Symposium | Revitalizing Political Leadership

The “Servant Leader”: Adopting the “We Mindset”

By Emily Cherniack

Tagged GovernanceLeadershippolitics

Imagine a not-too-distant future where every decision made by elected officials begins with the question “What is best for the country?” The question seems like it should be an obvious one for any person empowered by the public to make decisions of consequence. The consent of the governed, after all, is predicated on the notion that the “just powers” we entrust to our government be used toward ends that benefit the nation, not the individual who holds those powers or the political faction to which they belong. This, of course, is quite different from our current political landscape. Our politics, plagued by tribalism and opportunism, incentivizes the ascent of those uninterested in wielding power with any degree of integrity or foresight. What’s more, it repels the very individuals most equipped to use politics as a means of advancing the greater good: servant leaders.

At its core, servant leadership is an ethos that prioritizes the needs of others before one’s own. The term, first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader,” refers to those with a natural inclination toward service to others. While traditional models of leadership generally view power as something exercised by those at the top of the pyramid, servant leadership is different. Servant leaders share power, put the needs of others first, and help people develop and perform at their highest potential. They embody a “we mindset,” one that places the mission above all else. This ethos is not just a professional stance but a deeply ingrained personal philosophy. By focusing on the group’s goals, servant leaders shy away from personal accolades or recognition, preferring instead that the team’s accomplishments be spotlighted. Servant leaders are both forward-looking and introspective: They have clarity about the ends to which they’re working, and about their own limitations. They dedicate their lives to upholding the ideals of service—integrity, empathy, stewardship—and are uniquely positioned to change the way we think about political leadership.

This is, of course, the antithesis of what we see from so many of our elected leaders. The misalignment between the current system’s incentive structure and the personal qualities associated with pragmatic, results-driven leadership creates a significant barrier to entry for servant leaders. This systemic flaw is exacerbated by our human tendency toward binary thinking. We crave simple answers, clear-cut heroes and villains—a worldview that our two-party system all too readily reinforces. So how do we move beyond simplistic partisan analysis of what plagues our politics? The idea that our side is all goodness and light and their side is darkness and hate seems so juvenile and simplistic; yet it’s the worldview that so many of our elected leaders seem to fall victim to.

A key point about servant leadership—a quality that separates it from other forms of leadership—comes from psychology. Servant leadership is aware of its “shadow,” a concept explored in depth by psychologist Carl Jung. The shadow refers to the unconscious aspects of our personality that don’t correspond with who we believe ourselves to be. Listen to any political stump speech and you’ll hear all about the candidate’s romanticized version of herself: decent, courageous, kind, fair, or any number of other positive qualities that are socially desirable. What you won’t hear about, and what Jung talks about with the shadow, are the parts of ourselves that conflict with that idealized vision. We are all judgmental, biased, fearful, selfish, uncaring, and dishonest. And because those dark aspects are so discordant with who we believe ourselves to be and so unpleasant to confront, we refuse to recognize them. We ignore that part of our unconscious, allowing ourselves to rest in the illusion that we are all goodness and light.

When we haven’t done the work to confront our shadow, we project it outward, according to Jung. We find some individual or group that becomes the other, and we believe with intense certainty that they possess all the horrible traits and darkness that we have refused to recognize in ourselves. They are dangerous and threatening to all that is good and right, and there is no more important project than confronting, controlling, and—if necessary—destroying them. Sound familiar? It’s essentially the same pitch we hear from both major parties and their representatives: Vote for us or the other side will destroy America.

There is more to the shadow than just projection, though. Jung notes that over time, the refusal to confront the shadow within the self produces a disconnection from reality. It is as though our unwillingness to see the truth within our inner worlds produces an inability to see the truth in the world around us. We see darkness, danger, and threats everywhere, in ways that are completely severed from the facts.

This untethering from reality is particularly dangerous in the political arena. When leaders deny their shadow traits and instead project them onto their rivals, they reinforce a political landscape where dialogue and compromise are nearly impossible. The perceived “other” is not just someone with different views or ideas, but an existential threat that must be vanquished. This leads to increasingly fixed, all-or-nothing positions. Policies and decisions are based more on countering this exaggerated threat than on an objective calculation of what would best serve the common good. Consequently, our entire political process is driven not by shared values, but by the distorted perceptions and unacknowledged fears of each side. This dynamic deepens our cynicism and erodes the foundational trust necessary for democratic governance.

I founded New Politics more than a decade ago to address this very issue. Our vision was novel in that we approached politics not through an ideological or issue-focused lens, but rather a values-based and talent-centric one. Since convincing our first candidate, Marine Corps veteran and now-Congressman Seth Moulton, to run in 2013, New Politics has recruited, trained, and developed thousands of transformational leaders across the country to prioritize democracy. To that end, we’ve made confronting the shadow an integral part of our servant leaders’ development. We push our candidates to look within themselves by conducting two self-reflective exercises. First, they write a personal mission statement: a couple of sentences that articulate the core of what drives their service and how they wish to be as they step into political leadership. Next, we have them craft a personal “shadow statement” that forecasts what it might look like if the decisions they make are misaligned with their mission. Servant leaders must confront the fact that when led by their shadow, they prioritize their own needs, ambitions, or insecurities over being of service to others and serving the greater good.

One servant leader we worked with was a military veteran who had served with the special forces and seen combat multiple times. He was earning his graduate degree at an Ivy League university and exploring a run for office. Given his experience, credentials, and network, he had the potential to become a viable candidate. As we discussed his shadow mission exercise, it was clear that the concept was completely new to him. He had spent years immersed in leadership development in the military, was excelling in his advanced degree program, and had a sophisticated grasp of both current events and policy. But his shadow-self was unfamiliar terrain. He said, “When I look at my shadow mission, I see every politician I hate.” It was clear that this was an unsettling but powerful discovery for him.

This shift in consciousness is what separates the servant leader from someone who has merely volunteered to serve. An honest, thoughtful exploration of their shadow mission reveals to servant leaders a landscape of cowardice, disconnection, apathy, arrogance, selfishness, and fear within. This realization fundamentally alters how they engage with politics, encouraging a move away from partisanship toward a focus on genuine service and stewardship. By confronting and understanding their own limitations and biases, servant leaders are equipped to approach political issues with greater empathy and a commitment to the common good, rather than being driven by personal gain or party loyalty.

Texas State Representative James Talarico exemplifies the strengths of this mindset. He has successfully passed meaningful legislation as a Democratic legislator, working with his Republican colleagues to improve education, lower insulin prices, and provide more access to early childhood education. James has talked about how that inner work has served as a political compass on his journey, allowing for more nuanced, inclusive, and effective governance.

The story of Denver Mayor Mike Johnston illustrates servant leadership in action. During his tenure as a state senator from 2009-17, Johnston sought to enact a bill providing in-state tuition access to undocumented students—a goal that had eluded lawmakers for years. Democrat Johnston’s breakthrough came not through partisan wrangling, but through connecting with his Republican colleagues on a human level. Knowing that one of those colleagues coached Little League, Johnston asked him to find out if he had any undocumented kids on his team. The next week, the state senator came by Johnston’s desk and said that his third baseman, one of his son’s best friends, was undocumented. He signed onto the bill that day. Johnston’s success underscores the potential of servant leadership to transcend political divides and enact meaningful change.

Servant leadership begins with empathy and active listening. Beyond knowing themselves, servant leaders know who they represent and that they are but one small part of a larger, unfinished project. They immerse themselves in the lives and stories of their supporters and opponents equally. They’re open to new information and to having their minds changed. They recognize that not knowing the answer is okay. Servant leaders don’t shy away from their own fallibility, choosing instead to embrace their mistakes as opportunities for growth. This transparency about their limitations not only fosters trust but also encourages a culture where continuous learning is valued over infallibility and ideological consistency.

Servant leaders prioritize community well-being in every decision they make, setting aside personal gain and political expediency. This is where their clarity on who they want to be—and, just as importantly, who they don’t want to be—is so critical. They evaluate the potential effects of their choices on every stakeholder and are driven by a commitment to enacting policies that have impact. Even and especially in the face of adversity or opposition, they uphold a service-first philosophy.

So where do we find the servant leaders that our nation needs?

While they are by no means exclusively found there, the military, national and community service programs, and other public-facing, mission-driven organizations provide ideal proving grounds for servant leadership: They equip individuals with a deeper understanding of sacrifice, teamwork, and how to work toward the common good. These varied forms of service shape resilient leaders who are adept at empathizing with constituents, communicating effectively and honestly, and addressing societal issues with integrity. They’re the teachers who stood in classrooms, guiding generations to milestones they never thought possible; the Peace Corps volunteers who brought water to remote villages; the personnel in uniform who swore an oath to defend American ideals, if necessary, with their lives. Their approach to leadership is encapsulated in a simple yet profound commitment: “Country and community first.”

Unfortunately, the divisive, hostile nature of contemporary politics deters those who have dedicated their lives to selfless service from stepping forward. And the problems don’t stop there. In his book Corruptible, political scientist Brian Klaas writes: “[T]oo many of our current systems disproportionately attract and then sort corruptible people into power. Once there, power changes them—for the worse.” The challenge is not only encouraging servant leaders to enter the often tumultuous political arena, but also ensuring they receive the support necessary to thrive within it. Otherwise, they can easily fall prey to the same corrupting forces that Klaas describes. It is crucial, therefore, that there are efforts not just to seek out and empower these individuals, but also to provide them with a platform and the backing required to navigate the complexities of political life. By supporting servant leaders who place country and community first, we can begin to reshape the political landscape into one that values collaboration, integrity, and genuine progress.

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Emily Cherniack is the founder and executive director of New Politics.

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