Recently I had the opportunity and the honor to address a large group of senior level information technology executives at a training conference. I was asked to present on stewardship and responsibility. This is a tough subject to address when speaking to a group of executives who are not only used to doing things their own way, but are also used to telling other people what to do. However, according to one dictionary definition, a steward is "one who manages another's property; trustee, chief servant." A steward was described by another author as characterized by the willingness to be held accountable for the well being of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than control, of others. Regardless, a steward has responsibility for what has been given in trust.
When people consider life and realize that they are only here for a moment of time, it becomes clear that everyone is a steward for the time that they are on earth. Your life and legacy will be determine, gauged, and measured by how you handle what you have been given or entrusted with. Many people are so busy making a living that they forget to make a life. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays said, "You make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give!" In essence, making a life is about enhancing other people's lives or about improving organizations. In today's society, stewardship has been reduced to being about dollars. If an organization is more profitable or a person is wealthier, then they are considered to have been good stewards. However, this could not be farther from the truth.
In the past, people were honored according to the wealth of their virtues. Today people are honored based on the virtue of their wealth. Historically however, people are not considered great in terms of their wealth but rather in terms of the lives they changed and saved.
I am committed to making a life while making a living. In order to do this, people need examples to follow, especially during a tumultuous and challenging time such as now. Corporate profits are reaching record levels while at the same time unemployment is rising to historically high levels as well. The middle class is being squeezed, causing the number of people living below poverty to grow. Children are showing up to school hungry and in some cases, the only balanced meal they receive is the lunch at school. This is America and the above statements do not describe the American Dream but rather an American Nightmare. Where are the people sacrificing for the greater good, living for something beyond their own comfort and convenience? Where are the stewards of our time?
This theme of stewardship reminds me of a couple of American heroes such as Oseola McCarty. For most of Ms. Oseola McCarty's life she lived and worked in a small, wood-frame Hattiesburg house. She made a living by washing and ironing clothes for others. As an only child and having outlived her relatives, she lived a solitary existence, surrounded only by the mounds of clothes she cleaned and pressed for people who only knew her as the washerwoman. She had quit school in the sixth grade to start working and for most of her 91 years, she cleaned and pressed dirty clothes for parties, weddings, and graduations she never saw or attended. All she had was the work, something she saw as a blessing since too many other black people in rural Mississippi did not have even that.
She earned national acclaim in July 1995 when it was announced that she had willed $150,000 of her life's savings to University of Southern Mississippi to provide scholarships for deserving, financially needy students. McCarty said that she wanted to give others the chance she never had to get an education. She said she had dreamed of becoming a nurse but had been forced to drop out of elementary school in order to care for sick relatives. Her gift inspired Ted Turner to give a billion dollars, and 600 people donated an additional $300,000 to the scholarship fund that was named in her honor.
What's more, in return for her gift, Ms. McCarty didn't want a building or a statue named after her. All she wanted was to attend the graduation of a student whom she had helped. Ms. Oseola made a Life by giving to a life! In 1998, she was awarded an honorary degree from USM, the first such degree awarded by the university. She received numerous awards and other honors recognizing her unselfish spirit, including President Bill Clinton presenting her with a Presidential Citizens Medal during a special White House ceremony, the nation's second highest civilian award. She also received the United Nations' coveted Avicenna Medal for educational commitment.
In June 1996, Harvard University awarded McCarty an honorary doctorate alongside Maya Lin, Walter Annenberg, and Judith Jameson. Although she died from cancer in 1999, after receiving over 300 awards, her Life and example of stewardship will be with people forever.
Just like the individual stewardship of Ms. Oseola, corporate and business stewardship is especially needed during these times of economic crisis. History shows that it is possible to have corporate responsibility. During the great depression, business leaders from companies such as Kellogg, Sears, and Standard Oil voluntarily cut their weekly work from 40 to 30 hours in an effort to keep people employed. Kellogg even went a step further by instituting four, six-hour shifts instead of three, eight-hour shifts. This placed paychecks in the hands of 300 additional families.
These corporate stewards understood the long-term benefit companies and society receive by having people earn a living. In contrast, companies in the 21st century continuously reduce their workforce while increasing their earnings and profits. The remaining employees and society as a whole are suffering because of these companies lack of stewardship to the communities and the country helping to make them great.
America has, can, and must do better. America has to show the world what stewardship is about once again. Everyone must work hard to make a life while making a living. Many people are working long and hard to make a living without gaining quality of life.
Commit today to Making a LIFE! Help your fellow citizen during these challenging times. You never know whose life you will change by giving. The dollars you waste on frivolous consumer goods, on jewelry, shoes, or a purse, may be enough to feed a future Rhode Scholar or President of the United States.
Remember as a young man taught me recently: Your excess may be someone's necessity!