Tip #70 Additional Characteristics of Servant-Leaders

July 1, 2021  |  tips for effective boards

In this Tips for Effective Boards, we will describe four additional characteristics of servant-leaders. In our next Tips for Effective Boards 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.       Collaborate and share power with others. Servant-leaders engage with others in an honest non-manipulative manner. In groups, they prefer consensus decision-making where practical. They prefer persuasion to direction, providing others the space and opportunity to evolve their own thinking. They embrace and promote non-authoritarian participative organizational structures with employee empowerment.

2.       See the big picture. Servant-leaders are able to “zoom out” from individual situations and events to appreciate patterns, the context within which individual events occur, the interrelationships and interconnectedness among people and among things, and the meaning of the whole as extending beyond the sum of the parts. Servant-leaders recognize that faulty systems rather than faulty employees are most often the source of problems in the workplace. Servant-leaders have the discipline and inclination to rise above everyday reality, develop a conceptualizing perspective, dream great dreams, and see the big picture.  

3.       Exercise foresight. Foresight involves systematically analyzing the past and current trends and projecting possible futures that can be effectively influenced or adjusted to. According to Robert Greenleaf, not to engage in foresight “may be viewed as an ethical failure.” (Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, 2002 Edition, p. 39) Without foresight an individual or organization fails to be proactive while still able to prepare to be able to seize an opportunity or to avoid a future crisis situation.

4.       Become the change. Servant-leaders recognize that change starts “in here” with the servant-leaders themselves. They understand that changing oneself is not contingent upon others. The biggest problem is not “bad people,” but good people who don’t choose to get involved in making positive change. Servant-leaders exercise servant-leadership in their own corners of the world. As Mahatma Gandhi has said, “Be the change you want to see.”


In our previous Tips for Effective Boards, we discussed the following three characteristics of servant-leaders: 1) focus on and care about others, 2) listen to understand and learn from others, and 3) withdraw for reflection. (Check these out in Tips for Effective Boards #69.) 


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.