8 Characteristics of Effective Servant Leadership

A business leader utilizing the servant leadership style
A business leader utilizing the servant leadership style

Servant leadership is present in every industry. The Container Store, 7-Eleven, Mayo Clinic, Marriott International and Southwest Airlines are among the U.S. companies that have publicly expressed valuing servant leadership.

Servant leadership is on the rise. With increased remote work and videoconferencing, leaders have gained a first-hand perspective of peoples' challenges in integrating their personal and professional lives. As a result, some leaders have decided to lead with greater empathy.

Organizations in the 21st century are navigating technological disruption, pressure to operate sustainably and ethically and ongoing crisis management stemming from COVID-19. Servant leadership is particularly suited to address these challenges. Servant leaders can help people and organizations thrive by honoring diverse perspectives, fostering collaboration and prioritizing the well-being of employees and communities.

This blog post explores the benefits of servant leadership and the characteristics of influential servant leaders. It also explains how professionals can become more effective, people-focused leaders through a Doctor of Education in Leadership program.


What is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy developed by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s. It prioritizes people over profits. Servant leaders develop, empower and ensure the well-being of people in their organizations.

This type of leadership is rooted in the idea that individual growth drives collective success. When servant leaders empower employees to grow, employees feel included and valued. As a result, they try their best to achieve organizational objectives.

Servant leadership is a transformational leadership style. Transformational leadership inspires people to grow and innovate. On the other hand, transactional leadership incentivizes people to produce optimal outcomes through rewards, penalties and close supervision.

Read about the pros and cons of transactional and transformational leadership styles.


What Are the Benefits of Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership focuses on people, but its benefits extend beyond individual growth to organizational success. By prioritizing people's needs, servant leaders can improve employee turnover, productivity and ethical behavior.


Job Satisfaction

Servant leadership can grow employees’ job satisfaction. When team members feel valued and respected, they are less likely to leave their jobs. For example, employees were 50 percent less likely to leave their jobs in Jason’s Deli stores with servant leaders.



Servant leadership creates positive work environments that promote collaboration and teamwork, enhancing efficiency and productivity. In a study of 304 employees at five banks, servant leadership improved goal and process clarity and team potency, the collective belief that a team is capable of achieving its goals.


Ethical Behavior

Servant leadership prioritizes peoples’ needs over profits. This fosters a more ethical and socially responsible culture, which can boost employee and customer engagement.


What Are the Characteristics of a Servant Leader?

Servant leaders have several key traits and behaviors for effective leadership. They prioritize understanding others’ perspectives and needs while fostering a culture of trust and empowerment. They also leverage past experiences for strategic planning, promote collaboration and continuously seek opportunities for personal and organizational growth.


1. Empathy

Servant leaders are empathetic. They strive to understand and validate others’ thoughts, feelings and perspectives.

Consider an employee who has missed several deadlines recently. Instead of penalizing the employee, a servant leader addresses the root cause. They may help the employee improve their time management, gain additional knowledge and skills or delegate to others.


2. Listening Skills

Servant leadership involves active listening. The goal is to understand not only the facts but the feelings and values being communicated.

Servant leaders pay close attention to speakers, responding and reflecting on what they say.

Active listening involves:

  • Maintaining eye contact.
  • Not interrupting.
  • Affirming the speaker verbally or by nodding.
  • Asking clarifying questions.
  • Paraphrasing and summarizing to check for understanding.


3. Integrity

Servant leaders maintain integrity, which is essential for building trust with others. They set a positive example by behaving according to ethics and principles.

A servant leader who demonstrates integrity communicates openly and honestly. They treat others with fairness and respect and maintain high moral consistency.


4. Empowerment

Servant leaders nurture personal and professional growth. This empowerment enables people to reach their highest potential, which leads to positive organizational outcomes.

An empowering servant leader:

  • Trusts others to make appropriate decisions and share accountability.
  • Provides the resources for people to succeed, from training and mentorship to the proper equipment.
  • Encourages risk-taking without fear of reprisal.
  • Provides feedback, celebrates achievements and helps people learn from mistakes.


5. Foresight

Effective servant leadership takes foresight, which is the ability to predict likely outcomes based on understanding the past. Servant leaders reflect on and apply past successes and failures to plan strategically. 

Foresight helps servant leaders manage risk, encourage innovation and make informed decisions.


6. Collaborative Spirit

Servant leaders help people achieve goals together. In building community, they create an environment that promotes a sense of belonging, which can improve productivity.

Servant leaders demonstrate a collaborative spirit by fostering:

  • Knowledge sharing.
  • Diversity of thought, background and experiences.
  • Cross-functional understanding and teamwork.
  • Genuine interest in others’ lives and contributions.


7. Awareness

Servant leaders understand themselves, others and the context in which everyone operates. This awareness is key to empathy, effective communication and strategic decision-making in servant leadership.

Feedback is crucial. Servant leaders give and receive constructive feedback, using it as an opportunity for growth and learning.


8. Commitment to Continuous Learning

Continuous learning improves effectiveness. That’s why servant leaders seek opportunities to expand their knowledge and skills and those of others.

Demonstrating a commitment to continuous learning involves:

  • Seeking and providing actionable feedback.
  • Pursuing formal education or hands-on learning opportunities.
  • Staying informed of relevant news to uncover trends, best practices and opportunities.
  • Experimenting to learn from successes and setbacks.


What Is An Example of Effective Servant Leadership?

Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, was an effective servant leader. He aimed to create excellent business outcomes through a culture of compassion.

Schultz applied several principles of servant leadership. He was empathetic, dedicated to developing employees and acted with integrity. Through his leadership, Starbucks was among the first retail companies to offer comprehensive health coverage for full and part-time employees. He also established ethical sourcing practices that support farmers and their families and a free college tuition program for employees.

Schultz’ helped grow Starbucks from 275 stores in 1993 to over 34,000 in 2022, an increase of over 12,000 percent. According to Schultz, exceeding the expectations of Starbucks employees has led to employees exceeding the expectations of customers. 


Grow Your Leadership through Spalding University’s EdD in Leadership Online

Earning a Doctor of Education (EdD) in leadership is a formal educational pathway to becoming an exemplary practitioner of effective leadership. EdD in leadership programs teach the leadership theory, knowledge and skills to lead and innovate in the modern era.

For example, Spalding University offers an online EdD in Leadership that prepares current and future leaders to create meaningful change in business, social services, the arts and higher education. Graduates are extraordinary team builders, systems thinkers and drivers of change and innovation in a global economy.

Spalding’s online EdD program focuses on four themes, which develop the characteristics of servant leadership, including communication, awareness and empathy:

  • Advanced Leadership Concepts in Practice: Evolving one’s leadership approach through analyzing traditional and modern leadership theories, such as behavioral leadership theory, and personal development.
  • Global and Cultural Perspectives: Developing a sophisticated awareness and understanding of cultural differences in local, national and global contexts to evolve leadership practices.
  • Organizational Innovation and Change: Using proven methods and systems thinking to facilitate innovation and influence organizational transformation.
  • Research-Informed Decision-Making: Applying research-based best practices and methodologies to support impactful, data-driven decisions.

The Spalding community is committed to leading with compassion and serving others. Spalding is a mission-focused university and the first university certified as a Compassionate College in the Charter for Compassion. Students grow their leadership as part of a community that emphasizes the cultural understanding, diversity and dignity of everyone.

Spalding’s online EdD in Leadership also allows students to earn their doctoral degree while continuing to work. Complete just eight online courses and a leadership capstone, one at a time. Students can graduate in two years, faster than traditional EdD in Leadership programs.

Spalding supports you wherever you are in your leadership journey. Connect with an enrollment advisor to get started.