10 Characteristics of Servant Leadership

The key characteristics of servant leadership can present an effective leadership strategy when carried out effectively

10 Characteristics of Servant Leadership - training mag

Robert Greenleaf first wrote an essay that later became his book titled Servant Leadership: a Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. He introduced the term ‘servant leadership’ into the business literature for the first time and caused some controversy in the corporate boardroom while added some value among the religious clergy.

Greenleaf, was not only a scholar, servant leadership came out of his work experiences at organizations such as MIT and the influence of Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. Greenleaf largely gained his insights through the central character of ‘Leo,’ who becomes a servant leader and speaks about the Law of Service: He who wishes to live long must serve, but he who wishes to rule does not live long. Greenleaf recognized the main message of this story and concluded that “the central meaning of it was that a great leader has experience as a servant to others, and he felt that this fact is central to his or her greatness. True leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a deep desire to help others.”

The key for executives and change practitioners is that servant leaders are those who turn the organizational chart upside down, putting the customers at the top. For instance, Greenleaf argues that the great leader is seen as a servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his or her greatness. The advantages of the servant leadership model are its altruism, simplicity, and self-awareness. It emphasizes the moral sense of concern for others, reducing the complexity engendered by putting personal desires in conflict with those of followers. Servant leadership can be clearly seen as rooted in the clerical leadership perspective in that Christ’s leadership when Greenleaf says that the words “service,” “to serve” and “servant” occur over 1300 times in the revised version of the St. James bible. For example, Jesus once said:

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to place his life as a ransom for many.”

The servant leadership model

The servant leadership model highlights Jesus as an ultimate example of a servant leader and suggests applying the leadership insights that Jesus gives us within organizations. According to the model, service to others is the pathway to real significance. Executives and change practitioners need to first know that Eric Russell in his book, In Command of Guardians: Executive Servant Leadership for the Community of Responders, concentrates on the characteristics of a servant leader, and recommends 10 fundamental characteristics

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasion
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the growth of people, and;
  10. Building community.

The key characteristics of the servant leadership model mentioned above, when carried out correctly, can present effective leadership. These fundamental characteristics represent how an effective leader working in today’s changing situations can successfully manage and develop corporations.

Critiques of the leadership model

Greenleaf himself is one scholar that critiques this leadership model and acknowledges some criticisms about it, and posits that:

“In a time of crisis, like the leadership crisis we are now in today, if too many potential builders are taken in by a complete absorption with dissecting the wrong and by a zeal for instant perfection, then the movement so many of us want to see will be set back. The danger, perhaps, is to hear the analyst too much and artist too little.”

The servant leadership model has not evaded the criticism by scholars such as Helena Liu that normally are associated with leadership models and theories. This model has been challenged for a lack of adequate empirical studies to substantiate its academic rigor and is often shelved as a learning tool as opposed to a leadership application. An example of this scholarly debate, servant leadership is systematically undefined and lacking in empirical support necessary for managerial implementation. The existing literature on servant leadership is filled with anecdotal evidence and that empirical research is critically needed to substantial the use of it in the boardroom of large corporations. Servant leadership is criticized for gender bias in its theoretical perspectives. Also, it is necessary for executives and change practitioners to be aware that servant leadership is criticized as being inapplicable for real-world scenarios.


In conclusion, sure, there are critics of this leadership model, but do not let that stop you from implementing it and learning how to master it. The servant leadership model has its roots in helping others and providing hope in an environment that seems to be not only hypercompetitive but also elusive for companies to find a stronghold. This leadership model is about shifting away from the old paradigm of a hierarchical pyramid-shaped organization. The key for executives and change practitioners is that all leaders should serve their organization to provide the customer and shareholder with the best possible service. Thus, when looking at servant leadership from a new perspective, executives and change practitioners not only should be aware of this leadership model but place more emphasis on applying what works best for companies in the current work environment.


Greenleaf, R.K. (1977), Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, Nahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Hesse, H. (1932), The Journey to the East: A Novel, Trans, New York, NY: Picadorusa.

Liu, H. (2017), Just the Servant: An Intersectional Critique of Servant Leadership, Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 156, pp. 1099-1112.

Russell, E.J. (2017), In Command of Guardians: Executive Servant Leadership for the Community of Responders, Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Mostafa Sayyadi, CAHRI, AFAIM, CPMgr
Mostafa Sayyadi, CAHRI, AFAIM, CPMgr, works with senior business leaders to effectively develop innovation in organizations, and helps companies—from start-ups to the Fortune 100—succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders. He is a business book author and long-time contributor to HR.com and Consulting Magazine.