Business Leadership Today

Characteristics of a Servant Leader


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

There are many different leadership styles out there, some more effective than others.

The most effective leadership styles tend to involve a high degree of self-awareness on the part of the leader, participation by employees in decision making, and focus on developing individuals by forging strong relationships with team members and inspiring them to perform well consistently. 

The best leaders care about their employees. They help them to thrive. And the best leadership style is one that is invested in their success and supports a caring culture that values them and commits to their growth. 

If a leader’s primary job is to inspire their teams to do great work, the best leaders are servant leaders because they demonstrate characteristics that are conducive to both employee and organizational success.

Characteristics of a servant leader include the ability to actively listen, build community, commit to the growth of people, conceptualize the future, demonstrate awareness, engage in good stewardship, heal through compassion, persuade others, plan for the future through foresight, and show empathy.

This article will explore the characteristics of a servant leader and ways to hone your servant leader skills.

What Is a Servant Leader?

“Servant leader” is a term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the modern servant leadership movement and the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. 

Servant leadership is a non-traditional style of leadership that incorporates elements of participative leadership and transformational leadership. Servant leaders are visionaries who support the development of individuals in the organization, while transformational leaders provide a common vision and develop individuals to meet those goals.

While the ideas that servant leadership encompasses have been around for a long time, Greenleaf is credited as the first person to articulate them as part of the modern servant leadership movement in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.”

The goal of servant leadership is to build authority and influence through supporting and serving employees and avoids the potentially toxic, more controlling tactics employed in some leadership styles and the hands-off approach of others.

Authenticity is central to servant leadership. Servant leaders work continuously to build strong, authentic relationships with their followers. This can create a tremendous amount of cultural buy-in and contributes to a positive employee experience, high employee engagement, and high employee satisfaction. 

Servant leadership also emphasizes appreciation, a caring attitude, humility, strong listening skills, and a high degree of trust. 

Greenleaf outlined 10 principles that characterize servant leadership and guide their behaviors and interactions with those they lead:

  • Listening
  • Building community
  • Commitment to the growth of people
  • Conceptualization
  • Awareness
  • Stewardship
  • Healing
  • Persuasion
  • Foresight
  • Empathy

We’ll delve into each of these characteristics below and what they mean in the context of servant leadership. 

Servant Leaders Are Active Listeners

Good communication, especially active listening, is an essential skill for any leader who wants to lead well. Employees become disillusioned with their leaders and their jobs when they don’t feel heard, and leaders miss out on helpful feedback when they don’t listen. 

Servant leaders understand that listening to their teams is crucial for inspiring employees to do great work. When employees feel their voice is heard, they are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work.

This is why servant leaders listen without judgment and are always open and receptive to feedback from their teams. Unbiased listening leads naturally to understanding, which is so important for building trust-based relationships.

Andrew Freedman, author of Thrive: The Leader’s Guide to Building a High-Performance Culture, says 1:1 meetings are a great way to demonstrate active listening. 

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Servant Leaders are Community Builders

It can be difficult to build a strong sense of community at work, especially in large organizations or remote work settings. 

Servant leaders recognize the importance of building community and forging connections that help those they lead to do their best work and take pride in doing that work. 

Greenlead wrote, “All that is needed to rebuild a community as a viable life form for large numbers of people is for enough servant-leaders to show the way, not by mass movements, but by each servant-leader demonstrating his or her unlimited ability for a quite specific community-related group.” 

Whether it is helping coworkers connect or helping the organization connect with the community it serves, community-building doesn’t have to be an ambitious undertaking; small actions by many have a profoundly positive impact. This is the key to building community. 

In my recent interview with Lisa Baker, founder of Ascentim LLC, she discussed how building these connections with team members helps performance and paves the way for sustainable organizational success.

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Servant Leaders Are Committed To the Growth of People

Servant leaders are committed to the growth of all their team members and interact with them in ways that facilitate and encourage growth. 

Through the lens of servant leadership, leaders are able to see the intrinsic value their employees bring to the table, which goes beyond their more tangible contributions or the monetary success they can help the organization achieve. 

Servant leaders nurture the personal and professional growth of employees by providing opportunities for professional development through learning, training, and leadership development. 

They also encourage such growth by establishing a healthy system of feedback, mentoring and coaching teams, and giving employees the autonomy they need to perform well and take ownership of their roles. 

Many leaders focus on performance coaching, but one of the best ways to support the growth of your team is to engage in developmental coaching. 

In this video, Sara Canaday, author of Coaching Essentials for Managers: The Tools You Need to Ignite Greatness in Each Employee, explains the distinction between performance coaching and developmental coaching.

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Servant Leaders Are Conceptualizers

Servant leaders are, by principle and practice, visionaries. One of the most fascinating aspects of servant leadership, and the one that truly represents the servant leader’s capacity to help their teams achieve great things, is its emphasis on the conceptual perspective. 

While many managers often become so focused on achieving short-term operational goals that they miss the big picture view, servant leaders play the long game. 

They are able to achieve what needs to be achieved in the short-term while also taking in the big picture view that helps their teams strategize, find meaning in their work, and see its impact, which is vital to engaging employees. 

One way servant leaders do this is by emphasizing direction over destination.

In my recent interview with Dr. Ciela Hartanov, she spoke about why it is important to focus on the direction you want your organization to go in instead of focusing on a specific destination.

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Servant Leaders Are Aware

A strong awareness of ethics and values, combined with a strong sense of self-awareness, is indispensable to servant leaders and guides them in all their actions and behaviors. 

Self-awareness refers to a person’s ability to accurately perceive their emotions and remain aware of them as they occur, and it is essential to conscientious, mindful leadership.

For a leader to be effective, they must be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, yet a surprising number of people lack this skill, and they don’t even know it. 

Research from Dr. Tasha Eurich, author of Insight, found that while 95% of people think they are moderately or highly self-aware, less than 15% of people are actually self-aware. 

Being self-aware helps us overcome bias. Servant leaders increase their self-awareness and overcome bias by engaging in mindful leadership. Michael Carroll, author of The Mindful Leader: Awakening Your Natural Management Skills Through Mindfulness Meditation, explains how meditation can help leaders do this.

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Servant Leaders Are Good Stewards

Stewardship is all about working toward the greater good and is a demonstration of commitment to serving and meeting the needs of others. Stewardship is the ultimate guiding force of the servant leader as they tend to the growth and success of their teams.

A culture of stewardship helps employees find meaning and purpose in their work and makes them feel satisfied in their roles, committed to the organization’s success, and motivated to perform well. 

Servant leaders seek to improve the lives of team members who, in turn, seek to improve the performance of the organization and the lives of others through their work.

Having a strong organizational vision that employees can connect their day-to-day work activities to makes that work meaningful and provides a purpose that keeps them motivated to keep making an impact.

Robert Hefner explains: 

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Servant Leaders Are Healers

According to Larry C. Spears, one of the great strengths of servant leadership is its potential for transformation through healing–healing of one’s self and one’s relationship with others.

In “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf said, “There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share.” 

Servant leaders recognize that leadership provides them with the opportunity to improve people’s lives and help them overcome past hurts. With toxic workplace environments driving so much of the turnover we’ve seen with the Great Resignation, the ability to heal the wounds inflicted by negativity in the workplace is an essential leadership skill. 

Lisa Baker offers tips for addressing conflict and having difficult conversations that help teams heal and move on from conflict: 

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Servant Leaders Are Persuasive

Persuasive leaders make rational arguments for action in ways that elicit a strong positive emotional response from those they lead. Servant leadership relies on persuasion, rather than positional authority, to help drive decision-making. 

Servant leaders want to convince, not coerce, and work to build consensus on their teams. It’s not about getting employees to comply; it’s about getting them to understand the decision-making process and to be active participants in it.

This aspect of servant leadership shows just how stark the contrast between the servant leadership model and more traditional leadership models is in building trust with employees. 

Because servant leaders recognize the importance of creating the necessary conditions for each team member to give their best to every project and every job duty, they focus on building trusting, authentic relationships that help increase positive influence and employee buy-in.

In this video, Shanda Miller, author of From Supervisor to Super Leader, explains how these strong, trust-based relationships bring out the best in teams. 

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Servant Leaders Have Foresight

Foresight refers to the ability to foresee possible outcomes of situations and approaches to addressing those situations and is closely linked with conceptualization. 

Foresight helps servant leaders identify the best approaches and the ones that are most closely aligned with the organization’s mission and achieving its vision. 

The ability to learn from past mistakes, an awareness and understanding of the current reality, and the ability to identify the pros and cons of a decision and its impact on the future are part of foresight, and these skills are rooted in intuitive thinking. 

When we view mistakes as learning opportunities and allow team members to run experiments, we are using foresight to lay the groundwork for future improvements and innovation, with less burnout.

Dr. Ciela Hartanov explains, “The reason why innovation can often lead to burnout is that you say ‘be innovative, run experiments,’ but then you hold metrics over them. That is very stressful and is the opposite of creating space for innovation and learning.” 

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Servant Leaders Are Empathetic

A recent study by Catalyst found empathy may be one of the most important leadership skills because of its positive effects on innovation, engagement, retention, inclusivity, and work-life balance.

When we empathize, we understand and share the feelings of another person. Servant leaders seek not only to understand where their employees are coming from, they also seek to empathize with them to better serve them.

Empathy is key to helping a team grow. Servant leaders listen with empathy, understand with empathy, lead with empathy, and encourage empathetic behaviors in their employees. 

This characteristic is essential for building high-performance teams (without hurting team members’ well-being). Ben Lichtenwalner, author of Paradigm Flip, says, “To serve others you must be understanding of their individual situation and their needs. Being empathetic is a key component in understanding and ultimately caring for your team.” 

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Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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