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10 Characteristics of a Servant Leader

Boy walking by servant leader Nelson Mandela's mural (© AP Images)
In Johannesburg, a young boy walks in front of a tribute mural to Nelson Mandela. Mandela embodied all of the characteristics of a servant leader.


From greedy executives to despotic rulers, we’ve all seen examples of poor leadership. But we’ve also seen the examples of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. — servant leaders who were able to accomplish great things by putting people first.

To help YALI Network members on their paths toward servant leadership, we’ve curated a list of characteristics that define servant leaders based on Robert K. Greenleaf’s seminal essay. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a start!

  1. Listens actively: A servant leader’s first response to any problem is to listen. He or she seeks to identify the will of the group and helps clarify that will by listening. When they listen, they does so intently. He or she does not multitask or interrupt, but truly strives to understand the speaker.

  2. Prioritizes: Can you separate the important from the unimportant? What about the important from the urgent? A servant leader can withdraw from the  present situation and prioritize his responsibilities. And they handle their most pressing duties with the knowledge that there may be consequences for neglecting the less pressing ones.

  3. Accepts others: A servant leader accept others as they are, where they are. They assume that people have good intentions, and they value the unique skills, attributes and contributions of each individual. A servant leader does not, however, accept disruptive behaviors or poor performance. They recognize the difference between accepting a person and accepting his actions.

  4. Guesses correctly: Every day, leaders have to make decisions without enough information, the right information or sufficient time. Servant leaders bridge this information gap through intuition. They look for patterns, they revisit history and they make educated guesses about the best course of action. Most importantly, servant leaders understand that these educated guesses are just that — guesses — and they are willing to change course if necessary.

  5. Foresees the future: Servant leaders have a better than average ability to predict the likely outcome of a situation. Closely related to intuition, foresight refers to a leader’s ability to understand the past and present to predict the future. Without this ability, a leader would lose his characteristic “lead.”

  6. Possesses awareness: To maintain strong intuition and foresight, a servant leader must know what’s going on. He or she must have an awareness of world history, current events, industry standards and his own organization. They must have a sense of self and of those he leads. In short, a servant leader must be awake.

  7. Adapts readily: Servant leaders have a keen understanding of the past, but don’t model their leadership style after a historical figure. Instead, they adapt to the time, place and problem. They invent a unique role that both meets the needs of their followers and relies heavily upon their own strengths.

  8. Sets a vision: A servant leader is not afraid of failure. On the contrary, they initiate a course of action, provides the structure and accepts the risks. As Greenleaf wrote, “A leader says: ‘I will go; follow me!’ while knowing that the path is uncertain, even dangerous.”

  9. Persuades others: Another distinctive characteristic of the servant leader is his reliance on persuasion. Instead of using their position to coerce others, a servant leader is able to convince his followers by demonstrating the compelling benefits of his vision.

  10. Empowers others: A commitment to empowering others is the hallmark of a servant leader. They are able to promote and encourage personal and professional growth in the people she leads. They are healthier, wiser and more likely to become servant leaders themselves. When a leader sees these qualities emerge in their followers, they have become a successful servant leader.

Source: The Servant as Leader by Robert K. Greenleaf