The Ten Characteristics of a Servant Leader

In 1970 Robert K Greenleaf first published his essay, The Servant as Leader. This essay catalysed a world-wide movement for Servant Leadership. I was fortunate to have been exposed to the essay and many other resources associated with Servant Leadership from 1997. As such I have educated my clients about the power of being a Servant Leader ever since.

Throughout the essay, Greenleaf references a set of characteristics that need to exist for a leader to be a true servant. In total there are ten characteristics and each of them are explained below.

An example of a company that practices Servant Leadership
An example of a company that practices Servant Leadership


True leadership starts with the ability to listen for understanding. This is different to listening for argument. When you listen for understanding you are genuinely interested in understanding where the other is coming from. This does not mean that you have to agree with their perspective, just that you are genuinely interested in understanding it. When you listen for argument, you are listening from the perspective of finding holes in another’s arguments so that you can shoot them down. You are right and they are wrong. Period. A Servant Leader works hard at developing their skills so that they can listen for understanding.


Listening for understanding enables leaders to have an increased capacity to relate to those with whom they are interacting. While they might not completely understand the perspective of the people they are working with (there are times when it is not genuine to say I Understand when your life experience is so different from the person’s with whom you are speaking), a Servant Leader has empathy for them and considers the serious impact of their decisions on the people they serve.


Michele Hunt said that Leadership is a serious meddling in other people’s lives.

Servant Leaders need to be able to both heal themselves and the people they work with. Organisational life can create emotional hurt for people and leader’s need to have the ability to help people resolve their relationships with colleagues, customers and the organisation itself. Often healing is represented by the leader treating all the people they come into contact with in a respectful way. Too many employees have not been respected because of their position in the organisational hierarchy. A Servant Leader treats all people with the same level of respect irrespective of their role. In doing so a Servant Leader helps the people they serve become more whole themselves as they build respect for themselves.


Each of the ten characteristics of a Servant Leader is interdependent. A Servant Leader is self-aware, aware of what is happening for the people they serve and aware of what is happening outside their organisation. Being aware does not guarantee a sense of peace for a Servant Leader. In fact it is the opposite. Awareness means that the leader is sharply awake and keenly disturbed at the same time. Through awareness the Servant Leader knows that the world is a not a perfect place but that it can always be improved.


The Servant Leader is able to persuade through genuine listening and dialogue. They use facts, the picture of the future they are creating with others and a clear and shared sense of purpose to help the people they serve to find and create the future they desire. Persuasion is not coercion. Positional authority is not the power that a Servant Leader uses to get their way. Instead a Servant Leader is able to influence those they serve through their genuine practice of the ten characteristics of a Servant Leader.


A Servant Leader is able to communicate what possible futures look like. They have the ability to see beyond the day-to-day realities of organisational life to the possible future that they and the people they are serving are striving to create. Most importantly this characteristic is not one where the future they describe is the one that they dreamed by themselves, rather it is the possible future that they are able to articulate on behalf of the collective view that emerges over time.


Foresight is the ability to see multiple consequences of both action and inaction. A Servant Leader is acutely aware of the ripple effect of errors of omission. They understand that they have an ethical responsibility to take action when they have the freedom to take action, even if that action is difficult.


Organisations and institutions do not exist to make heroes of their leaders. Servant Leaders understand that they have a duty to serve their organisation so that it is in better hands for the next generation of leaders. The organisation and the institution are bigger than the leader. This mental model is essential if you wish to be a true Servant Leader.

Commitment to the Growth of People

A Servant Leader aims to have the people they serve become more autonomous or at the very least not to be worse off as a result of their leadership. They strive to help people to find and develop their talents and celebrate in their success, even when this may mean (at times) those people leave the organisation.

Building Community

A Servant Leader is acutely aware that humans require a sense of belonging to help maintain their mental well-being. To this end Servant Leaders work at bringing people together and fostering a sense of community and understand that building community is created one person, one-act at a time.

Servant Leadership is not confined to community, not-for-profit and government agencies. Quite the contrary. Many successful for profit organisations are explicit in their application of Servant Leadership. Three explicit examples include Vanguard, Southwest Airlines and TDIndustries.

If you would like to explore how Servant Leadership can be introduced to your organisation please contact me here.

Gary Ryan enables organisations, leaders and talented professionals to move Beyond Being Good.

Gary Ryan