3 Soul Toxins that Derail Servant Leadership

Joe Stowell1 describes servant leadership as “leading for the benefit of others.”

That captures it well.

Servant leadership is easily understood, but not so easily practiced on a consistent basis.

We all love to be served, right? Like in a restaurant. It’s really obvious when the wait staff is enjoying their job and trying to make your experience a good one. It’s equally obvious when it seems like we are bothering the person waiting on us.

I wonder sometimes how those we serve see us.

The real question is whether or not the waiter loves to serve, or serves because they are paid.

Leadership is the same, and you can always tell the difference.

There are leaders who love to serve, and do it naturally, intentionally and freely. And those who don’t, they may be good and smart leaders, but you can tell the difference.

I know… we all have tough days… but I’m writing about our overall disposition as we lead.

We all desire to consistently be a servant leader, but there are things that than can and do challenge that aspiration.

“Embracing servant leadership is not a strategy, it’s an identity.”

Crawford Loritts

Servant leadership isn’t a skill, it describes who we are. We are still expected to make tough decisions, solve problems, cast vision and get the job done, but it’s the way we do it. Servant leadership comes from the heart.

There are soul toxins within us as human beings that even though we want to serve, can derail us from servant leadership at its best.

We can see it even in Jesus’ disciples. Jesus had just set the example of a servant by washing their feet, and then an argument broke out among them about which one was considered to be the greatest. (Luke 22)

What causes this?

3 Examples of Soul Toxins That Derail Our Leadership From a Servant Disposition:


  • I gleaned from a few sources to strengthen my content, including Crawford Lorritt’s great book, Leadership as an Identity.
  • I’m not suggesting that any of these “toxins” are the constant driving force of your leadership, but merely examples of toxins that can sneak in and steal away the real you.

1) Insecurity – The insecure leader serves out of fear and is often tempted to perform.

The driving question is – What will people think of me?

Insecure leaders possess a fear of being discovered for their most real self, unsure they can measure up to others, which often causes them to “hide” rather than be real.

Insecurity makes us second guess ourselves. It causes us to worry about what others think, and consumes so much mental and emotional energy that there is little left with which to serve others.

An insecure leader:

  • Often tries to please everyone.
  • Has difficulty saying no.
  • Tries to avoid criticism and confrontation.
  • Is not fully self-aware, especially of how others see them.
  • May display false humility.

An insecure leader is different than a leader with an insecurity. We all have insecure moments, that’s part of leadership, leading where we have not gone before, but we figure it out.

The antidote to the toxin of insecurity is confidence in your identity. Notice it’s not first confidence in your ability, that comes second. It starts with knowing who you are in Christ. Identity then ability.

Here’s how God sees you:

  • You are loved and valued.
  • You are forgiven and a new creation.
  • You are capable and gifted.

For much more depth on these three bullets and the topic of identity, see my book Confident Leader.

2) Envy – The envious leader serves from a discontent heart and is often tempted by more.

The driving question is – What will make me happy?

Envy within the church is surprisingly common and can be very destructive because it leads to competition rather that cooperation and collaboration.

Here’s the problem with envy, someone will always have more or something better than you.

My love for guitars can lead to envy. My wife laughs with me about the fact that I need to sell a guitar that I had to have in order to by another guitar that I just have to have.

How many guitars is enough? One more. 😊

The question should not be about what others have, at some point we need to ask the question, what is enough?

(This isn’t about legalism, I’m not defining for you what enough is, but its wise for you to figure that out for yourself.)

It’s about learning contentment, and that’s not easy for a leader. Part of that is good and comes from our natural God-given drive that is required to lead, but healthy boundaries are needed.

The antidote to the toxin of envy is gratitude.

Contentment is internal. Nothing external brings lasting peace or contentment. It all fades.

Personal contentment comes from a quiet confidence that God is with you, He loves you, and you are living the purpose He has for you.

This frees us up to be more grateful leaders.

3) Pride – The prideful leader serves for power and is often tempted to control.

The driving question is – What is my seat at the table?

Let’s acknowledge that this isn’t about the 1% off-the-chart narcissists who are consumed by the pursuit of power, praise and control. That’s very rare.

Still, any leader can fall prey to pride, and when we think we can’t, the enemy has us right where he wants us.

If pride in a leader grows, it becomes a toxin to the soul that makes it increasingly impossible to serve from an authentic heart of love and desire to serve others.

Pride steals our freedom to love and serve others, holds us captive to a certain image and in bondage to a need for control.

Pride is preoccupied with things like:

  • Where am I on the org chart?
  • How fast am I rising?
  • Will what I’m doing get me where I want to be?
  • Do people think highly of me? (Insecure is “What do people think of me?)

Pride can make a smart leader do really dumb things. It has been described this way, “Pride is like a drug that can take over your life.”

The antidote to the toxin of pride is humility.

Humility isn’t thinking poorly of yourself, its thinking honestly about yourself. It’s the combination of knowing the truth about yourself and simultaneously understanding God’s great love for you. When you see yourself and value yourself in the same way God does, you are headed in the right direction.  (From Confident Leader.)

Insecurity, envy and pride are common soul toxins. The good news is that with awareness and determination to resist, we can overcome and maintain a consistent heart of servant leadership.


1 – Stowell was the president of Moody Bible Institute and Cornerstone University, also a pastor and author of over 30 Christian books.

19 thoughts on “3 Soul Toxins that Derail Servant Leadership”

  1. Thankful for your insight on insecurity. Every leader only has a certain amount of decision making energy in them each day. Adding in the drain insecurity causes, makes that energy deplete very quickly.

  2. Dan,
    Thanks for distinguishing between an insecure leader from a leader with an insecurity (since we all deal with insecurities at times.)
    That brings clarity and perspective.

    1. Yes… there is a big difference between the two. We all have those moments like when we stand on a stage, walk into a boardroom or cast a new vision that we believe is from God. There are those moments where we’ve not done it before, we are in new territory… but not knowing what to do (in the moment) is not the same as not knowing what you are doing!) We can figure it out!
      Thanks Ed.

  3. Well, it’s 10:30 Monday morning and my toes have been thoroughly walked on. Ouch! and Praise the Lord! Doing leadership God’s way is not for the faint of heart. Thanks Dan for this insight.

    1. Walking on toes wasn’t my goal, but glad you still have praise in your heart! 🙂 You are so right about leadership not for the faint of heart!!
      Thanks for your comment Don!

  4. Adebayo Abimbola Adegboye

    Thank you for your consistency and steadfastness in the publications.

    Leadership is about more than just numbers. It’s about the lives you touch, the positive change you create, and the legacy you leave behind.

    -John C. Maxwell

    ***Please, can you do a piece on Work-life balance for ministry workers.

  5. Dan, so grateful for your godly insights on leadership. The three “toxins” you point out never go away. What helps me is wrestling with Paul’s coaching to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Your ability to articulate leadership principles is a blessing to us all.

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