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Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders

Author(s): Larry C. Spears  
Issue: 1  
Volume: 1  
Year: 2010

We are experiencing a rapid shift in many businesses and not-for-profit organizations— away from the more traditional autocratic and hierarchical models of leadership and toward servant leadership as a way of being in relationship with others. Servant leadership seeks to involve others in decision making, is strongly based in ethical and caring behavior, and enhances the growth of workers while improving the caring and quality of organizational life. This article examines a set of ten characteristics of the servant leader that are of critical importance. They are: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. This piece was originally published in 2000 in Volume 8, Issue 3 of Concepts and Connections, the newsletter of the National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs. It is reprinted here with permission.

Our fundamental understanding of character has much to do with the essential traits exhibited by a person. In recent years there has been a growing interest in the nature of character and character education, based upon a belief that positive character traits can be both taught and learned. Many people today are familiar with the Character Counts!(sm) program of the Josephson Institute of Ethics. That program has been adopted by a number of schools and communities nationwide and teaches core values which they call “Six Pillars of Character.” Those six particular character values are: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.

The nature of character and its relationship to leaders has also taken on increased significance in recent years. A number of noted leadership authors have looked at issues of a leader’s character. James Hillman (1996), in The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, describes the “invisible source of personal consistency, for which I am using the word `habit,’ psychology today calls character. Character refers to deep structures of personality that are particularly resistant to change” (p. 260).

The literature on leadership includes a number of different listings of character traits as practiced by leaders. I particularly like Warren Bennis’s (1989) short list as contained in his book, On Becoming a Leader, in which he identifies, “vision, inspiration, empathy and trustworthiness” as key characteristics of effective leaders (p. 140). Much of the leadership literature includes as an implicit assumption the belief that positive characteristics can-and-should be encouraged and practiced by leaders. Robert K. Greenleaf, the originator of the term, servant leadership, is someone who thought and wrote a great deal about the nature of servant leadership and character.

Servant Leadership and Character

The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived? (Greenleaf, 1977/2002, p. 27)

With that definition in 1970, retired AT&T executive Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) coined the term servant leadership and launched a quiet revolution in the way in which we view and practice leadership. Three decades later the concept of servant leadership is increasingly viewed as an ideal leadership form to which untold numbers of people and organizations aspire. In fact, we are witnessing today an unparalleled explosion of interest in, and practice of, servant leadership.

We are experiencing a rapid shift in many businesses and not-for-profit organizations—away from the more traditional autocratic and hierarchical models of leadership and toward servant leadership as a way of being in relationship with others. Servant leadership seeks to involve others in decision making, is strongly based in ethical and caring behavior, and enhances the growth of workers while improving the caring and quality of organizational life.

The words servant and leader are usually thought of as being opposites. In deliberately bringing those words together in a meaningful way, Robert Greenleaf gave birth to the paradoxical term servant leadership. In the years since then, many of today’s most creative thinkers are writing and speaking about servant leadership as an emerging leadership paradigm for the 21st century. The list is long and includes: James Autry, Warren Bennis, Peter Block, John Carver, Stephen Covey, Max DePree, Joseph Jaworski, James Kouzes, Larraine Matusak, Parker Palmer, M. Scott Peck, Peter Senge, Peter Vaill, Margaret Wheatley, and Danah Zohar, to name but a few of today’s cutting-edge leadership authors and advocates of servant leadership. In her groundbreaking book on quantum sciences and leadership, Rewiring the Corporate Brain (1997), Zohar goes so far as to state that, “Servant-leadership is the essence of quantum thinking and quantum leadership” (p. 146).

Ten Characteristics of a Servant Leader

After some years of carefully considering Greenleaf’s original writings, I have identified a set of ten characteristics of the servant leader that I view as being of critical importance—central to the development of servant-leaders. My own work currently involves a deepening understanding of the following characteristics and how they contribute to the meaningful practice of servant leadership. These ten characteristics include:


Leaders have traditionally been valued for their communication and decision-making skills. Although these are also important skills for the servant leader, they need to be reinforced by a deep commitment to listening intently to others. The servant leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps to clarify that will. He or she listens receptively to what is being said and unsaid. Listening also encompasses hearing one’s own inner voice. Listening, coupled with periods of reflection, is essential to the growth and well-being of the servant leader.


The servant leader strives to understand and empathize with others. People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirits. One assumes the good intentions of co-workers and colleagues and does not reject them as people, even when one may be forced to refuse to accept certain behaviors or performance. The most successful servant leaders are those who have become skilled empathetic listeners.


The healing of relationships 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 one’s relationship to others. Many people have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts. Although this is a part of being human, servant leaders recognize that they have an opportunity to help make whole those with whom they come in contact. In his essay, The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf (1977/2002) writes, “There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led, is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share” (p. 50).


General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader. Awareness helps one in understanding issues involving ethics, power, and values. It lends itself to being able to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position. As Greenleaf (1977/2002) 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 own inner serenity” (p. 41).


Another characteristic of servant leaders is reliance on persuasion, rather than on one’s positional authority, in making decisions within an organization. The servant leader seeks 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. This emphasis on persuasion over coercion finds its roots in the beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)—the denominational body to which Robert Greenleaf belonged.


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. For many leaders, this is a characteristic that requires discipline and practice. The traditional leader is consumed by the need to achieve short-term operational goals. The leader who wishes to also be a servant leader must stretch his or her thinking to encompass broader-based conceptual thinking. Within organizations, conceptualization is, by its very nature, a key role of boards of trustees or directors. Unfortunately, boards can sometimes become involved in the day-to-day operations—something that should be discouraged—and, thus, fail to provide the visionary concept for an institution. Trustees need to be mostly conceptual in their orientation, staffs need to be mostly operational in their perspective, and the most effective executive leaders probably need to develop both perspectives within themselves. Servant leaders are called to seek a delicate balance between conceptual thinking and a day-to-day operational approach.


Closely related to conceptualization, the ability to foresee the likely outcome of asituation is hard to define, but easier to identify. One knows foresight when oneexperiences it. Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant leader to understandthe lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of adecision for the future. It is also deeply rooted within the intuitive mind. Foresightremains a largely unexplored area in leadership studies, but one most deserving of carefulattention.


Peter Block (1993)—author of Stewardship and The Empowered Manager—hasdefined stewardship as “holding something in trust for another” (p. xx). RobertGreenleaf’s view of all institutions was one in which CEO’s, staffs, and trustees allplayed significant roles in holding their institutions in trust for the greater good ofsociety. Servant leadership, like stewardship, assumes first and foremost a commitment to serving the needs of others. It also emphasizes the use of openness and persuasion, ratherthan control.

Commitment to the Growth of People

Servant leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As such, the servant leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within his or her organization. The servant leader recognizes the tremendous responsibility to do everything in his or her power to nurture the personal                and professional growth of employees and colleagues. In practice, this can include (but is not limited to) concrete actions such as making funds available for personal and professional development, taking a personal interest in the ideas and suggestions from everyone, encouraging worker involvement in decision-making, and actively assisting laid-off employees to find other positions.

Building Community

The servant leader senses that much has been lost in recent human history as a result of the shift from local communities to large institutions as the primary shaper of human lives. This awareness causes the servant leader to seek to identify some means for building community among those who work within a given institution. Servant leadership suggests that true community can be created among those who work in businesses and other institutions. Greenleaf (1977/2002) 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 or her unlimited liability for a quite specific community-related group. (p. 53)


These ten characteristics of servant leadership are by no means exhaustive. However, they do serve to communicate the power and promise that this concept offers to those who are open to its invitation and challenge.

Interest in the meaning and practice of servant leadership continues to grow. Hundreds of books, articles, and papers on the subject have now been published. Many of the companies named to Fortune Magazine’s annual listing of “The 100 Best Companies to Work For” espouse servant leadership and have integrated it into their corporate cultures. As more and more organizations and people have sought to put servant leadership into practice, the work of The Spears Center for Servant-Leadership continues to expand in order to help meet that need.

Servant leadership characteristics often occur naturally within many individuals; and, like many natural tendencies, they can be enhanced through learning and practice. Servant leadership offers great hope for the future in creating better, more caring, institutions.

About the Author

Larry C. Spears is the president and CEO of The Larry C. Spears Center for Servant-Leadership ( He served as the president and CEO of The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership from 1990-2007. He is also a writer and editor who has published hundreds of articles, essays, newsletters, books, and other publications on servant leadership.



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