I thought about the difference between covenant and contract leaders when reading David Brooks’ recent NY Times column – “How Covenants Make Us.”
Contracts are about making deals, providing services, protecting interests. They are temporary quid pro quo obligations; precise and predictable. The detail is in fine print.
On the other hand, covenants protect others, offer gifts to people in community. They are open-ended, often for a lifetime. They are unpredictable and sometimes messy. In the Bible the Old and New Testaments or ‘Covenants’ are between God and the faith community. While covenants may be written they are sometimes oral, unwritten, unsigned agreements that remain even when violated.
Drawing from ‘Commonwealth and Covenant’ a new book by Marcia Pally of N.Y.U., Brooks agrees that our social fabric is held together by multiple covenants binding us to one another in families and communities, providing us, he writes, ‘with values and goals.’
Due to the decline of covenant relationships, he and Marcia Pally believe we are suffering a wide range of social and personal problems: alienation, polarization, racial animosity, powerlessness, lack of identity.
What about leaders? What responsibility do leaders bear to go beyond their employment contracts to covenant relationships with their colleagues and organizations? And to what extent is society, as well as organizations, dependant upon covenant leadership?
Contract leaders follow written job descriptions defining their authority and responsibility. Their success in meeting goals and outcomes is evaluated by performance reviews.
Covenant leaders go beyond their contracts to nurture warm relationships with an unwritten commitment to the wellbeing of individuals within and for the organization. They seek and welcome feedback, learn from criticism, humbly seek to serve rather than be served. They respect divergent opinions and foster collaborative decision-making. They forgive mistakes and restore those who have fallen or have failed. They give their undivided attention and listen actively.
Covenant leadership is what James MacGregor Burns advocated as ‘transformational leadership’ and Robert K. Greenleaf described as ‘servant leadership.’ It is about the quality of relationships.