The Grey Chronicles


Understanding Servant Leadership: Characteristics

“When broken down into its most simple dimensions,” Sarah Bodner observes:

“Servant Leadership is nothing more than an upside down pyramid. … The pyramid represents the traditional hierarchy of organizations – The leader at the top and the followers at the bottom. … This may seem a bit radical to some and downright ludicrous to others—that is the difference between a Servant Leader and any other type of leader. A Servant Leader is willing to put themselves last and to try new ideas—whatever it takes to best serve those whom they lead.” (Bodner, 2006: 5)

Larry C. Spears, President & CEO, The Spears Center and CEO of The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership identified a set of ten characteristics that are critical to servant leadership. Based from Robert K. Greenleaf’s original writings, these ten characteristics are:

1. Listening “Traditionally, leaders have been valued for their communication and decision making skills. Servant-leaders must reinforce these important skills by making a deep commitment to listening intently to others. Servant-leaders seek to identify and clarify the will of a group. They seek to listen receptively to what is being and said (and not said). Listening also encompasses getting in touch with one’s inner voice, and seeking to understand what one’s body, spirit, and mind are communicating.”

2. Empathy “Servant-leaders strive to understand and empathize with others. People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirit. One must assume the good intentions of coworkers and not reject them as people, even when forced to reject their behavior or performance.”

3. Healing “Learning to heal is a powerful force for transformation and integration. One of the great strengths of servant-leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and others. In The Servant as Leader (1977; 1982; 1991), Greenleaf writes, “There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between the servant-leader and led is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something that they have.

4. Awareness “General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader. Making a commitment to foster awareness can be scary—one never knows that one may discover! As Greenleaf observed, “Awareness is not a giver of solace – it’s just the opposite. It disturbed. They are not seekers of solace. They have their own inner security.

5. Persuasion “Servant-leaders rely on persuasion, rather than positional authority in making decisions. Servant-leaders seek to convince others, rather than coerce compliance. This particular element offers one of the clearest distinctions between the traditional authoritarian model and that of servant-leadership. The servant-leader is effective at building consensus within groups.”

6. Conceptualization “Servant-leaders seek to nurture their abilities to "dream great dreams." The ability to look at a problem (or an organization) from a conceptualizing perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities. Servant-leaders must seek a delicate balance between conceptualization and day-to-day focus.”

7. Foresight “Foresight is a characteristic that enables servant-leaders to understand lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision in the future. It is deeply rooted in the intuitive mind.”

8. Stewardship “Robert Greenleaf’s view of all institutions was one in which CEO’s, staff, directors, and trustees all play significance roles in holding their institutions in trust for the great good of society.”

9. Commitment to the Growth of People “Servant-leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As such, Servant-leaders are deeply committed to a personal, professional, and spiritual growth of each and every individual within the organization.”

10. Building Community “Servant-leaders are aware that the shift from local communities to large institutions as the primary shaper of human lives has changed our perceptions and caused a send of loss. Servant-leaders seek to identify a means for building community among those who work within a given institution.” (Spears, 2000)

Even though the ten characteristics given above are rather straight-forward, still several misconceptions about servant-leadership make its understanding and acceptance more difficult. Dr. Hamilton Beazley (2006) explains:

1. Servant-leadership is a weak form of leadership. Quite the opposite. It is a strong leadership style that requires discipline, strength, and character. This misconception arises from the notion of servanthood as weak rather than fundamentally strong. The person who aspires to lead as an act of service rather than an indulgence of the ego must be willing to listen, to be wrong, and to follow when more effective leaders emerge. Servant-leadership is not a form of servitude; it does not require us to be doormats. Instead, it requires us to act on strong principles that may bring dismay or even hostility to those who follow.

2. Only powerful people can be servant-leaders. Servant-leadership is not a form of leadership that only works from the top-down. By its very nature, servant-leadership is meant to infuse an organization. Transformation can begin at the lowest levels of an organization as well as at its highest, although, of course, the implementation of any form of leadership is facilitated by buy-in from top management.

3. [Service Leadership] is not the same as service leadership which is based in service rather than serving. The nuance is important. One can be of service without being a servant. One cannot, on the other hand, be a servant without being of service. Servant-leadership requires a commitment to helping other people achieve their highest potential, which is a more complex goal than merely being of service to them.

4. Servant-leadership sounds good in theory, but it’s not practical. Servant-leadership is practicality itself because of its profound effect on organizations and those who work for them. Servant-leadership is based on pragmatic principles that have been judged valid for centuries and that are consonant with both religious traditions and secular philosophies that describe the way in which people are to interact with one another. Servant-leadership has been tested in for-profit and non-profit organizations and has proven superior to obsolete, autocratic styles of management, particularly in an area of rapid change. To suggest that servant-leadership is impractical is the same as to say that honesty is nice in theory, but it’s impractical in the real world.

To develop servant-leaders, John E. Barbuto & Daniel W. Wheeler (2007) note:

“Some characteristics come more naturally to some people than to others. By their nature, characteristics such as calling, empathy, healing and stewardship are more difficult to learn and develop than other servant leadership characteristics. These are characteristics that leaders must already have to be successful servant leaders. Characteristics such as listening, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, growth and building community all are learnable skills, so servant leaders can continually develop these.” [Italics in the original.] (2007: 3).

Similarly, Sarah Bodner (2006: 9) with the same general insight writes:

The only thing necessary to begin on the journey of Servant Leadership is an honest desire to make things better and an open mind and heart. Servant Leadership is a long process—what you don’t have when you start, you will pick up somewhere along the line.” (Bodner, 2006: 9).

Peter Block, in his keynote address (2005) during an International Servant-Leadership Conference, held in Indianapolis, Indiana:

“The spirit of servant-leadership values the idea of surrender; it says that the action and the orientation is not where we thought it was, the cause is not where we thought it was. … servant leadership, the spirit of that, is a leadership that confronts people with their freedom. … The task of servant-leadership, in my mind, is, “Change the conversation, change the future.”

“The operational expression of transformation is to create a future distinct from the past. The act of love is to confront people with their freedom through the conversations they have with each other. Most of our organizations and communities are parent-child, boss-subordinate, mayor-citizen conversations—we think that matters. We think the boss-subordinate relationship matters, but I don’t think it does. I’m going to spend the next ten years thinking that maybe the subordinate-to-subordinate, the peer-to-peer relationship is the only thing that counts. I’m going to spend the next ten years of my life fussing over how to have an impact on how peers and citizens deal with each other, and let the bosses be. We put a burden on leaders and bosses that’s unbearable, literally unbearable. We make them the cause of everything. We think bosses are responsible for the emotional well being of their subordinates.”


Barbuto, John E. & Wheeler, Daniel W. (2007). Becoming a Servant Leader:Do You Have What It Takes?, NebGuide. Nebraska: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, October 2007. p. 3. back to text.

Beazley, Hamilton (2009). Misconceptions About Servant-Leadership. Austin CC, January 2006. back to text.

Block, Peter (2005). Servant-Leadership: Creating an Alternative Future. Keynote address, 2005 International Servant-Leadership Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana. Published in The International Journal of Servant-Leadership, 2: 1. 2006 by Larry Spears and Shann Ferch (Gonzaga University in collaboration with The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership) back to text.

Bodner, Sarah L. (2006). Servant Leadership: The Complexity of a Simple Idea. Augusta, GA: Pyramid ODI, February 2006. pp. 2—9. back to text: 1 | 2.

Frick, Don M. & Spears, Larry C. (1996). On becoming a servant-leader: The private writings of Robert K. Greenleaf. D. M. Frick & L. C. Spears, [eds.]. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996. 37pp. back to text.

Greenleaf, Robert K. (1977). The servant as leader, Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Larry C. Spears [ed.]. New York: Paulist Press, 1977. pp. 21—44. back to text.

Greenleaf, Robert K. (1982). The Servant as Leader. Robert K. Greenleaf Center, June 1982. 37pp. back to text.

Greenleaf, Robert K. (1991). The servant as leader. Revised ed. Indianapolis, Ind.: Robert K. Greenleaf Center, 1991. pp. 9—20.back to text.

Spears, Larry C. (2000). Character and Servant-Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders, Concepts & Connections. 8: 3. Maryland: National Clearninghouse for Leadership Programs, University of Maryland, 2000. back to text.

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 LicenseDisclaimer: The posts herein do not necessarily represent any organization’s positions, strategies or opinions. Read the full version of self-imposed rules for this blog: A New Year; New Rules. Unless otherwise expressly stated, the posts are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
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