Of Covenant Leaders

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.

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A Pathway Out of Homelessness and Poverty

Having spent over 20 years (1973 to 1995) helping to provide transitional housing for homeless families in Washington, D.C. I was eager to read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American CityUnknown-1, Matthew Desmond’s narrative of low-income individuals and families locked in poverty, repeatedly evicted, forced from one unaffordable, substandard home to another.

As an ethnographer, Desmond moved into Milwaukee’s poor neighborhoods – black, Hispanic and white where he observed first hand the toll eviction takes on families and the profit it provides for landlords.   He tells the stories of people caught in a downward spiral of bad luck and bad decisions in a bad system.

Among the many positive reviews for Evicted are No Place Like Home, by Barbara Ehrenreich in the NY Times and Kicked Out in America, by Jason DeParle in the New York Review of Books.

Ehrenreich believes Desmond, a Harvard academic, has set a new standard for reporting on poverty’ as did Katherine Boo in behind the beautiful forevers: life, death and hope in a mubai undercity. Add Ben Rawlence for his City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, the story of Somali refugees trapped in Dadaab, Kenya.

Rather than bury us in data and statistics these ethnographers write in-depth descriptions of depravation and suffering – although they have done the research to be certain their stories are not simply anecdotal.

I recognized the voices, the sights and smells in Desmond’s narrative.   I’ve seen evicted families huddled on curbs guarding their meager belongings.   I’ve accompanied families threatened with eviction to the landlord tenant court.   And I’ve toured deplorable overpriced low-income apartments, occasionally contending with landlords and property-managers over deferred maintenance.

The threat of evictions is increasing as the gap between rising housing costs and what people can afford is widening.

Desmond’s solution for the10 million or so low-income families who spend half or more of their income for rent and utilities is universal housing vouchers, guaranteeing that no one below a certain poverty level would have to spend more than 30 percent (the recommended government standard) of their income for rent and utilities. Presently only about a third of poor families receiving housing vouchers or living in public housing fit that criteria.   Most are not so lucky.

I agree that securing safe affordable housing is a key step toward breaking the cycle of urban poverty.   But universal housing vouchers as Desmond suggests is not a viable solution. Federal, State and local governments are unlikely to allocate the billions of dollars needed to make that happen anytime soon, if ever. In his review Jason DeParle cites studies demonstrating that vouchers alone don’t solve the eviction or poverty problem.

And I agree with Desmond that lack of decent housing is a cause as well as a consequence of poverty. But eviction is not the only cause.   There are many causes of poverty including addiction, mass incarceration, lack of living wage jobs, poor health care, failing schools, disabilities, family breakdown, public policies, and more.

There is a way to reduce evictions. That’s why we started the transitional housing program at the Community of Hope over 35 years ago: a systems approach providing affordable housing while addressing the other needs and problems that destabilize poor families and low-income neighborhoods.

Sherlene Phillips tells her story in the current Community of Hope newsletter.  She ‘lost her job, was evicted and could no longer stay at a relative’s home. She knew she had hit rock bottom.   “Here I was,” shephoto110265 recalled, “ a young, educated, attractive mother that was homeless, helpless and with an addiction to alcohol,” about to be separated from her two children.

In 2015, Shirlene and her family moved into Hope Apartments, one of few programs in Washington, D.C. where families remain intact while the head of householdworks toward sobriety goals. The program is designed to help adults attend substance abuse treatment programs while simultaneously finding a job and stable housing. As Sherlene tells it — COH gave me the tools to get back on my feet and improve in all aspects of my life.”

Community of Hope director Kelly Sweeny McShane reports that in 2015 the COH provided supportive services to 435 families who had experienced eviction and homelessness and helped prevent an additional 176 families from becoming homeless.

The Community of Hope is one organization, among others, in Washington, D.C, using private and public funds to help families recover from eviction on a pathway out of poverty.   Could this comprehensive approach to the causes and consequences of urban poverty be scaled up to make a difference nationally?   I think so.

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Balancing Life and Work

FILE - In this Feb. 28, 2015, file photo, Chicago White Sox's Adam LaRoche, left, and his son Drake walk to the White Sox's clubhouse during a photo day before a baseball spring training workout in Phoenix. Kudos to Adam LaRoche for wanting to spend time with his son, and walking away from a $13 million salary to make sure that happened. But there's nothing wrong with the White Sox telling the now-retired first baseman that "Bring Your Child To Work Day" couldn't be every day. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Adam LaRoache walked away from a $13 million contract with the Chicago White Sox last week rather than submit to the club’s request that he not bring his 14-year old son Drake with him so often. During his 4 years with the Washington Nationals Adam brought Drake to spring training and all of their 162 games.    Drake has been home-schooled so that he could travel with his dad.

The front-page Washington Post story has stirred conversation beyond sports – ‘his decision to quit became bigger than baseball.’

In a statement LaRoache wrote:

“As fathers, we have an opportunity to help mold our kids into men and women of character, with morals and values that can’t be shaken by the world around them. Of one thing I am certain: we will regret NOT spending enough time with our kids, not the other way around.”

He had the support of his teammates.

White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton told reporters, “I think a lot of people have stepped back and said, ‘If a man can step away from $13 million more for his family and his son, what does it take for me to spend a little more time with my kid or take a little more responsibility for my family situation.”

Each leader has to balance work with other important life priorities. While no one I know of has the opportunity or privilege of bringing a child to work everyday, everyone I have coached has recognized the importance of getting the balance right. A few have regrets, as LaRoache said, for not spending enough time with our kids.

For some of us it’s about spending time with grandchildren. I recently attended the annual grandparents day at the nearby elementary school where our two youngest attend – Hillman in kindergarten and Libby in the second grade. In his welcome, the principle emphasized how important grandparents are to kids.  I’m thinking that time together with them may be as important for me as it is for them.IMG_1457

When our work is finished, the time we have spent with family and friends will mean as much, if not more than our careers and callings.

Drake LaRoache will never forget that his dad gave up $13 million just to be with him.

Selfie with Libby on grandparents day

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Transactional vs. Relational Leaders

Transactional leaders exchange what they do for you for what you can do for them, e.g., politicians – ‘if you vote for me I’ll do this for you.’

Relational leaders prefer to give more than they receive.

Transactional leaders measure success or failure by metrics.

Relational leaders see their success in transformed individuals and social systems.

Transactional leaders motivate with rewards and punishments.

Relational leaders motivate with higher ideals and moral values.

Transactional leaders set the goals.

Relational leaders help followers set their own goals.

Transactional leaders cast vision.

Relational leaders create a shared vision.

Transactional leaders view followers as subordinates.

Relational leaders engage followers as partners in a common mission.

Transactional leaders put the welfare of the organization first.

Relational leaders put the welfare of their people first.

In business, transactional leaders want to make the sale.

Relational leaders want to keep customers coming back.

For transactional leaders ends justify the means – whatever works.

For relational leaders the means are primary – whatever is right.

Transactional leaders seek benefits and bonuses.

Relational leaders serve causes greater than themselves.



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What Kind Of Leaders Do We Want?


images                illustration by Nisant Choksi THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 29, 2016

The surprising emergence of Donald Trump as a viable presidential candidate reveals the kind of leader for President a significant segment of the American electorate want.   His rise raises questions about our notions of leadership itself.

Reflecting on Trump’s momentum in his New Yorker essay, ‘Shut Up And Sit Down,’ Joshua Rothman asks how much we really know about what makes a good leader.

He has read, as he says, a ‘small stack’ of leadership books including, Leadership BS, by Jeffery Pfeffer, and Leadership: Essential Writings of our Greatest Leaders, by Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at West Point.

Samet claims that one of the reasons for our 21st ‘crisis of leadership’ is our veneration of leaders themselves, leaving us open to ‘the false prophets, the smooth operators, the gangsters, and the demagogues.’ Rothman warns, ‘It can be dangerous to decide you need to be led.’   He cites polls indicating that even though voters who support Trump are frustrated and angry with politicians and leaders in general, they are attracted to Trump’s authoritative view of life.

Rothman wonders if we really want the kind of selfless, transformative leaders idealized in leadership development literature.   In Leadership BS, Pheffer claims that most real-world leaders ignore the ideals of ‘modesty, authenticity, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and selflessness.’   ‘If anything,’ Pheffer writes, ‘they tend to be narcissistic, back-stabbing, self-promoting shape-shifters.’ He argues that ‘the billions spent on corporate-leadership seminars are a waste of time and money because they fail to produce better leaders.’

Samet’s recent book Leadership is an anthology of great literature on virtue, about behavior patterns essential for the good life. That is the path, she believes, toward good leadership in the military as elsewhere. Rothman notes that the leaderly virtues of ‘courage, decisiveness, sociability, compassion, thrustworthiness, integrity, and so on—matter in ordinary life too.’

I am not sure that leadership in general is as bad as Pheffer describes in Leadership BS.   And I doubt that ‘Shut Up and Sit Down,’ is the style and language most leaders are inclined to use, campaign politics notwithstanding.   I do know that a generation ago Robert Greenleaf offered a better way forward in his book ‘The Servant as Leader.’ Servant Leadership is a humble, gracious way to wield authority and inspire followers.

Elizabeth Samet may be right; there are no distinctive leadership traits, only virtues for the good life, for all of us, but especially for those whom we would choose to follow into the future.

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2015 Books On Overcoming Terrorism and Political Gridlock

Two religious books of 2015 address American’s deepest fears and anxieties: terrorism and political gridlock.

41HWvObbQ3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an in-depth historical, philosophical and theological argument against religious extremism and ‘altruistic evil,’ or violence in the name of God.   As E. J. Dionne, Jr., wrote in his recent Washington Post column, “If you preach religious peace and tolerance, then practice them,” believers must face the painful facts that killing in the name of God is not a new thing in history.    Dionne quotes Sacks’ most disturbing statement:

“Too often in the history of religion people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love and practiced cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.”

Jihad carried out by radical Islamists is simply the most recent denial not only of Islam but all three Abrahamic traditions including Judaism and Christianity.

The roots of altruistic evil, including the slaughter of innocents, however foreign and incomprehensible, can be found in something close to home: religious literalism and fundamentalism.  Literalism distorts scripture out of context. Fundamentalism is idolatry, making a god out of a particular point of view.   When combined with group paranoia, Sacks describes how religious literalism and fundamentalism can become the motivation for evil in the name of God.

In  The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics,UnknownJohn Danforth the former Republican senator from Missouri and Episcopal priest, traces the bitter political gridlock in Washington to the same roots.   In his view religion in American has too often become a wedge dividing people.  However, he believes that people of faith can change politics for the better if they follow four broad principles:

  • Keep politics in its proper place. Politics is not religion!
  • Advocate for the common good rather than political self-interest.
  • Use religion as a unifying force.
  • Compromise on policy decisions without which governing is impossible.

As a religious leader Danforth calls on people of faith to pray for political leaders regardless of their policy positions.   And by practicing what he calls the virtue of seeking the common good, he believes religion can help restore the American democracy to a functioning government.

Both Sacks and Danforth believe that it is necessary for people of faith as children of God to resist self-interest and live for the common good without which our communities and the nations of the world are reduced to chaos and conflict.



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Healing Our Democracy

I have been invited to attend political receptions for two men who are running for Congress.   One is a neighbor campaigning in the Maryland district in which I live, the other in an adjacent district.   One is a Republican and the other a Democrat.   One is a physician and the other a retired commercial pilot.   Neither has held elective office before.   I know them to be men of good character and reputation.

Without more information about their positions on a variety of issues I care about I’ve been wondering – should I get involved? —should I accept the invitations?

I grew up in a conservative Christian environment where in my youth it was assumed that no one could become a politician or get involved with politics without compromising core values.   That of course has changed as religion is increasingly intertwined with electoral politics, used by some for partisan advantage.

Turned off as I have been with political gridlock in Washington and the embarrassing, if not insulting level of some political campaigning, I’ve been tempted to retreat into my private world and avoid the media where opinions are often presented as transcendental truths.

That is until revisiting a 2011 book by Parker Palmer, “Healing the Heart of Democracy: the courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit.”

Palmer, a Quaker, author and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal says that we have three lives: private, public and political.

Private – includes family, friends and the extended network of people to whom we are drawn to including neighbors, congregations, book clubs, etc.

Public – is a wider network including those Palmer describes as, “the company of strangers” — the unknown people we rub shoulders with in stores, on the street, on a bus, plane, ball game or concert.

Political – is a life of citizenship in service of democracy upon which ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ depends.

Like most people I’ve been engaged with the first two – private and public – but other than voting, I’ve been mostly a bystander, disengaged from the responsible citizenship needed to preserve and advance the democracy.

Palmer believes our democracy needs healing.   He believes that our life together in the public square has gone wrong because so many of us aren’t involved.   However differently we may view the world of politics we must somehow “transcend our differences and work together for the common good.” That, he writes, is the heart of democracy.

I’ve decided to attend both receptions.

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Overcoming the Feeling of Failure

Leaders know that the things they do and the people they serve with will not always succeed. They know that their organizations sometimes resist change even when threatened with decline.

Disappointment may lead to feeling like a failure.   In a recent blog Seth Godin wrote: Feeling like a failure has little correlation with actually failing.”

I know the feeling.   In my various leadership assignments when at times it seemed that more went wrong than went right, when the annual reports were less than stellar, when personnel performed poorly, and when I didn’t do as well as I would have liked, I felt it.

In leadership as well as life there must be a better way of handling disappointment than feeling like a failure.

Perhaps we are overly influenced by the Vince Lombardi philosophy of competitive athletics – “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

We will never be the best at everything we do.   We won’t always win or succeed. Sometimes our best efforts fail.

A few observations about overcoming the feeling of failure –

  • There are circumstances beyond our control that affect the success or failure of any position, project or person.
  • Feeling the disappointment of failure is not the same as being a failure.
  • Failure and success are not the same as winning and losing.
  • Metrics are not always, perhaps never, a good measure of success and failure, particularly when outcomes are not measurable.
  • It’s not failure when plans, strategies or people don’t work out.
  • Admitting that a position is not a good fit or a strategy not a good plan is not failure.
  • We need to be careful not to act on our feelings of failure.   As the recovery community teaches us: feel—think—act.
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What About a Servant Leader for President?


“We Need A Servant Leader” for President, wrote Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in his New York Times op-ed piece prior to the first Republican candidate’s debate.  To correct reports of his intentions he announced that he is not running for the Democratic nomination.

Schultz doubts that any of the candidates has the courage to ‘rise above petty politics.’   They all, in his estimation, represent the ‘antithesis’ of the example Pope Francis set when washing the feet of prisoners in Rome.

Given the urgency of the times, he believes the country is in desperate need for a President willing to break with the prevailing mold of ego-centered, self-serving leadership in politics and the rest of society. ‘Too many of our political leaders,’ he writes, ‘are putting power before principle, party before country and cynicism before civility.’

For Schultz a ‘servant leader President’ would,

‘kneel and embrace those who are not like them’
‘unite all of us’
‘select a member of the other party as a running mate’
be ‘humble enough to see leadership not as an entitlement but as a privilege’

He believes that the nation needs, in fact deserves servant leaders everywhere – ‘putting others first and leading from the heart – from every corner of American life, including the business community.’

I agree but wonder, will it happen, can it happen?   Will servants run for President and will they emerge in the nonprofit sector, in religious communities, the military as well as in business?

Servanthood is more than a leadership style or role for particular situations.   It can’t be turned on or off to make an impression. It’s more than washing the feet of prisoners, as indelible as that image is. It can be seen in a wide variety of individual leaders in everyday settings. Servanthood is the life or character that individuals bring to leadership.

Some of the signs of servant leaders – they:

  • Treat their followers and/or subordinates as partners engaged in a common mission or purpose
  • Collaborate rather than dictate to reach decisions for the common good
  • Are vulnerable enough to welcome and learn from feedback including criticism
  • Humbly acknowledge and own their own mistakes, flaws and sins
  • Respect and promote diversity, eliminating bias, often hidden, that disadvantages women and minorities

In the mid-‘70’s Robert K. Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive, initiated the servant leadership movement.   He urged that when choosing leaders we select from those among us who have served well.   Thus the title of his original monograph – The Servant as Leader.

But can leaders learn to be servants?   I hope so.   A lot depends on it.



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The Children’s Riot

Until last Monday, April 27, I thought I knew a little about urban riots – why they happen and how to prevent them.   Over 40 years ago my ministry took me near and eventually into Washington, DC’s so-called ‘riot corridor’ decimated during the 1968 uprising following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I spend over 20 years doing neighborhood development there – providing temporary housing for homeless families, restoring buildings, tutoring children, offering health care and job training.     I listened to the stories of people who lived through the ‘68 riot and worked with some of them to bring about reconciliation and restoration.

When the Baltimore riot erupted, I was watching the Freddie Gray funeral activities from a local Baltimore TV station. The non-stop, uninterrupted news was broadcast from a helicopter hovering over the church – and then the teen gathering that ignited the riot.

For several hours I had a ringside seat on this children’s riot.   From the helicopter’s cameras we watched kids huddle up and then disperse into groups for the mayhem that followed.   While others eventually joined the kids, perhaps gang members, the core group was school kids.

It caught everyone, including the police, by surprise.  Who could have anticipated that a riot would start as an after school escapade?   Parents, grandparents and relatives were urged to call their children and tell them to come home.

The Baltimore riot was different. Different from what happened in Ferguson.   This happened in the light of day, after school in full view of a watching city if not nation.   Baltimore’s mayor retracted her immediate gut reaction describing the rioters as ‘thugs.’   Thugs and criminals work at night.   These weren’t thugs and criminals.  They were school children.  Everyone thought they should have known better.

What became a riot in Baltimore started with children twittering and tweeting on their cell phones. They self-organized to demonstrate after school with no apparent intention to loot, burn and attack the police.   It was more spontaneous than that.

Which leaves me searching for answers.   The social ills that plague Baltimore’s poor, majority black neighborhoods are well known. It’s easy to understand why alienated youth given the opportunity would strike out against their hopelessness. They live with personal experiences of police brutality, unemployment above 50 percent, boarded up houses, and high incarceration rates.   Baltimore has some of the poorest neighborhoods in Maryland, one of the richest states.   The income disparities between black and white populations is as extreme here as anywhere in the country.

And yet, as volatile as Baltimore was and is following Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody, this was unexpected and unprecedented. This was a children’s riot – instigated by children still in school who for reasons we don’t totally understand were radicalized to think that since they saw no hope for the better in their own neighborhood it was okay to loot and burn it down.

I use the word ‘radicalized’ cautiously given that it is used now to describe how Muslim youth are being drawn into the violence of ISIS.   However different this is, still there is a parallel. How is it that some relatively privileged Muslim youth in the U.S. want to escape to the Middle East to join forces with ISIS.   How does radicalization happen?

In a recent conversation a Muslim professor at American University described for me how as a youth in the Middle East he was radicalized and upon coming to America was de-radicalized.   I would like to know more.   How and why are young people radicalized to violence and then de-radicalized to become contributing citizens?

Do we really know why and how a few out-of-control Baltimore kids were able to start an after school riot? Most city leaders and pundits assume it was not a controlled or even planned event.   And does anyone know how to de-radicalize them?

We’ll be watching to see what comes of the larger planned demonstrations this weekend. What will happen after order is restored, the National Guard leaves and Oriole fans return to Camden Yards?   And what will become of the children recorded on video as they are arrested and prosecuted for looting, burning and attacking the police?   What next?


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