Becoming a Servant Leader: 10 Key Characteristics

Can anyone become a servant leader? The short answer is “Yes.” One of the tenets of servant leadership is that anyone can become a servant leader and that servant leadership can be learned and coached. According to Larry C. Spears, former president of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, in his book, Practicing Servant Leadership, and summarized by Richard Podsada, there are ten key characteristics shared by servant leaders:

  1. In reading about servant leadership, you learn that servant leaders are known for their communications and decision-making skills. But those skills both rely on leaders’ deep commitment to intentional listening. The servant-leader seeks out diverse voices to hear the voice of the community, and questions carefully to find clarity around that voice. Intentional listening combined with skillful questioning is essential to the effectiveness of the servant leader.
  2. The servant-leader strives to understand, accept, and celebrate people as individuals with unique situations and contributions, inside and outside of the workplace. Servant leaders can put aside their viewpoint, to appreciate other perspectives. Keeping an open mind to other viewpoints leads to effective problem-solving.
  3. Servant leaders recognize that people come from different backgrounds, and may have suffered many emotional and spiritual wounds. Servant leaders strive to heal those wounds and help to make whole the people with whom they come into contact.
  4. Servant leaders are self-aware and aware of what is happening around them. That awareness leads to being able to evaluate situations in a way that integrates personal values. As Greenleaf observed: “Awareness is not a giver of solace–it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed. They are not seekers after solace. They have their inner serenity.”
  5. Servant-leaders rely on persuasion rather than positional authority in making decisions and motivating people. The servant leader builds consensus within groups. This “Sell, Don’t Tell” characteristic is one of the fundamental distinctions between servant leadership and the traditional power-leadership model.
  6. Servant leaders go beyond the day-to-day reality to paint the picture of the potential future for the organization. This might be one of the challenging characteristics for servant leaders to develop, calling for a delicate balance between operations and future planning.
  7. Servant leaders all have foresight, or the ability to take lessons learned from the past, apply them to the present, and understand the likely outcome regarding decisions for the future.
  8. First and foremost, servant leaders are committed to serving the needs of others for the greater good of the community. Peter Block has defined stewardship as “holding something in trust for another,” and servant leaders assume that trust in their lives, both inside and outside of the organization.
  9. Commitment to the growth of people. Servant-leaders are deeply committed to the personal and professional growth of every individual within the institution. Servant leaders understand employees holistically and work to maximize their contributions by developing their skills, as well as their personal well-being.
  10. Building community. The servant leader understands the benefits of the community to individuals and works to build community with the workplace. Again, as Greenleaf said: “All that is needed to rebuild 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 own unlimited liability for a quite specific community-related group.”

Servant leadership turns the power pyramid upside down; instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. The key to transforming traditional organizations to servant leader led organizations is to institutionalize these ten characteristics. Training, coaching, self-inquiry, information, and assessment are necessary to develop servant leaders. It won’t happen overnight – but it can be done.

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