2016 Volume 19 Issue 2

The Covenantal Leader

The Covenantal Leader

Honoring the Implicit Relationship with Employees

This article will explain the role of covenantal leaders in understanding the often overlooked assumptions that make up the unspoken psychological contract between leaders and followers.[1] The article then briefly describes the five ethically related roles of covenantal leadership and the implicit message that is communicated to employees when covenantal leaders honor each of these roles.

The concept that leadership is inherently an ethical duty has been well established for many years.[2] Drawing on that perspective, Moses Pava developed a leadership approach he named “covenantal leadership.”

Covenantal leadership, the heart of Pava’s philosophy, reflects the Old Testament theme of a shared community. Implicit in covenantal leadership is the concept that lives are interconnected and that one’s responsibilities extend to a larger society and contain an array of moral responsibilities. Pava emphasizes that covenants are:

* open-ended and emphasize mutual responsibility, but are general rather than specific;

* long-term in nature, often expected to continue indefinitely;

* respectful of human integrity, and intended to ensure the identity, uniqueness, and personhood of the participants.[3]

Covenantal leadership not only emphasizes ethical responsibilities but the sacred nature of leadership as a covenant, or two-way promise, consisting of obligations that management guru Tom Peters has called “a sacred trust.”[4]

Pava describes covenantal leaders as ethical stewards who owe a sacred duty to employees to pursue their best interests, to keep them informed about the organization’s problems and to progress, and to engage them as full partners in creating organizational wealth.[5] Wise leaders acknowledge their obligation to share vital information and assist employees to succeed.[6]

Covenantal leaders actively seek to understand the employees’ view of this psychological contract. Unfortunately, many leaders are unaware of their employees’ perceptions about these unspoken covenantal duties. Too few leaders make the effort to learn what duties their employees believe their organizations owe them. In contrast, covenantal leaders create organizational systems that are aligned with professed values, emphasize constant learning, and engage employees at all levels in the governance process[7] to honor the unwritten set of obligations.

Pava explained that there are five sacred duties of the leader that make up his covenantal leadership model. Each of these duties contains an implicit message that honors the relationship between leaders and followers.[8]

  1. Leaders Serve Others.

In their servant role, the message sent by the covenantal leader to others is: You really do matter. You are important to this organization. If we are to succeed, I must understand you and help you to achieve what matters to you.

The covenantal leader values employees as unique individuals who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and who are owed the moral duty of being able to become their best.[9] Scholars[10] have repeatedly affirmed that leaders must clearly understand the individual and collective needs and desires of others to fulfill their highest potential. To serve, the covenantal leader must first seek to understand rather than to be understood. Service to others is measured by the recipient’s “gold standard” and is based upon what those recipients value, rather than what the leader thinks is most important.

  1. Leaders Are Examples.

By being an authentic example, the message of the covenantal leader is: I acknowledge the importance of what I profess by exemplifying those values. I am willing to be accountable and I ask you to do the same. Help me by telling me if you think I am not keeping my promises.

Covenantal leaders exemplify their values and inspire by their integrity in modeling what they believe.[11] Their moral covenant is to honor commitments and keep promises—including implied promises associated with organizational values. Wise leaders recognize the need to check-in with team members about how they perceive those implied obligations—critical elements of the psychological contract that are often neglected.[12]

  1. Leaders Constantly Teach.

By teaching others constantly, covenantal leaders communicate: I recognize that I must help you by providing you with the best possible information and training. I want you to succeed. Here is how you can improve. Help me to help you!

Covenantal leaders create learning organizations.[13] They recognize that the improvement process requires them to show others how to succeed. They understand that the key to excellent performance is in understanding how to improve, and that team members expect to be provided with the feedback and coaching so essential to personal growth.

  1. Leaders Pursue Truth.

In pursuing truth, covenantal leaders declare: I don’t know everything and we must constantly be learning and improving together. We can only succeed together if we constantly are open to learning. Constantly learning enables us to survive in an incredibly competitive global economy.

Covenantal leaders recognize that they must constantly seek to understand the truth by being evidence-based—striving to improve their own understanding and encouraging others to constantly innovate, improve, and seek for truth. Covenantal leaders understand that they are truth dependent and that they must be honest and share truth with their employees.[14] Those with whom they work are viewed as valuable contributors to organization-wide learning and innovation.[15] Covenantal leaders recognize their obligation to create the long-term wealth available only when organizations constantly strive to keep pace in a knowledge-, wisdom-, and information-based economy.[16]

  1. Leaders empower others.

To honor their empowerment obligations, covenantal leaders communicate: I am committed to your success and I demonstrate that commitment by understanding your needs, providing you with necessary resources, and being available if you need help along the way.

Covenantal leaders recognize that asking others to achieve results must be balanced with providing the resources and the authority to accomplish those outcomes. Empowerment is an ethical obligation enabling others to succeed, understanding the obstacles they need to overcome, and giving them the power to accomplish duties for which they are responsible.[17] Covenantal leaders know that empowerment means supporting team members in all aspects of their responsibilities.[18]

empower-meter-shutterstock_449021536-200x150By understanding the five roles of covenantal leadership and by clearly articulating the commitment to employees’ best interests implicit in those five roles, covenantal leaders have the ability to create organizational cultures and interpersonal relationships that generate the extra-mile commitment, innovative contributions, and high productivity so necessary for successful organizations.

Who are the covenantal leaders in today’s business world? Clayton M. Christensen, former Harvard professor, expert in disruptive innovation, and current CEO of his own business consulting firm is a great example. Christensen has spent a lifetime of serving others, searching for new truths, and is a proponent of constant learning. His book How Will You Measure Your Life? was written after Harvard’s graduating MBA class asked him to be the featured speaker at their graduation—not because of his academic expertise but because of his wisdom as a role model and personal example. As a former Rhodes Scholar, Christensen’s commitment to constant learning and his life of service as a scholar, consultant, and lay religious leader testify of his brilliance, his humility, and his commitment to empowering others to become their best.


Covenantal leadership raises the bar for leadership performance—and today’s successful business leaders are committed to that optimum level of personal performance for themselves and for their employees. Only when leaders listen to their employees, understand their expectations, and honor the implicit elements of employees expectations will those employees be the committed, innovative, and productive partners in today’s competitive global marketplace.[19]


[1] The nature of the psychological contract and its often misunderstood features is well explained in Rousseau, D. M., Psychological Contracts in Organizations: Understanding Written and Unwritten Agreements. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995).

[2] James MacGregor Burns emphasized the nature of leadership as an ethical obligation in his classic book, first written in 1978. See Burns, J. M., Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

[3] Caldwell, Cam. “Leading with Meaning: Using Covenantal Leadership to Build a Better Organization,” Business Ethics Quarterly 15, no. 3 (2005): 499-505. ISSN 1052-150X.

[4] Available in the video, “Recession – Sacred Trust” available online at You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TOYQQ87Ms0. Peters emphasizes the importance of leaders helping people to live better lives.

[5] The leader’s role as ethical steward is explained in Caldwell, C., Hayes, L., and Long, D., “Leadership, Trustworthiness, and Ethical Stewardship,” Journal of Business Ethics 96 no. 4, (2010): 497-512.

[6] The nature of the “mediating lens” through which individuals perceive that duties are owed to them and the responsibility of the leader to respond to those perceptions to be thought of as trustworthy is clarified in Caldwell, C., and Hayes, L., “Leadership, Trustworthiness, and the Mediating Lens,” Journal of Management Development 26, no. 3 (2007): 261-278.

[7] This partnership role is identified as part of the stewardship responsibility of leaders in Block, P., Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest (2nd Ed.) (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2013).

[8] The importance of the relationship between leaders and followers has become a topic of increasing interest in the modern organization and is described in Hayes, L., Caldwell, C., Licona, B., and Meyer, T. E., “Follower Behaviors and Barriers to Wealth Creation,” Journal of Management Development 34 (2015): 270-285.

[9] The servant leader’s role as “servant first” is well articulated in Greenleaf, R. K., and Spears, L. C., Servant Leadership: A Journey into Legitimate Power and Greatness 25th Anniversary Edition, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002).

[10] Max DePree also calls the leader’s obligation to serve a sacred obligation and explained the leader “must become a servant and a debtor” in honoring covenantal duties owed to employees. See DePree, M., Leadership is an Art, (New York: Crown Publishing, 2004), 11. Robert Greenleaf, often recognized as the Father of Servant Leadership, also wrote extensively about the sacred nature of the leader and explained that the leader’s obligation to serve was a sacred ethical duty. See Greenleaf, R. K., On Becoming a Servant Leader, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996). Stephen R. Covey also has written extensively about the moral and ethical duty of leaders to “treat people so well that they recognize their greatness and strive to achieve it” Covey uses similar language to explain that organizations have a moral duty to help their employees in that same serving way. See Covey, S.R., The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, (New York: Free Press, 2004), 98.

[11] The importance of leaders modeling what they believe was also identified in Kouzes, J. M., and Posner, B. Z., The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012).

[12] The complex nature of psychological contracts, which are perceived by most employees as ethical commitments made to them by their leaders is well explained in Rousseau, D. M., Psychological Contracts in Organizations: Understanding Written and Unwritten Agreements, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995).

[13] The importance of creating a learning organization in today’s constantly changing business environment is explained in Senge, P. M., The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, (New York: Doubleday, 2006).

[14] Peter Block makes this truth-seeking and truth-telling point powerfully in Block, P., Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest, (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1993).

[15] Innovation, or creating new truth, is clearly enumerated as the key to wealth creation by Christensen, C. M., The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2016).

[16] Op. cit. The importance of constantly seeking the truth, of innovating, and continuously improving is well expressed in Covey, S. R., (2004).

[17] W. Edwards Deming emphasized the moral obligation of empowering employees in Deming, W. E., Out of the Crisis, (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

[18] The concept of empowerment or “power with” rather than “power over” others was powerfully introduced by Mary Parker Follett and is explained in Graham, P. (Ed.), Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management: A Celebration of Writings from the 1920s, (District of Columbia: Beard Books, 2003).

[19] This point is well made by Harvard’s Clayton M. Christensen in Christensen, C. M., The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).


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Authors of the article
Cam Caldwell, PhD
Cam Caldwell, obtained his PhD degree from Washington State University in 2004 where he was a Thomas S. Foley graduate fellow. He has co-authored over seventy publications about leadership, trust, and ethics and his book about moral leadership was published in 2012 by Business Expert Press.
Zuhair Hasan
Zuhair Hasan, is a mechanical engineer in Atlanta, Georgia with more than 17 years of experience and currently pursuing PhD in business administration from the NorthCentral University in Arizona focusing on management and leadership.
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