Characteristics of a Servant Leader

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As Gandhi stepped aboard a train one day, one of his shoes slipped off and landed on the track. He was unable to retrieve it as the train was moving. To the amazement of his companions, Gandhi calmly took off his other shoe and threw it back along the track to land close to the first. Asked by a fellow passenger why he did so, Gandhi smiled and  said, “The poor man who finds the shoe lying on the track will now have a pair he can use.”

Gandhi’s actions exemplified what it means to be a servant leader. Servant leadership begins, as Robert Greenleaf said, with “the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” It ends with the legacy a leader leaves in the lives of those whom he/she has served. As a leader, what are you doing to make a difference in the lives of those you lead?

Larry C. Spears, former CEO of the Greenleaf Center, identified ten characteristics of a servant-leader in his paper titled On Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders:

  • Listening: The servant-leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps clarify that will. He or she seeks to listen receptively to what is being said. Listening, coupled with regular periods of reflection, is essential to the growth of the servant-leader.
  • Empathy: The servant-leader strives to understand and empathize with others. People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirits.
  • Healing: Servant-leaders recognize that they also have an opportunity to “help make whole” those with whom they come in contact.
  • Awareness: General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader. Awareness also aids one in understanding issues involving ethics and values. It lends itself to being able to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position.
  • Persuasion: The servant-leader seeks to convince others rather than coerce compliance. The servant-leader is effective at building consensus within groups.
  • Conceptualization: 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.
  • Foresight: Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant-leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future.
  • Stewardship: Peter Block has defined stewardship as “holding something in trust for another.” Robert Greenleaf ‘s view of all institutions was one in which CEOs, staffs, and trustees all played significant roles in holding their institutions in trust for the greater good of society.
  • Commitment to the growth of people: Servant-leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers.As a result, the servant-leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within the institution.
  • Building community: The servant-leader seeks to identify some means for building community among those who work within a given institution.
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