The eight characteristics of a servant leader

“…servant leaders apply listening and compassion to build trustful relationships and to empower followers” – Coetzer, Bussin & Geldenhuys (2017)

Servant leadership has gained a certain prominence in the media in recent years. Publication of books such as Simon Sinek’s hugely popular ‘Leaders eat last’ offer up a style of leadership that is anathema to that which we’re seeing on a daily basis, particularly in the political world. However, some of the servant leadership rhetoric can make it feel like something that is unattainable, or that it’s only for those in specific roles.

Which is why it’s helpful that a fairly recent comprehensive research study, published in 2017, explored the characteristics and competencies of servant leadership. This gives us a helpful map with which to develop servant leaders in organisations and wider society in the 21st century. This also goes hand-in-hand with self-compassion. As Karol M Wasylyshyn and Frank Masterpasqua said in a recent article on self-compassion in leadership in the International Coaching Psychology Review,

“This involved state of leadership should strengthen their abilities to inspire, motivate, recruit and retain the talented employees they need to manage the demands of 21st century business dynamics”

The research

The South African research team carried out a systematic literature review which saw them forensically analyse 87 different studies. Over 60% of the studies were quantitative, with the rest being made up of qualitative studies, literature type studies and mixed-method studies.

The researchers used these studies to answer four questions whereby the answers were used to build a conceptual framework:

  1. What are the characteristics of a servant leader?
  2. What are the competencies of a servant leader?
  3. How is servant leadership measured?
  4. What organisational outcomes are linked to servant leadership?

Underpinning this was the idea of servant leadership having strategic and operational facets, namely:

  • Strategic servant leadership is focused on setting, translating and executing a higher purpose vision; and on becoming a role model and ambassador.
  • Operational servant leadership is focused on aligning, caring for and growing talent; and continuously monitoring and improving performance.

The findings

“A servant leader should therefore listen first to understand individual needs before applying compassion to provide the necessary support to activate individual talent” – Coetzer, Bussin & Geldenhuys (2017)


Eight characteristics were identified:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Humility
  3. Compassion
  4. Accountability
  5. Courage
  6. Altruism
  7. Integrity
  8. Listening


Four competencies were identified:

  1. Empowerment, which included descriptors such as developing others, providing clear direction and creating an effective work environment.
  2. Stewardship, which was defined as taking accountability for the common interest of others, and leaving a positive legacy.
  3. Building relationships was seen as a fundamental role of the servant leader, underpinned by effective communication and collaboration.
  4. Compelling vision was identified as the ability to make sense of past, present and future to create and communicate a higher vision which creates value for the wider community.


The research team identified 10 different servant leadership measures. Psychometric tools included:


Outcomes were clustered into three categories:

a) Individual outcomes: Servant leaders were seen as more likely to display and build trust, commitment, innovative behaviour, job satisfaction and work-life balance; and in addition, have better relationships with employees through engagement.

b) Team outcomes: The review found a positive relationship between servant leadership and group organisational citizenship behaviour; levels of group identification; creating a service-oriented climate and culture; and developing a climate of fairness and equality.

c) Organisational outcomes: Servant leaders were more likely to have better levels of customer service satisfaction and sales performance in their organisations.

Implications and solutions

As Jeffrey J Haynie and colleagues stated in their 2018 article on caring leaders,

“Leader empathy, which can emerge from leader empathic concern, has been indicated as an increasingly important skill for being able to attend to the widespread needs and demographics of today’s workforce”

In other words, developing a servant leadership culture could give your organisation the competitive edge. Here are some ideas to help you:

  1. Develop a leadership programme based on the core characteristics and competencies identified by research and summarised in this blog post.
  2. Work with a coach to assess where you are against the servant leadership characteristics. You can either use the tools referenced in this blog post or ask your coach to create a simple 360-degree feedback style questionnaire.
  3. Conduct an audit of your organisational culture – measuring the key aspects of servant leadership against the outcome measures such as organisational commitment and customer satisfaction.
  4. Carry out team-level analysis, identifying team leaders who exemplify servant leadership characteristics and competencies and buddying them up with team leaders who need development in servant leadership.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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