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Fierce Stewardship

A strategy for higher ed leaders to protect the well-being of individuals and focus on priorities

By Francine Crystal

April 7, 2022

Is the chaos and the stress that many people are experiencing right now enough to motivate us to experiment with a different approach?

As leadership development consultants, my colleagues and I at Crystal Clear Consulting have the privilege of working with leaders at higher ed institutions across the country. Two years ago, our conversations were about preparing their institutions for a bold future, about sustaining continuous improvement in the face of changing demographics and challenging national politics. Many of our current conversations, by contrast, sound reminiscent of the Serenity Prayer: If we accept the current realities of the things we cannot change, how do we muster up the strength to change what we can?

We would like to “return to normal.” We are nostalgic for a familiar routine, in-person interaction, and a restart of “standard operating procedures.”

At the same time, we have all experienced alternative ways of working that we didn't know were possible and might want to continue post-pandemic. As staff and faculty have clarified their personal priorities, some have found that they want to change when, where, and how they work.

We can’t satisfy our current needs using our old routines. And we can’t run institutions the way we used to run them and ignore current realities. There is no going back. And we are exhausted.

With this context, how do we make the best decisions about moving forward? How do we break out of habits that are no longer helpful? How do we minimize the exhaustion by actually lessening loads rather than by adding expectations, including those about self-care?

We propose that one strategy is “fierce stewardship.” Fierce stewardship puts a laser focus on protecting the well-being of each member of the community while maximizing their contribution toward institutional priorities.

Fierce stewardship is, at its core, about frequently asking a variation of an age-old time management question: Is this the best use of my/our time, energy, and resources now?

Fierce stewardship can be practiced individually, but without senior leaders offering encouragement and support, it is challenging for an individual to create and maintain new ways of working. Fierce stewardship has the greatest impact when senior leaders exercise and model the practice and hold others accountable for doing the same.

For individuals, fierce stewardship is:

  • Being explicit about your current priorities and goals and how they have changed.
  • Seeking clarity about your department’s and institution’s current priorities.
  • Frequently asking yourself, What’s the best use of my most precious resource, my time and energy?, and not assuming any prior answers still apply.
  • Conducting an inventory of your commitments, personally and professionally, and discerning which are valuable enough to continue.
  • Viewing your job as if you were entering it now, making decisions about priorities and commitments without the baggage of habit or prior obligation.
  • Engaging with colleagues, direct reports, and supervisors to support each other in this process.

For leaders, fierce stewardship is about encouraging faculty and staff to use what they have learned over the past two years to intentionally create the future. It means:

  • Modeling all of the above, both for yourself and for credibility as you ask others to do the same.
  • Clearly communicating up-to-date information about priorities.
  • Encouraging faculty and staff to let go of assumptions and look at processes, policies, and programs anew.
  • Finding ways to simplify and focus.
  • Supporting leaders who are exercising fierce stewardship, holding themselves and their direct reports accountable for focusing on high-priority outcomes.
  • Acknowledging the reality that no institution, department, or person can be all things to all people and maintaining a focus on what you do best.

It is time to reflect on the experiences and lessons of the past two years and shift from being reactive to proactive. Fierce stewardship is a strategy for higher ed leaders and individuals to intentionally and strategically make changes that will increase their personal satisfaction while focusing on institutional priorities.


  • Francine Crystal

    Francine Crystal

    Francine Crystal is president and founder of Crystal Clear Consulting.