in a house, the influence of the oikos extended to all who attended, thus to their oikoi, too.

In Greek, the word stewardship is a compound of two words: oikos, household; and nomos, which means law or rule. The words used together--oikonomia -- meant the management or administration of a household. (We get our English word economy from this compound word.) Translators of the King James Bible used the English word steward to translate oikonomos. The New International Version uses more modern terms, such as manager, management, administering, those entrusted with, and those being given a trust. But none of these English words captures the rich picture of leadership, authority and accountability the original Greek portrays.

An oikonomos, or steward, was indeed the “ruler of the house,” but he was not the ultimate ruler. In fact, in New Testament times the steward was almost always a slave owned by the head of the house. Yet, although he was a slave, he was second in command, entrusted to manage the family and its affairs. He was in authority as well as under authority. But—and here's the point of the Greek lesson—the authority granted to the oikonomos was never to be used for his own self-interest. He was to use it to advance the interests of his master, to whom he was accountable.

Look at leadership through the lens of stewardship—authority over people and accountability before God—and you'll understand what it means to lead from a biblical perspective.

The essence of stewardship implies a two-party proposition. One person owns the resources; the other person is entrusted with the resources. By definition, a steward is accountable to his master for how resources are invested. So, how does this apply to us today? Since God owns all things, He is our Master; He distributes gifts and resources at His discretion. We are stewards, accountable to Him for what we do with all we are given.

Stewardship is the inherent standard to which God calls all leaders—whether we're leading a country, business, church committee, community organization, Cub Scout pack, our family or ourselves.