Personal gain is a powerful motive, it powers capitalism, and it makes people and return-seeking organizations productive, it powers the American Dream. Capitalism and free markets have lifted a billion people out of extreme poverty in the last 20 years.

However, untempered greed results in scams (e.g., Madoff), bad bets (e.g., AIG, Lehman) and bad TV (e.g., “The Apprentice”).  More importantly, the extraction mentality just doesn’t add up to a very good place to live.

To take advantage of the power of the motivation of personal gain, a society needs an opportunity platform that includes education, health, defense, energy, and transportation infrastructure.  For that all to function well, add a robust civic provisioning and problem solving capacity.  A functioning opportunity platform requires stewardship.

Steward is an old English word for a manager acting on behalf of the owner.  The term originally applied to an estate manager.  Stewardship is the applied accountability of ownership.  It means taking seriously the responsibility for the wise, judicious, and creative use of resources entrusted to your care.  Resources include not only physical assets, but also time and talent as important resources.

Responsibility-takers that make the opportunity layer work in society are stewards in four respects.

First, stewards hold in trust the people and resources in their care; they accept the accountability of ownership. Good public school administrators take the yoke of their all children responsibility seriously and advocate for the underserved and underrepresented.

Second, stewards takes a broad view. They think about advancing their sector, their profession, and their community.  They join professional associations, chambers of commerce, and Rotary.  They are systems thinkers.

Third, stewards takes a long view. They don’t take shortcuts that will have long-term consequences.  Environmentalist steward know progress is marathon not a sprint.

And fourth, stewards creatively and judiciously invest time and talents. They live conscientiously weighing the demands of their family, work, and community responsibilities.

Stewarts hold in trust people and resources in trust, think about the system, take the long view, and judiciously invest time and talents. 

Stewardship is a higher order motivation taught in community. It requires reflection, some systems thinking, and a coherent worldview.  Stewardship may be carried out in what David Brooks called the ‘service patch’ but what’s more important than what you do is how you do it.  Fortunately, stewards are found in every walk of life. They create opportunity for everyone.

Crumbling Civic Capacity

We live in a period of paradox– incredible opportunity and enormous problems. We’ve created large complex systems that produce unexpected Black Swan events (e.g., flash crash of 2010, the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, and plunging gas prices in 2014).

Our collective problem solving ability is in decline.  Thomas Homer Dixon was right when he predicted an Ingenuity Gap–our problems have grown more complex and interrelated and our ability to thoughtfully address them has plummeted.

Taking advantage of exponential technology requires agility, civility, and capacity–we need to work quickly, with a mind toward equity, and make a series of iterative decisions. Tech billionaires recently teamed up on climate change–a great example of stewardship.

When political candidates appeal to greed and fear rather than our better angels it further damages our crumbling civic capacity. As this campaign ambles on we need to call bullshit on hate speech and pandering and call for–and vote for– stewardship.


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Tom Vander Ark is author of Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, The Power of Place, Better Together, Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of Education Board Partners, 4.0 Schools, Digital Learning Institute, Latinx Education Collaborative, Mastery Transcript Consortium and eduInnovation. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.


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