The Character Traits of a Servant Leader

Servant leaders understand the power of stewardship. Stewardship is the willingness to be accountable for the well-being of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than self-interest, of those around us. It’s about being accountable to serving the greater good, instead of controlling people and processes.

In organizational contexts, serving others can take many forms. Authentic service is experienced when: a) there is a balance of power – employees are given the freedom to act on their own choices (acts of compliance do not serve those around us or the larger organization); b) the primary commitment is to the larger system or community (focusing constant attention on the individual or a small team breeds self-centeredness and entitlement); c) all stakeholders have a voice in defining purpose and deciding what kind of culture an organization will become (people shape the future together); and d) there is a balanced and equitable distribution of rewards (every level of an organization shares in creating its wealth and expanding its resources). Without these elements, no genuine service-oriented mindset can be performed.

Some of the most effective servant leaders (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Jesus Christ) understood how to put other people before themselves. They made choices that impacted others, and had a strong commitment to the greater good. They put themselves in positions to leave a lasting legacy with those around them. They never acted with selfish motives or personal desires and ambitions.

Some of the most impactful servant leaders that I’ve worked with understand that good stewardship is made and weighed in the heart. They know that it involves empowerment. Empowerment embodies the belief that the answer to the latest crisis lies within each of us, and therefore, we can work collaboratively to get to a positive outcome.

Ultimately, the best servant leaders make the choice of service over self-interest. They are willing to commit to something outside of themselves. To be part of creating something that they truly care about, so to endure the sacrifice, risk, and opportunity that commitment entails. This is the deeper meaning of service.

If you want to be a better servant leader, here are the five character traits you can put into practice to strengthen your stewardship.

  1. Putting Others Before Self: Servant leaders are not selfish. They don’t act out of self-interest. They look for opportunities to help people to learn and grow. They want what is best for the organization, and look to serve the greater good. To develop this character trait, look for ways to have an impact beyond what will benefit you personally. Work with others to develop team and organizational-level goals and objectives. Develop a vision that will impact many people rather than a select few.
  2. Remaining Positive and Optimistic in all Circumstances: Servant leaders energize others. They give people a purpose and sense of mission. They shape a positive vision for the future, and help others move towards that outcome. Their optimism is demonstrated daily. It’s sparks passion and commitment from people. To strengthen your leadership in this area practice being a source of support and encourage to others. Give people a sense of hope during challenging and difficult times.
  3. Taking Time to Learn about Others: Servant leaders build strong relationships. They have a genuine interest in learning about others. They have high emotional intelligence and empathy. They take time with people to establish rapport, develop trust, and cultivate influence. They want to know about peoples’ strengths and development opportunities so that they can help them to grow. To develop this trait, look for opportunities to learn more about your people. Take time for monthly one-on-one’s. Bring the team together to share ideas and learn from one another.
  4. Commitment to Developing People: Servant leaders are good coaches. They make time for people and give them opportunities to enhance their talents and capabilities. They put people on stretch assignments to be challenged and to grow. They believe that a key task of service is to share their insights and learnings down through an organization. They have a desire to share with others what has helped make their journey successful. They typically ask the question, “How do I instill in others the same vision and behaviors that have worked well for me?” To grow in this area, find people that you can coach or mentor. Make the growth and development of people one of your highest callings as a leader.
  5. Serving as a Positive Role Model: Servant leaders are consistent. They operate with the highest degree of integrity and ethics. They practice the three C’s of consistency: a) character – showing up the same way each day, and operating from a strong moral compass; b) conscience – they are intentional in their actions. If they make and error, or fail to keep a commitment, they own the behavior and take action to rectify the situation; and c) courage – they are determined and persistent in the face of setbacks and obstacles. They’re willing to make sacrifices for the great good. To strengthen your leadership in this area, practice what you preach. Don’t expect others to do things that you wouldn’t do yourself. Model the types of behavior that you want others to follow.

We live in a time where many leaders are driven by self-interest. If you want to be more of a servant leader, and leave a lasting positive legacy with others, practice developing these character traits.

For more information on servant leadership, contact Bandelli & Associates at

Leadership Matters. Without It, People Fail.