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I recently passed the examination to be a project management professional. In the Standard for Project Management – the Project Management Institute‘s statement of principles underlying project management – one particular principle caught my eye for its ethical significance. That is the principle they call stewardship.

The closest thing to a definition of stewardship in the Standard is:

Stewardship has slightly different meanings and applications in different contexts. One aspect of stewardship involves being entrusted with the care of something. Another aspect focuses on the responsible planning, use, and management of resources. Yet another aspect means upholding values and ethics. (25)

That definition covers a lot of ground, but the part that struck me in particular was being entrusted with the care of something. That idea resonated with an ethical principle that I’ve found important as a manager – one which I have drawn above all from Confucianism.

When Confucius was asked what he would first do in charge of government, he said he would “rectify names” (zhèng míng 正名, Analects 13.3). The meaning of this phrase isn’t spelled out in that passage, but it’s often read together with Analects 12.11, where, asked about how to govern, Confucius provides a beautiful reply whose terseness can’t be fully replicated in translation: jūn jūn chén chén fù fù zǐ zǐ 君君臣臣父父子子. The words on their own mean “ruler ruler, minister minister, father father, son son”; because Chinese grammar relies on implication rather than the more explicit structures of Indo-European languages, this effectively means something like “the ruler rules, the minister ministers, the father fathers, the son sons”. The last of these doesn’t work very well in English because we don’t really have a verb meaning “be a son” or “be a child”, but we can infer the meaning of it from the previous three. Someone who is given the name and position of a ruler should properly follow the role and responsibilities of a ruler; likewise someone who is given the name and position of a minister, father, or son should follow its roles and responsibilities. When they do that, the name of their position is rectified, accurate; when they do not, it’s not.

Thus Confucius’s ethics is sometimes described as a “role ethics” (though it is a politics as much as an ethics): your proper activities have to do with your role in life. The name of your role tells you something about what you should be doing. A true father is not merely one who has fathered children but one who acts like a father – taking care of children, providing for them. Thus Confucian ethics effectively recognizes that the idea of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy is itself a fallacy: defining social terms normatively is not just reasonable but essential.

I’ve been the manager of a small group of employees in educational technology (including student interns as well as full-time employees) for some years now, and Confucius’s ideas here have always informed my understanding of what that means. A manager should manage – and that means taking responsibility for the well-being of the employees in your care, as well as helping to ensure that they in turn fulfill their own roles. I knew that taking on the role of a manager implied this additional responsibility that I didn’t have when my work role was simply as an employee, and would not have taken the role if I did not accept that responsibility.

All this is what the Project Management Standard’s discussion of stewardship took me back to. As a manager I am entrusted with the care of my reports and their results. “Stewardship reflects understanding and acceptance of trust as well as actions and decisions that engender and sustain that trust.” (Standard 25) The trust is a key part of what roles involve: to give someone a position of responsibility is to trust that they will use that position responsibly. This responsibility can go beyond the individual organization. For example, the Standard says, “Stewardship outside the organization includes responsibilities in areas such as: Environmental sustainability and the organization’s use of materials and natural resources…” (25) As the manager of Boston University educational technology I’m not responsible for the world’s environmental problems in general, or even for Boston University’s contribution to them as a whole, but I am responsible for BU educational technology’s relationship to environmental problems.

The importance of trust in turn points to a larger question in ethics. I’ve argued before that utilitarian and Kantian ethicists put far more emphasis on obligation than they should: many of the most important things in life are beyond obligation. But that’s not to say that obligation doesn’t matter. We need other people for a good life, and that requires that we have reasonable expectations of others, and they of us – those expectations being a form of trust. Living up to that trust constitutes our obligation. Thus when we take on the role of employee, our obligations correspondingly expand – and when we take on the role of manager, they expand further. Providing a good standard of living to starving people on the other side of the world is supererogatory; providing it to your employees is not.