Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

The executive leader of the FUTURE: Trusted Steward

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Guest post by John Blakey

Stewards inspire trust by re-defining the purpose of business to deliver in a new way—triple bottom-line goals—and then putting themselves and the organization in service of those goals.

The triple bottom-line creates a vacancy for a different type of executive leader. Tomorrow’s executive leader will not be yesterday’s manager, driven by one dominant owner, to produce one measure of success. In contrast, tomorrow’s executive leader will balance the diverse and dynamic expectations of stakeholders. She or he will be a steward.


Stewardship theory has its roots in 20th century psychology. The untrustworthy agent has to be controlled lest they exploit their leadership position for their own personal gain. In contrast, stewardship theory assumes that the executive leader is responsible, socially aware and trustworthy.


Leadership theories tend be self-fulfilling. A relationship that starts from an assumption of trust will tend to produce more trustworthy leaders. How does this happen? In an agency mind-set, the leader must be controlled and monitored. Therefore, if I am controlled and monitored then naturally I am going to control and monitor my team likewise.

In a stewardship mind-set, the executive leader is given more discretion and freedom, which they pass on to their teams.

My strategy

When I think of my own experience, I realize that despite good intentions, the places I worked were fundamentally agency-wired; their first instinct was to control via institutionalized authority. There was the odd exception and the occasional leader that created a stewardship bubble, but as soon as the bubble grew it was promptly burst by a greater force.

My personal survival strategy was to flee the mainstream organization and work on change projects. For me, this strategy worked for a surprisingly long time. However, after 20 years the only leap left was to hop right out of corporate organizations and set up my own business.

My experiment

Upon founding my own executive coaching consultancy, I discovered that I finally had the opportunity to carry out a full scale experiment in stewardship.  We could build our consultancy on a foundation of trust. We had five co-owning partners who were committed to personal growth, achievement and performance. There were no fixed salaries with each of us being rewarded solely based upon the business we brought in. Controls were minimal. It was frowned upon if you didn’t attend the quarterly get-togethers, but that is about as heavy as it got. You looked after your own expenses, there was no discernible hierarchy and when the organization grew with contracted associates rather than employed staff.

We had fun and we grew the organization rapidly over three years. We were shortlisted for business start-up of the year in the UK. However, because we still measured success by financial performance we did not claim all the benefits that triple bottom-line leadership can bring. I am now wise enough to see that we got that part wrong. I also under-estimated the degree of agency conditioning in both myself and others.

Stewardship requires the leadership team to step up to a new level of responsibility, commitment and collaboration. We made big steps in the right direction but, when the global financial crisis struck, our growth stalled. It was a fascinating experiment in stewardship, but it was far from the finished product.

The future

These experiences, both as a corporate leader and as an entrepreneur, made me realise how difficult it is to implement the stewardship mind-set. Yet I remain convinced that it is the leadership mind-set of the future.

Better leaders than me will crack the puzzle. They will learn from the efforts and experience of others and they will do it because their future stakeholders will demand it. I operated in a period were stewardship was still swimming against the tide but, as we know, the tide always reaches a point where it turns.

Managers manage. Leaders anticipate.

Question: How are you applying trusted-steward leadership? Please leave a comment in the space below.

John Blakey is the author of The Trusted Executive: Nine Leadership Habits That Inspire Results, Relationships, and Reputation (Kogan Page; 2016) and was named one of the top thought leaders on organizational trust at the Trust Across America awards in 2016. He is the coaching subject matter expert at the Chartered Management Institute and a member of the CEO coaching faculty at Manchester Business School, Vistage International, the Institute of Directors, UK Sport and the NHS. Blakey is the author of Challenging Coaching and regularly blogs at http://johnblakey.co.uk/trusted-executive-blog/.

The Product Management Perspective: As a product manager you must gain the trust of your team. Period. Pay attention to what they’re saying and listen to their ideas. Remember that trust is a “two-way street” and work accordingly.


Adapted from The Trusted Executive: Nine Leadership Habits That Inspire Results, Relationships, and Reputation by John Blakey. Published April 2016 by Kogan Page. Copyright 2016 by John Blakey. Reproduced by permission of Kogan Page.

One thought on “The executive leader of the FUTURE: Trusted Steward

  1. I’m happy to read this story of Trusted Steward. This confirms my personal understanding how organization and leadership teams should be leaded (stewarded). Unconsciously I have realized and practiced those Stewardship principles with my team, despite I controlled and monitored on traditional way. Trust towards team and trust between leadeship team members is core element to really achieve something.

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