Stewardship is defined as the responsibility to shepherd and safeguard the interests of others. Many of us are in positions of stewardship on behalf of others in public corporations, private enterprises, and charitable organizations. Warren Buffett, perhaps the most widely followed business leader of our time, speaks often of the importance of stewardship in business. It is striking, then, to see the dearth of courses discussing the concept of stewardship at top American business schools.
In the online course catalogs of the top five MBA programs in the America (as recently ranked by US News and World Report), “stewardship” is nowhere to be found in any course title. To put this into context, each of these schools offers at least five classes with the word “leadership” in the title. In the detailed descriptions of courses offered at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, tied for #1 in the same report, the word “leadership” appears 108 times. The word “stewardship” is not mentioned once. The closest mention of the word appears in the context of how to steward yourself in a course entitled “Leading Your Life.”
Fortunately, stewardship is an innate core trait. It is observed throughout nature and is exemplified by the nurturing instincts of parents and the service behaviors among kin. Such behaviors were evolutionarily selected to meet the needs of social species, such as humans, that grouped around closely related members, or at least did so during the long and stable prehistoric age that shaped our selection. In the Darwinian calculus, socially altruistic behaviors towards kin can enhance one’s own evolutionary fitness — a phenomenon termed inclusive fitness. It is our nature to nurture.
While such behaviors were likely selected and proved beneficial when humans lived among kin-based tribes, in the modern world of easy mobility and accelerating social dispersal rates, communities typically develop around diverse, non-kin populations. Many of our factory-setting behaviors, including the degree to which we trust our fiduciaries and agents, are rendered maladaptive in a world of high-relationship liquidity.
Given this evolutionary dislocation, stewardship of non-kin is now a moral choice rather than a naturally adaptive behavior that fits Hamilton’s rule. All too often these days, we feel forsaken by those we call leaders. A mere century ago, Captain Edward Smith stayed with his doomed RMS Titanic. Facing similar situations, the modern captains of MV Sewol and Costa Concordia abandoned ship, leaving passengers to their dire fates. Although these are isolated incidents, they provoke a sinking feeling about the broader fate of civil society.
As a species, we’ve collectively set sail towards being a diverse, mobile, and global community, and there is no turning back. To meet the social challenges that will accompany this new era, it is more vital and urgent than ever to start a meaningful conversation about stewardship. I hope business schools can lead the way in starting this conversation.