10 characteristics of servant leadership with quotes and questions

The 10 characteristics of servant leadership were defined by Larry Spears when he was President and CEO of the Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership.

The characteristics are listed below, each with a quote from Robert Greenleaf’s original servant leader essay to illustrate the thinking behind each characteristic. There are 3 questions after each characteristic, for a total of 30 questions, to inspire and guide your development.

10 characteristics of servant leadership

1. Listening

“True listening builds strength in other people.”

Servant leaders listen for what is being said, the true meaning behind the words and the emotions that are being shared. This deep listening is driven by a desire to connect fully with others, to help them grow. This is in stark contract to the listening style of many leaders who simply listen for errors and flaws in logic, so they can ‘win’ the discussion. For more, take a look at how to become a better listener.

1. When do I suspend my own agenda and listen with the desire to understand, connect and help the person grow?

2. When am I more self-oriented with my listening: with my own agenda as a priority, listening to respond and to ‘win’?

3. What are the specific opportunities to practice servant leadership listening that “builds strength in other people“? (Be specific and take the time to reflect after each opportunity: what went well, what could be improved next time?)

2. Empathy

“Men grow taller when those who lead them empathize, and when they are accepted for who they are.”

In this article How empathetic should a servant leader be? the author identifies 4 characteristics of empathy:

  • Lead from a value-based, principle-centered position of moral authority
  • Operate from a high level of Emotional Intelligence
  • Become an empathetic listener
  • Make your employees your Number 1 priority

The second half of this quote highlights how the characteristics of Servant Leadership have become more relevant over time. Robert Greenleaf realized the importance of accepting others for who they are, long before diversity and inclusion became a mainstream priority for business.  More from Forbes on empathy as fundamental to diversity and inclusion.

4. Are my team members really my Number 1 priority? (If not, why not?)

5. Are my team members growing as a result of my leadership?

6. What small actions can I take each day to show my team they are my priority and to help them grow?

3. Healing

“The motive for healing is the same: for one’s own healing.”

This article of the servant leader as a healing influence equates healing with “searching for wholeness”.

This is connected with a spiritual dimension to Greenleaf’s thinking, which is most apparent in this characteristic of ‘healing’. The intent is that a servant leader should have the emotional and spiritual well-being (wholeness) of their team as a priority.

More contemporary expressions of this same thinking are found in the healing power of mindfulness.

7. How can I engage with my team beyond their contribution to work?

8. How can I support them to develop their physical and mental well-being?

9. What more can I do to help each team member live a fulfilling and ‘purpose-full’ life?

4. Awareness

The cultivation of awareness gives one the basis for detachment, the ability to stand aside and see oneself in perspective in the context of one’s own experience, amid the ever-present dangers, threats and alarms.

This is a central characteristic of servant leadership and the foundation for cultivating many of the other characteristics (self awareness is the most important characteristic of servant leadership).

Self-awareness and the ability to ‘see oneself in perspective’ – personal strengths, weaknesses, values and emotions – helps the servant leader understand personal biases and set them side for the benefit of the team. More on what self-awareness really is.

10. What steps can I take to regularly get feedback from my team, my peers, my manager and more senior colleagues?

11. How can I build opportunities for self reflection into my schedule?

12. How can I actively work to understand my personal biases and resolve them?

5. Persuasion

“Leadership by persuasion has the virtue of change by convincement rather than coercion.”

Servant leaders do not rely on the authority of their position to achieve their goals. They persuade and influence their team to convince them rather than coerce them. The focus is on engaging with the team to achieve goals that are embraced by all.

This is brought to life by the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Centre, through an interview with Daniel Pink on the role of persuasion on servant leadership.

13. Do I seek to understand my team members’ views and concerns?

14. Do I take the time to explain the benefits: for individuals, the team and the company?

15. Do I lead by example to influence the team?

6. Conceptualization

“Passionately communicating the worth of people and their strength to raise themselves.”

Servant Leaders have faith in the worth of people and help their team to see their own potential. Team members achieve more than they thought they were capable of, because their servant leader provides a future-oriented vision that gives the team purpose.

16. Do I trust my team members to deliver?

17. Do I coach my team to find solutions for themselves?

18. Do I recognize and celebrate successes?

7. Foresight

“Foresight is the ‘lead’ that leaders have.

Servant leaders have the ability to show their team a better future, show them the path to that future and how each of them can contribute to the journey. This ability to lead their team towards a better future is an essential foundation to the final 3 characteristics: stewardship, commitment to growth of people and building community.

Here are 7 ways to cultivate foresight.

19. Do I show my team a better future that will motivate and guide them?

20. Do I show them the path to that better future?

21. Do I show them how they can contribute to the journey?

8. Stewardship

“The real enemy is fuzzy thinking on the part of good, intelligent, vital people, and their failure to lead, and to follow servants as leaders.”

Servant leaders take responsibility for the resources, integrity and ethics of the organization. This required clarity of thinking and a deep understanding of ‘servant first’ leadership. It is the natural feeling that one wants to serve first, that creates the aspiration to lead.

22. Do I call out inappropriate and unethical behavior?

23. Do I reflect on servant leadership and cultivate an understanding of ‘servant first’?

24. Does my leadership encourage my team to become servant leaders?

9. Commitment to growth of people

An institution starts on a course towards people-building with leadership that has a firmly established context of people first.

Servant leaders are actively involved in the development of their team. This includes helping team members to enhance their performance in their current role, as well as providing career guidance and opportunities too. More in career conversation tips.

25. Do I provide ongoing feedback to me team that supports their development?

26. Do I have regular (quarterly) development conversations with my team members?

27. Do I have a career conversation with my team members at least once a year?

10. Building community

“The first order of business is to build a group of people who, under the influence of the institution, grow taller and become healthier, stronger, more autonomous.”

The last of the 10 characteristics of servant leadership is focused on community. Servant leaders see it as their responsibility to ensure that the organization serves people first. This ‘people – service – profit’ philosophy is not commercially naïve, it is found in some of the world’s most successful organizations.

28. Is my team focused on its customers?

29. What more could we do to support the people we serve?

30. Finally, what more can I do to better embody these 10 characteristics of servant leadership?

To learn more about the People – Service – Profit philosophy at FedEx, take a look at these examples of servant leadership in business.

Take care of your people first, they’ll provide a superior service, which will generate an outstanding profit. Simple.

For more, take a look at how do you lead a community?

Robert Greenleaf (1904 – 1990)

To better understand the 10 characteristics of servant leadership it helps to also understand a little about Robert Greenleaf (1904 – 1990).

His self-penned epitaph reads:

“Teacher, Philosopher. Servant-Leader. Potentially a good plumber. Ruined by a sophisticated education.”

Robert was raised in a household committed to community involvement and strong personal ethics. His father, George Greenleaf, was a blue-collar worker, a machinist and mechanic who also served on the local school board and city council.

It was from these upbringings that Robert developed his interest in community, service, spirituality and the use of power in organizations. He worked for 38 years at AT&T, his last role was Director of Management Development. He retired from AT&T in 1964 to work as a writer, consultant and teacher.

You can find more details of his biography here.

In his original essay of 1970, he wrote about the characteristics of servant leadership, and the importance of being servant first. This is encapsulated in his ‘best test’:

“The best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous.”

10 characteristics of servant leadership: summary

The 10 characteristics of servant leadership can be summarized as follows:

  1. Listening: focus on connecting and helping people to grow.
  2. Empathy: accept people for who they are, make your team your first priority.
  3. Healing: help each team member lead a fulfilling and ‘purpose-full’ life.
  4. Awareness: invest time and energy in developing self-awareness as a foundation for leadership.
  5. Persuasion: understand your team members’ views and concerns, lead by example.
  6. Conceptualization: help your team members exceed their potential.
  7. Foresight: Show your team a brighter future.
  8. Stewardship: Serve and help your team before servants too.
  9. Commitment to growth of people: develop your team in their current role and in preparation for future roles.
  10. Building community: focus on customers, build community within and between teams.
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