I spotted a Deloitte ad at the airport recently. The headline said “steward AND strategist.” It immediately begged the question: Is this possible for a person to be both a steward (someone who runs the day-to-day of a company) and an innovative strategist (someone who envisages ground-breaking future directions for a company)?

I don’t believe so. The two roles demand two incompatible modes of thinking.

A steward is essentially there to preserve the status quo. The role is to maintain stability, minimise variance, and to ensure that rules and policies are followed. A steward is by nature risk-adverse. Any strategies that a steward comes up with will meet these criteria.

On the other hand, an innovative strategist is by definition a challenger of the status quo. It is not possible to do new things without breaking some rules, or making changes to existing processes and thinking. Innovation requires risk.

There is nothing better, or wrong with either role. They are just different. Both roles have their place in a successful organisation. But they are unlikely to be found in the same person. (This would require a huge level of self-awareness, and the ability to switch distinctly from one mode of thinking to another.)

Most large corporations are run by stewards because the system itself selects them from the pool. A system that is short-term, risk-adverse, and conservative naturally leads to the appointment of short-term, risk-adverse, and conservative stewards who perpetuates it.

The answer is balance. The corporate decision-making process needs to consider input from both these roles at the right place and the right time. At the board level where strategy and vision are important, a steward’s input must weigh less; otherwise this leads to comfortable stagnation. At the operational level, trying to implement too many impractical big ideas may threaten the sustainability of the business.