Tip #69 Characteristics of Servant-Leaders

June 1, 2021  |  tips for effective boards

In this and the following Tips for Effective Boards, we will describe seven characteristics of servant-leaders. Then we will turn to a discussion of what it means for boards to embrace the philosophy or approach of servant-leadership as a guiding principle for their board governance.


1.       Focus on and care about others. Servant-leadership is not a bag of tools or tips that anyone can use but is grounded in a deep inner genuine disposition of being of service to others. When in a leadership role, servant-leaders embody this inner disposition to serve. Servant-leaders are concerned about addressing the needs of others and how their actions can impact others (family members, friends, co-workers, those being supervised, customers, and any others impacted by them or their organizations). Servant-leaders accept others as they are with their limitations and empathize with them. Their focus is on others. They embrace true humility which has been described as “not thinking less of yourself but as thinking of yourself less.” (found in Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life; often misattributed to C. S. Lewis)


2.       Listen to understand and learn from others. Servant-leaders listen attentively, don’t interrupt, suspend judgment until they understand, check to make sure they are understanding others (message content and feelings), and attend to body language/non-verbal expressions (their own and others). As expressed in the Prayer of St. Francis, servant-leaders seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. They recognize that they have much to learn from others and strive to ask the right questions.


3.       Withdraw for reflection. Servant-leaders make time for periods of reflection. They allow time and space for ideas to simmer and for insight to occur. They avoid snap decisions and abrupt responses whenever possible.


In our next Tips for Effective Boards, we’ll focus on four additional key characteristics of servant-leaders: 1) collaborate and share power with others, 2) see the big picture, 3) exercise foresight, and 4) become the change.


Note that there is not one official list of servant-leader characteristics. Robert K. Greenleaf, the originator of servant-leadership in recent times, never articulated such a list. I’ve identified seven key characteristics that speak to me. Different servant-leadership writers have come up with different (though similar) lists. You may find it helpful to review an excellent brief article by Larry Spears titled “Ten Characteristics of a Servant-Leader.” Click on www.spearscenter.org. In the left hand column of the Spears Center homepage click on “Ten Characteristics of a Servant-Leader.” Larry Spears is a former long-term director of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, current President and CEO of the Larry C. Spears Center for Servant-Leadership, teaches graduate courses in servant-leadership at Gonzaga University, and is recognized as one of the leading scholars in servant-leadership worldwide.


To learn more about servant-leadership, google servant-leadership or Robert K. Greenleaf or visit the Spears Center for Servant-Leadership: www.spearscenter.org.      


To learn more about the Policy Governance® model, please click https://www.BoardsOnCourse.com/policy-governance.