The Primary Colors of Servant Leadership

Ever try summarizing Servant Leadership in just three words? It’s not easy. At least it did not come easily for me. If you were to summarize Servant Leadership in three words, what words would you choose? Think about that for just a moment. If you’re struggling, perhaps it’s unfair to ask for an answer on the spot.

If you are a student of Servant Leadership, then you are probably familiar with the Ten Characteristics of Servant Leadership or perhaps The Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership by James Sipe and Donald Frick.

Why would anyone attempt to reduce Servant Leadership down to just three characteristics?

That’s a great question. It’s a task I recently assigned myself. Let me explain. As I write this blog post, I’m somewhere over the Atlantic — at this exact moment, about 3,000 miles from my home near Atlanta, Georgia. I’m returning from a week in Oslo, Norway where I facilitated several sessions on Servant Leadership. A beautiful city, great audiences, and a country with a culture quite compatible with Servant Leadership.

The Background of the Challenge

One of those sessions was keynoting the annual conference for Project Management Institute (PMI) Norway. The conference was held at the Nasjonalmuseet (National Museum) — where the work of Edvard Munch is a centerpiece. Edvard Munch is arguably Norway’s most famous artist and the gallery is home to his most famous work, The Scream.

Back in October, Merete Munch Lange, President of PMI Norway extended me an invitation to keynote the conference and address the topic of Servant Leadership. I was honored. A couple of days later, I recall taking an early morning walk and thought it would be clever to create a customized keynote that tied into the conference theme. PMI Norway had selected The Art of Management as their theme since we were meeting at the National Gallery. I selected The Art of Servant Leadership.

Then in November, I had the privilege of spending the better part of a day in Nashville with one of my mentors, Erie Chapman. Naturally, we discussed Servant Leadership as that’s a passion for Erie and it’s how we originally met. You see, Erie is the author of several books. My personal favorite is Radical Loving Care. He’s recently released a bit of a sequel, The Seven Power of Radical Loving Leaders. I thought I was meeting Erie at his office and that we would spend the day talking Servant Leadership amongst other topics. Well, his office turned out to be his studio. As for Erie, he’s a real renaissance man. In addition to being an author, CEO, and consultant, he is also a photographer, a screenwriter, and a filmmaker.

Our discussions of Servant Leadership were augmented with rich discussions about art.

The Evolution of an Idea

I’m a big fan of Evernote and use it for everything — especially my “noodling”. Noodling is my favorite word for describing that combination of reflection, pondering, and just letting an idea “marinate”. I reviewed Evernote just now and discovered an entry on November 24 where I expanded my speech title to The Art and Artistry of Servant Leadership. I know this was influenced by my time with Erie as we discussed artistry as the skills of the art and how an artist masters their medium as well as the tools of the trade.

The Art and Artistry of Servant Leadership

Several weeks ago, I began pulling everything together to finalize my keynote for the PMI Norway event. It was then that the idea of finding a way to summarize Servant Leadership in three words — well, actually colors occurred. If you’re familiar with the world of color, you know there are three primary colors. If you want to get technical, there are two sets of three and one set of four depending on which artistic medium you work in.

In the world of digital media, the primary colors are known as additive and consist of red, green, and blue, better known as RGB. If you work mostly in the print world, you use a subtractive process and the four primary colors as CMYK.

A little more research helped me discover that there’s also the RYB spectrum that paint artists use. And since we were meeting at the Norway National Gallery, I opted to use red, yellow, and blue.

Oh, and as a bonus, that’s how I met an amazing photographer (Libby Beaty) who, while born in the USA, now lives in Norway. I found a collection of Libby’s photos in the Your Shot gallery on She’s the photographer of that amazing image below. Here’s the link to her blog site where she has other amazing work displayed. [I told her she could say her work was shown at the National Gallery in Norway as I included three photos in my presentation.]

Now, if you recall the opening question to this post,  you know why, I assigned myself the task of summarizing Servant Leadership in three colors. And in case you goofed off in art class as I did, here’s the important refresher.  Every other color in the spectrum comes from some blend of the three primary colors of the artist’s palette.

I actually believe that’s a beautiful metaphor about life and leadership.

You may know that Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term ‘Servant Leadership’ in his seminal 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader. However, you may not realize that he never actually provided a succinct definition in any of his writings.

The Primary Colors of Servant Leadership

Before I embark on the three colors, let me share the definition of Servant Leadership I’ve landed on after years of study and attempts to practice Servant Leadership.

Servant Leadership is a people-centered approach to life and leadership, that puts other people at the center. Servant Leadership places the needs, growth, and development of those led, ahead of those leading.

So, after a lot of thought and introspection, here are the three attributes I chose as the primary colors of Servant Leadership. Remember, I worked with the RYB palette.

Empathy: the Heart of Servant Leadership

It begins with red. One of the first thoughts I have, when I think of red, is the heart. When I think of the heart relative to Servant Leadership, I think of empathy. Empathy springs from our hearts. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Understanding that servant leadership is a people-centered approach to life and leadership that places people at the center. Then, empathy is essential to understanding their needs and desires. Empathy is our ability to understand, share, and respect the feelings of others.

Kevin Monroe
Kevin Monroe
Kevin Monroe helps people flourish on the road less traveled in business, leadership, and life so they make their dent in the universe. Since he was a teenager, he has usually chosen roads less traveled which usually involve going against the grain and seeking to go with the flow. All in hopes of making the world a better place and inspiring others to do the same. His unique contribution to the world is creating environments, hosting encounters, and crafting experiences where people are inspired, equipped, and encouraged to live, love, and lead in extraordinary ways. He hosts a variety of events and experiences designed to do just that including; the Higher Purpose Podcast, The Gratitude Challenge, This ExtraOrdinary Life, and most recently, The League of Extraordinary Difference Makers. Kevin holds a Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University and an undergraduate degree in theology from Mercer University. He lives in Woodstock, GA with his lovely wife, Gwen. They are the parents of two adult children and one precocious granddaughter, Emma.

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