Ten Major Characteristics of Servant Leadership

Ten Major Characteristics of Servant Leadership
Page content

What is Servant Leadership?

Robert K. Greenleaf first coined the phrase “Servant Leadership” in his essay “The Servant as Leader” (1970). His servant leadership theory found support from many management writers such as Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Peter Senge, and others.

Greenleaf distinguishes between two contrasting leadership styles: a servant aspiring to serve and taking up leadership as a result and a leader wanting power to acquire material possessions. He denotes the first as the servant leadership style. Servant leaders are servants first who consciously choose to lead as a way to serve the development of others. They act as humble stewards of their organization and achieve results by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve.


The basic traits of a good leader are good communication and decision making skills. The servant leadership theory goes beyond this and adds listening skills to the basic success traits.

The servant leader listens receptively to what is said, and also to what is unsaid, through intuition developed by periods of reflection and analysis. They respond to a problem by:

  1. Listening to followers.
  2. Identifying the need or will of the group.
  3. Lending clarity to such needs.


The second of the major characteristics of servant leadership is empathy. Empathy is the capacity to know what the other person is experiencing from an emotional plane within the frame of reference of that other person. It is, in other words, to put one’s self in another’s shoes.

Servant leaders accept and recognize people for their special and unique traits, understand their requirements and maintain empathy towards them even if they cannot accept their acts. The servant leader listens with empathy, and assumes the good intentions of co-workers and colleagues even while disagreeing.

Healing Relationships

It is human nature to encounter emotional pain during interpersonal relationships, be it at work or elsewhere. The servant leader tries to understand the cause for such broken spirits and helps people overcome such blots. This facilitates healing relationships and contributes to organizational transformation through better team integration.


Leaders who are self-aware and have awareness of general matters have a better understanding of issues related to ethics, power and values, and this helps them view situations and make decisions from a more holistic perspective.

Unlike the traditional leadership style that considers awareness as a source of power and providing solace, or the transformational leadership style that attracts subordinates through a high level of awareness and ethical conduct, the servant leadership style uses awareness to fulfill the needs of others and to persuade subordinates.


Among the major characteristics of servant leadership is reliance on persuasion instead of positional authority in decision making.

The servant leader seeks to convince others and build a consensus instead of coercing compliance through an authoritarian style of functioning.


Servant-leaders thrive on conceptualization or solving problems by thinking beyond day to day realities.

The traditional leader often overlooks the long term perspective under pressure to attain short term operational goals whereas a servant leader strikes a right balance between the long term perspective and short term organizational goals during decision making.


Most leadership theories neglect foresight. Foresight however ranks amongst the most important characteristics of servant leadership.

Foresight is the ability to foresee the outcome of a situation and is closely related to conceptualization. A servant leader learns from the past and has awareness of the present realities to gain foresight into the consequences of future events. This aids in better decision making.


Stewardship is holding something in trust for another, and the servant leader considers himself or herself as a steward of the institution that employs him or her.

The servant leadership trait of stewardship accounts for servant leaders remaining committed to openness, persuasion, and serving the need of team members.

Commitment to Human Resources Development

Servant leaders are committed to the overall growth of people under them and other issues related to human resources. They believe that people have intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers.

The servant leader assumes responsibility of not just developing the subordinate to fulfill organizational goals, but also nurture the personal and professional growth of team members by taking a personal interest in their ideas and suggestions, encouraging their involvement in decision making and through other similar interventions.

Commitment to Building Community

In the pre-industrialized world, the local community usually shaped an individual’s outlook and personality. Industrialization has led to large institutions replacing the local community as the shaper of an individual’s life. The servant leader understands this fact and identifies means to build a community among the team, members and other employees of the organization.

The servant leadership style is a relatively new approach to leadership, and the characteristics of servant leadership provide new insights to leadership theory and treat leadership from a hitherto unexplored perspective.


Image Credit: srqpix/flickr.com