The Essential Qualities of Servant Leadership Essential Qualities of Servant Leadership

In the years since Robert Greenleaf first published his essay, “The Servant as Leader,” many notable authors and experts have built upon his work. As expected, servant leadership in theory and practice has evolved over time as the context of leading has changed.

Here we’ll summarize Greenleaf’s original ideas on servant leadership, recap what some others have added, and then add a few of our own thoughts.


Greenleaf’s Qualities of Servant Leadership

In “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf wrote (the bold italics are ours):

  • “The servant-leader is servant first… Putting people first… That person is sharply different from the one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive…”
  • “The very essence of leadership [is] going out ahead to show the way … The leader ventures to say, ‘I will go; come with me!’ while knowing that the path is uncertain, even dangerous.”
  • “…clearly stating and restating the overarching purpose… [to] dream great dreams.”
  • Stewardship… [to] elicit trust.”
  • “Only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first.”
  • “…uses power ethically, with persuasion as the preferred mode.”
  • “…seeks consensus in group decisions.”
  • “The art of withdrawal… reflection and silence.”
  • “… accepts and empathizes… requires a tolerance of imperfection.”
  • Foresight … a sense for the unknowable and [being] able to foresee the unforeseeable…”
  • Awareness and perception”: Leaders understand the reality that confronts them and act accordingly.
  • Conceptualizing … to state and adjust goals, to evaluate, to analyze, and forsee the contingencies along the way.”
  • Healing… between servant leader and [those] led is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share.”
  • Community … [when] the liability of each for the other, and all for the one, is unlimited… It is a requirement of love.”


Servant Leadership Contributions from Others

Dr. Kent M. Keith, former CEO of the Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership (Asia), in The Case for Servant Leadership:

  • “Servant leadership has a “moral base.
  • Self-awareness” [emotional intelligence].
  • Developing colleagues
  • Finding meaning… Meaning comes from having a sense of purpose.”
  • Coaching instead of controlling … Unleashing the energy and intelligence of others.”

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, said, “The more you control others, the more likely it is that they will rebel.”

Author Margaret Wheatley said, “Servant-leaders participate, guide, coach, and facilitate.”

Joseph J. DiStefano, author and university professor, noted other themes throughout Greenleaf’s life which are qualities of a servant leader, including:

  • Readiness and preparation” through constant learning and seeking.
  • Patience, faith, and humility” to let clear insights emerge from the deep dive into the exploration.
  • One’s ability to “synthesize” complex ideas clearly.

Max DePree, chairman of Herman Miller Company and author of Leadership Is an Art and Leadership Jazz: The Essential Elements of a Great Leader, cited other essential qualities of the servant leader: integrity, vulnerability, discernment, courage in relationships, and comfort with ambiguity.

Personal Values Exercise

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10 Characteristics of a Servant Leader

Larry C. Spears, Michele Lawrence, and Ken Blanchard in Focus on Leadership: Servant-Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, synthesizing the work of Robert Greenleaf with ten characteristics of a servant leader:

  1. Listening: acknowledging the viewpoint of followers and validating these perspectives
  2. Empathy: standing in the shoes of others and seeing things from their point of view
  3. Healing: in helping followers become whole, servant leaders are themselves healed
  4. Awareness: understanding oneself and the impact one has on others
  5. Persuasion: creating change through gentle, nonjudgmental argument
  6. Conceptualization: being a visionary for an organization
  7. Foresight: predicting what is coming based on the present and the past
  8. Stewardship: carefully managing the people and organization, and holding the organization in trust for the greater good of society
  9. Commitment to the Growth of People: treating followers as unique and worthy, with intrinsic value beyond what they contribute to the organization.
  10. Building Community: allowing followers to identify with something greater than themselves


Our Thoughts on the Essential Qualities of Servant Leadership

To lead well as a servant leader, lead yourself first and begin with the “inside-first. Build your ethical foundation. Define your personal values—they are your moral compass. Genuinely care for others even with all their human imperfections. Commit to serving others before yourself. Develop your empathy and emotional intelligence. Reflect and renew yourself in silence and sanctuary. Connect with something larger and better than yourself. Allow others to see your vulnerability.

It’s also important to be mindful of the traps and derailers that can cause leaders to go astray. Here are key things to avoid when leading:

  1. Ego. Our egos undermine our ability to serve. It’s not about us. We must keep our egos in check.
  2. Power. Using your authority and power in manipulative and authoritarian ways will almost always backfire.
  3. Hypocrisy. Saying one thing and doing another will erode trust. Having any privileges while your colleagues lack them undermines trust.
  4. Toxic behavior. Avoid harmful behaviors such as disrespecting others, withholding information, deceiving people, bullying, abusing power, passive-aggressiveness, and the like.
  5. Claiming humility. Humility can only be observed in you by others.
  6. Talking too much signals self-importance. Servant leaders are great listeners.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

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The Benefits of Servant Leadership

Effective servant leadership yields a powerful array of benefits, including:

  1. Trust. Bob Whipple, CEO of Leadergrow and known as the “Trust Ambassador,” after years of studying and practicing leadership, identified trust as the critical element for a leader to foster and elicit. People who believe a leader serves them will trust that leader.
  2. Commitment. People move from begrudging compliance to the dictates of the boss to voluntary commitment to the overarching aims of the organization and their leader.
  3. More Happiness and Good Health. Servant-led people find joy, happiness, and better health in their work.
  4. An Incredible Reservoir of Talent. As Bob said in his chapter in Reflections on Leadership, “There is absolutely no tough decision that can’t be implemented by such a group of united, committed volunteers under a servant-leader.”
  5. Justifiable Pride in Achievements. People in servant-led organizations find genuine pride in their collective accomplishments.
  6. Exceptional Results. Over our careers in many different industries and sectors, we’ve seen more sustainable growth, more efficient operations, superior financial results, and more satisfied stakeholders due to the practices of servant leadership.

In our view, servant leadership is superior to old-fashioned ways of leading people. It’s a powerful framework that can transform organizations and their people—including leaders. We heartily endorse servant leadership.


Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.


Tools for You


More Articles from Our Series on Servant Leadership

Postscript: Quotations on the Essential Qualities of Servant Leadership

  • “Servant leadership is not just another management technique. It is a way of life for those with servant hearts.” -Ken Blanchard
  • “Over the past 30 years I have come to understand that service is not just something you do. It’s what life is all about. Nothing is more important, or more meaningful or fulfilling, than loving and helping others.” -Dan Hedberg
  • “…the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” -Albert Schweitzer
  • “Service is the very purpose of life. It is the rent we pay for living on the planet.” -Marion Wright Edelman
  • “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” -John C. Maxwell

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Gregg Vanourek and Bob Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors (and son and father). They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps! Essential Qualities of Servant Leadership

2 thoughts on “The Essential Qualities of Servant Leadership”

  1. Great overview! Very helpful. Servant Leadership is the way to a better future in organizations. With leadership distrust rampant we need and transformation in leadership thought and practice. Thanks.

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