Servant Leadership: Key Concepts

People have a need to be engaged in purposeful work. We want to feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, and that our work makes a difference in the world. Maybe that’s why Servant Leadership seems to be growing in popularity. I think people want to learn about the deeper concepts of Servant Leadership, beyond the basic inferences they make from the label.

I had the privilege of giving a short talk on the subject of Servant Leadership to a group of local entrepreneurs recently. Bellow is a summary of the key concepts and ideas that I think are fundamental to Servant Leadership.

Servant Leadership Defined

It might be helpful to back into our definition of Servant Leadership by first understanding what it is not.

First, Servant Leadership is not Subservient Leadership. In The Servant, James C. Hunter defines a servant as someone who meets the legitimate needs of others. Notice the use of needs here, and not wants. A genie in a bottle is someone who fulfills others wishes and wants. That’s not what servant leadership is about. A good servant thinks about the needs of others, or what would be best for them. How good could things be for our people if they had what they needed?

Second, Servant Leadership is not static. In other words, it’s not leadership if you’re just meeting the needs of others. That could be considered firefighting. Leadership is directional, projectile even. We have to use the servant mindset to take people to a better place.

A Servant is someone who meets the legitimate needs of others. Leadership is the state of being and set of behaviors that influence a group of people to achieve something they would not have otherwise.

Combining the two concepts gives us a good definition of Servant Leadership. Servant Leadership is a style of influence rooted in love that supports others in achieving shared goals.

Next we’ll think about how Servant Leadership happens.  

Leadership is First an Inward Journey

Leadership is about the leader first, not the led. New managers struggle with this. They ask questions like “how can I get my team to do this?” or “how can I get that result?” The right question to ask is, “how can I be the type of person that others will want to follow?”

Why? Let’s go to outer space for the answer by considering the nature of external and internal realities.

Entropy is the law of physics that shows how the world around us naturally falls apart with time (I’ve written a detailed explanation about entropy in business here). This is our external reality. Things move from an ordered state to a chaotic state. Anyone who owns a house knows this concept well, especially if it’s filled with a bunch of mini entropy accelerators like mine (children).

Our internal reality is that we are flawed by nature. No one is perfect. And the flaws of people can accelerate the deterioration of the world around us.

Externally the world is naturally falling apart, and internally, we have the proclivity to accelerate that deterioration. That’s a bad combination. But there’s a solution to this problem.

The way to influence our external world is to first build our internal character.

We can be the type of person who temporarily holds off the dragon of chaos, entropy. That’s called being a hero, and it’s the template for nearly all of our best stories. A hero is someone who accepts impossible odds and transforms themselves into a person who creates a new and better world for others. Our great stories tell us that a person of character has the potential to change the world. That’s why internal character development is the foundation for servant leadership.

Next we’ll explore three categories of focused character development for servant leaders.

The Truth

Telling the truth is the strongest way to develop character. It’s also the hardest, because the truth can sometimes hurt.  

Jordan Peterson says, “The truth is your sword and your shield.” It means that the truth will protect you, and it is also your best offense.

A lot of people who are new to the concept of servant leadership ask, “How can I walk the path of a servant without being a doormat?” The answer is by telling the truth. It’s impossible to be a doormat or a “subservient” leader if you’re telling the truth, being honest, and being candid.

In this way, honesty starts to look a lot like accountability. A person of integrity is a person of standards. If a team has a set of agreed upon standards for performance then it’s the leader’s job to hold teammates accountable to those standards. That’s honest accountability. That’s meeting the needs of the team. And that’s certainly not subservient.


Love is at the heart of every great servant leader. Servant leaders have a shepherd mentality, with a deep sense of care for everyone in their group.

Again, Hunter does a great job here in The Servant by discussing the concept of agape love. Agape is an ancient Greek word for a form of love that is different than the modern definitions. From Wikipedia, agape love “embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance. It goes beyond just the emotions to the extent of seeking the best for others.” So you can see the implications for servant leadership in “seeking the best for others”, and you can see how modern translations of agape to “love” or “charity” are incomplete for our purposes here.

Love isn’t the easiest concept to discuss in the workplace, so we can instead chose to talk about the components of love: patience, kindness, and respect.

Being a servant leader means promising all teammates that they will be treated with patience, kindness, and respect always as a baseline mode of communication. That includes during the most difficult conversations. It’s possible to deliver even the most difficult messages from a place of love.


The world is a complex place, filled with uncertainty and randomness. Leading a large team nested in a large company nested in a large industry nested in a massive economy is an unimaginably complex undertaking. Yet confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance fool us into denying this complexity.

Accepting the magnitude of uncertainty and unpredictability in the world means Servant Leaders must incorporate a meta-quality I call Grace: a combination of humility, selflessness, and forgiveness (Grace is also my only daughter’s name!). Check out these detailed posts on humility and forgiveness.

Wrap Up and Resources

To bring these introductory concepts home:

  • Servant Leaders meet the needs of others and help them achieve their goals.
  • They focus first on their own character development.
  • Servant Leaders tell the truth.
  • Servant Leaders lead from a place of love.
  • Servant Leaders walk forward in a complex and uncertain world with humility and grace in their hearts.

It’s my hope that this post is a novel combination of things I’ve learned over the years, and not blatant plagiarism. Hunter’s The Servant is definitely the underlying framework for this post, which is why I recommend his book as a first step for anyone wanting to explore the topic. Hopefully I’ve expanded on the topic a bit. Here are some resources for continued reading:

  • The Servant by James C. Hunter
  • Leadership and Self Deception by the Arbinger Institute
  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel
  • Maps of Meaning or the more approachable 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson
  • The entire Incerto series by Nicholas Nassim Taleb, especially Black Swan

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