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November 24, 2003
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Being a Good Steward

The ancient office of the Royal Steward was held by the most trusted aide of the king or queen. The Steward was responsible for the administration of the royal household, and for the safeguarding and management of the objects and ceremonies most valued by the king. The Steward had to be the most trusted of the king’s subjects, and in trade for honoring that trust by effective administration, this Royal "Chief Administrative Officer" received honor and wealth.

On the other hand, failure to honor commitments, disappointing the king by not accomplishing assigned responsibilities, or being disloyal or unethical meant an early and perhaps very unpleasant retirement. In medieval times, such disappointments no doubt led to a very different version of a DROP program than the deferred retirement model we know today. The medieval DROP might have had the word "dead" next to it!

Through the centuries, the concept of "stewardship" came to mean the serious acceptance of and follow-through on assignments, as well as ethical attention paid to duties and responsibilities. Being a good steward means someone who is a "go to" person; one who is trusted and does not disappoint. Such a person takes commitment seriously, and is a person who is steady and reliable.

Today, these are still the characteristics of a person headed for a bright future in public service as well as in personal relationships with spouses, children, neighbors, and significant others. The work habits of good stewardship, when combined with the learned knowledge, skills and abilities of a technically skilled person, create a very strong package. In fact, every elected or appointed leader has a special responsibility to practice good stewardship and to develop the idea in those working in the administration of the public agency.

Today’s public service stewardship is over the taxpayer’s money and the quality of services delivered to all persons in the community, including those who are frail, infirm or unable to care for themselves. Our stewardship extends to public safety and public education. It goes to public health and the health of the environment. It also extends to the intellectual health of an area in terms of the strength of its libraries, museums, and cultural institutions.

On the individual level, the HR Doctor’s observations, unscientific as they may be, are that there is a decline in the understanding of and commitment to stewardship among job applicants as well as employees. There are fewer people who accept personal responsibility and accountability for what they do or fail to do, and there is a definite increase in the amount of whining in society (see "The National Commission on Whining" at

Without that personal stewardship component embedded in work and life habits, a person is heading for a prize-winning imitation of a test dummy crashing into a wall without a seat belt. An excessive "what’s in it for me" attitude carries with it the seeds of career trouble. No matter how bright a person may otherwise be, no matter how many college degrees a person may have, the maturity and understanding of the importance of honoring commitments and responsibilities is an essential component of a person to be trusted and promoted in public service.

The HR Doctor is a zealot for internships and for the career development of others. Overwhelmingly, that commitment has translated into helping the next generation of public servants understand what it takes to be successful in public administration. Success requires obvious technical competencies and skills. However, this part of our professional life can be learned. It is harder to teach the stewardship concept, but it too can be mastered, especially with help from a concerned manager or supervisor acting as a mentor and role model.

Occasionally, there is disappointment when a person being mentored falls off the balance beam and does not honor a commitment or an obligation, or commits an ethical breach. However, on the whole, a focus on stewardship is a wonderful foundation upon which to build a career and to teach others as they build their careers.

We can learn a lot from the ancient Royal Steward’s job description. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to discuss the concept in every new employee orientation and supervisory training program!

There are other medieval offices; however, the HR Doctor has consciously declined, fortunately for the reader, to write about the Privy Counselor.

All the best,

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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