The concept of Servant Leadership can be difficult for many leaders to embrace fully. If this is true for you, I am guessing the idea of leading with love will be equally as challenging a concept.

Robert Greenleaf explained that Servant Leadership “shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”[1] This sounds easy enough in theory, but proves more complicated when put into practice. Many leaders will cling to their traditional leadership hierarchy when you add the additional ideas around leading with love.

Where We Get It Wrong

In the executive coaching work we do, it is not unusual to hear a leader say they can’t possibly lead with love when they don’t even like some of the people they lead. Author and John Maxwell team member Joel Manby, in his book, Love Works, says, “Treating someone with love regardless of how you feel about that person is a very powerful principle. . .It can make us great spouses, great parents, and great friends. Great leaders too.”

What Joel goes on to say is we often confuse “love the noun” with “love the verb.” Most of us have grown up thinking of love as a feeling we have for someone. When leading with love, we need to think of love as an action we take, not a feeling we have.

Authority Versus Power

In a traditional leadership structure, we often rely on power to lead. We allow our title or position to determine our level of influence. While this is true that your title or position offers some level of influence, it is a very low level of influence that does not play well over time. To fully engage your team and increase your level of influence, you must learn to lead from authority, not power. When you lead with authority and influence, people move from having to follow you to wanting to follow you.

In his book The Servant, author James Hunter says authority is the skill of getting people to willingly do your will because of your personal influence. He also says that authority is developed through service and sacrifice, and service and sacrifice are built on LOVE.

You Can’t Command Someone to Have a Feeling

You can’t command someone to have a feeling or emotion for someone else, but you can behave well toward them. Leading with love is not forcing yourself to have feelings or emotions (noun) towards someone, but you begin behaving in a loving (the verb) way. When you do this, you will increase your authority through influence, leading to higher engagement and better performance.

Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, once said, “I don’t necessarily have to like my players and associates, but as a leader, I must love them. Love is loyalty; love is teamwork; love respects the dignity of the individual. This is the strength of any organization.”

What Are the Actions of a Loving Leader?

If you want to increase your authority through increased influence with the people you lead, consider exhibiting the actions of a loving leader.

  • Love is patient—this could be demonstrating self-control, not displaying emotion.
  • Love is kind—displaying kindness toward others, giving attention to them, showing appreciation, and encouraging.
  • Love demonstrates humility—being authentic, sharing your challenges, being vulnerable, putting others first.
  • Love is respectful—treating others as valued, needed, respected individuals.
  • Love is selfless—putting the needs of others ahead of your own needs. This means you would need to know the needs of others, a great servant leader characteristic.
  • Love is forgiving—letting go of any anger or resentment toward people on the team.
  • Love is honest—being free from any deception or misleading people

Remember, authority (influence) is built on service and sacrifice. What is the sacrifice? Ourselves, our egos. We may have to sacrifice by extending ourselves for people we may not even like. But that’s what servant leaders do.


Perry Holley is a coach and facilitator with the John Maxwell Company’s Corporate Solutions Group as well as a published author. He has a passion for developing others and seeing people grow into the leaders they were intended to become.