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It’s Time We Call Servant Leadership What It Really Is

love balloons It is time that we stop beating around the bush when it comes to what servant leadership is. It is time that we stopped describing it using coded words like listening, empathy, caring, building community, and developing people, and come right out and say what servant leadership truly is – it is love.

You read it correctly. I wrote love. Servant leadership, no matter how you look it, is an active manifestation of love. Robert K. Greenleaf (2002) himself said as much, though he called it “unlimited liability.” In his view, servant leaders are unconditionally responsible for those who choose to follow them. He added that as soon as one’s liability for another is qualified to any degree, love is diminished by that same degree. Patterson (2010) states directly that servant leadership is based on love. Winston (2002) saw love as so integral to leadership, that he suggests that leaders see followers as hired hearts instead of hired hands. Patterson (2003) also gave this kind of love in the business world a name – agapao love. She explained that agapao love is moral love. It is leaders doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. Servant leaders, according to Patterson (2010), lead with love, are motivated by love, and serve their followers with love.

For me, it is quite simple. There are only two emotions in the world: love and fear. Name the negative emotion and one will find it is just another name for fear. Anger is fear. Jealousy is fear. Hate is fear. According to Patterson (2006) and Daft (2002), leaders see fear manifest itself as arrogance, selfishness, deception, unfairness, and disrespect. Conversely, positive emotions are all expressions of love. Joy is love. Happiness is love. Optimism is love. Patterson and Daft stated that leaders see love manifest itself as dignity, respect, and honor.

As you read this, please do not think that those who lead with love are spineless, or that love is soft. Love is tough. Patterson (2010) said love is the tough road for leaders. It is easy, according to Patterson, to tell someone what to do with little engagement. Helping someone to grow however, sometimes in ways that are both painful and confusing for them, is difficult. This is a servant leader’s bread and butter.

So, servant leaders who have to constantly explain that their leadership style is not soft often turn to Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, and his explanation of leading with love:

“For those who might think that leading with love is simply ’soft management,’ review the record of Southwest Airlines over the last forty years. In a business so fraught with economic peril that the entire domestic airline industry has compiled a net loss since its inception, Southwest’s people have produced an unprecedented and unparalleled record of job security, customer satisfaction, and shareholder return. From these results, it can factually and logically be concluded that if you seek long continued success for your business organization, treat your people as family and LEAD WITH LOVE.”


Daft, R.L. (2002) The Leadership Experience (Mason, OH: South-Western College).

Greenleaf, R.K. (2002) Servant-Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (New York: Paulist Press). 

Patterson, K. (2003) ‘Servant Leadership: A Theoretical Model’, Dissertation Abstracts International, 64(02), 570, UMI no. 3082719, presented at the Servant Leadership Research Roundtable, 2003, Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA, USA.

Patterson, K. (2006) ‘Servant-Leadership: A Brief Look at Love and the Organizational Perspective’, International Journal of Servant Leadership, 2: 287–96.

Patterson, K. (2010). Servant leadership and love. In D. van Dierendonck & K. Patterson (Eds.), Servant leadership: Developments in theory and research. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Winston, B. (2002) Be a leader for God’s sake (Virginia Beach, VA: Regent University-School of Leadership Studies).


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