Practicing Covenant Leadership: The Virtues of Christ
In our particular cultural moment, have you noticed a longing for values or traits that may seem absent in public life? Warren Bennis famously outlined key leadership characteristics, identifying vision, inspiration, empathy, and trustworthiness as essential leadership characteristics. We long for leaders who model them; this longing seems innate in us. In Scripture we quickly see that Jesus modeled these qualities. As the ultimate Servant, Jesus also modeled listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (see Robert Greenleaf’s work). Have you had the space to reflect on what characterizes your own leadership during this season? Let’s take up the challenge to examine our leadership in light of Christ’s teaching by better understanding covenant versus contract leadership.
There are many examples of contract leadership. For instance, Dr. Richard Gunderman, M.D., a professor of medical humanities, might argue that the United States was founded on a contract. James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights and considered a father of the Constitution, understood the voluntary nature of contract leadership when he wrote about the restraints on, and rights of, the government and citizens of the country. As suggested in a 2011 lecture by Dr. Gunderman, contracts are required because of a lack of trust. Contract leadership characteristics may include concern for profit, narrowly defined responsibilities, and expectations of performance. The transactional nature of contract leadership requires adherence to rules and procedures and does not insist upon supererogation.
Regarding transactions, the way in which rational people relate to each other through economic terms is sometimes referred to as homo economicus. Within the realm of homo economicus, the primary desire is the acquisition of wealth and the primary ability is the choice between means (Gunderman). John Stuart Mill suggests that humans desire to accumulate the most necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries with the least quantity of labor, which is the modus operandi of homo economicus.
For example, many employment relationships operate with this paradigm. When employees do not perform, they are in violation of their employment contract, and the employment is terminated. In this sense, contracts limit relationships, have expiration dates, and are concerned with personal benefit. Contract leadership seems to be a form of transactional leadership. This can be effective in some contexts, but Dr. Gunderman suggests that we find a better word than greed and a better idea than economic transactions on which to base our leadership.
In fact, he challenges us to “not be concerned with writing our personal story, but discovering the larger story of which we are part.” This suggests that a worldview change is required to be a covenant leader. Covenant leadership is an other-focused leadership style which is transformational, as opposed to transactional contract leadership. Transformation or metamorphosis is expected by the covenant leader: that followers and leaders would become something more than they were previous to the relationship. As opposed to contract leadership in which breach of contract might mean loss of employment, Dr. Gunderman cites the parable of the prodigal son to illustrate breach being met with forgiveness, healing, and celebration. For the covenant leader, concern is for the relationship and the wholeness of the covenant, not on the breach of contract.
Where homo economicus operates assuming lack of trust, Dr. Gunderman calls leaders to operate in the mode of homo ethicus, relating to each other through principles. Where homo economicus operates out of greed, homo ethicus operates out of sacrifice and generosity. Although many non-Christian examples may illustrate the sacrificial, transformational leader, many examples are found in Scripture.
Considering covenant in Scripture, one can begin with the creation of humanity through inspiration, the breathing in of divine influence. Humans are to imitate God’s creative nature, needing inspiration – the breathing in of divine influence – “to be fully alive, and to help those around us to be fully alive.” The biblical arc is full of examples of the characteristics of covenant leadership: trusting like the Good Samaritan, bestowing blessing like Isaac to Jacob to Joseph’s sons, being transformational like Jesus to Lazarus (called back to full life), and being changed like Paul on the road to Damascus.
As a physician and leader in the ethics of health care, Dr. Gunderman calls organizational leaders to choose covenant leadership, issuing a challenge to assess whether we operate according to homo economicus or homo ethicus. We must evaluate what is most important to us and what we are striving to become. In the domain of homo economicus, work is punishment, a means to make money so that we can afford to do the things that we enjoy outside of work. In the freedom of homo ethicus, we work because God worked as a creative Being, creating not from necessity but from joy. Relationships within the work environment are to be enjoyed and used to generate transformed, better lives.
For covenant leaders operating from an assumption of homo ethicus, there is real opportunity to make a substantive difference. This is true even in a short time constrained by the brevity of working relationship. This leadership style is an active, ongoing choice.
Each moment, the organizational leader who desires to operate from the values of a homo ethicus approach must think of the sacred in the other, sacrifice selfish desires, and commit to the kind of creative, transformational covenant leadership found in the Creator’s actions throughout Scripture.
Using the practice of covenant leadership as a guide, pastors and church leaders can endeavor to choose a homo ethicus approach as a consistent emblem of our servant leadership. When we cast vision, is it for the growth and transformation of those we influence? Do listen with awareness so that we can inspire people to Christlike character? Do we exercise empathy in healing, restorative, community-building ways? Are we trustworthy as we steward the leadership to which God has called us? What choices might you need to make in order to live as a covenant leader rather than a contract leader? Can you identify obstacles to this calling?
See Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader
See Dr. Richard B. Gunderman 2011 lecture Leadership: command, contract, or covenant?
For more from Dr. Richard B. Gunderman, consider We Make a Life by What We Give. His new book Contagion: Plagues, Pandemics and Cures from the Black Death to Covid-19 and Beyond is available now in Great Britain and is scheduled for publication in the U.S. in early 2021.