The concept of a steward is a sensibility badly needed in today’s business world. For several years, business news has been rife with reports of men (yes, they have all been males) who were charged with looking after the welfare of public corporations but who behaved like robber barons, brutalizing millions of stakeholders by raiding and robbing the assets of the very corporations they were entrusted to protect and grow.
What is the problem? At the obvious level, it involves greed. These men’s lives are models of insatiable appetites gone wild. At another level, these crimes are rooted in pride, for as some of the culprits have admitted, accumulating personal riches and indulging themselves in unspeakable extravagance was how they kept score in the game of success — which they mistook for the purpose of life.
But at a deeper level, their wanton criminal self-indulgence seems to be the natural expression of a flawed understanding of reality. They handled the assets with which they were entrusted as if the assets were their own. That is, after all, the prevailing metaphor we use to describe the role of the very top officer in a public corporation. The company is his. He has the power to make its final decisions. We regard him — and he comes to regard himself — as the sole owner of the corporation.
If that were really the case, CEOs could wallow in self-indulgence until either their assets or their hearts gave out. But because this is not the case, many end up having to hide their skewed view of reality by cooking the books or otherwise lying to investors and other stakeholders. Eventually, reality bites: they have to forfeit their power, fortunes, reputations, and in some instances, even their freedom.
The reality is that the power the top official has in a corporation has been given to him by its rightful owners, who hold the company’s stock. They are free to take away the power they have given him if they decide it is in their best interests to do so. With that in mind, perhaps we will find a newfound emphasis in business schools on the notions of steward and stewardship at all levels of the corporate ladder.