8 Characteristics of Servant Leaders (with examples and quotes)

African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC)

As they develop skills in areas relevant to their ministries and congregations, participants of ASEC's Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI) program build their capacity to act as servant leaders and role models. Photo of SLDI Finance I workshop particpants in Uganda (July, 2018)

The 8 characteristics of servant leaders and quotes from true servant leaders that emphasize the impact of education on servant leadership.

The concept of servant leadership provided the foundation of ASEC's largest and longest running program, Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI).[5] And, although servant leadership was not a part of the framework for ASEC's Higher Education for Sisters in Africa (HESA) program, in 2019 it was recently discovered as an outcome of this program as well.[6] 

So, what exactly is servant leadership and how do we measure these results in the evaluation of our programs?

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve.[8] A Servant Leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.[9] ASEC uses the Servant Leadership Scale's eight dimensions of servant leadership when evaluating program outcomes. These eight dimensions, or characteristics, of servant leaders are empowerment, accountability, standing back, humility, authenticity, courage, interpersonal acceptance and stewardship.[3]

What is Servant Leadership?

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf. In his 1970 essay The Servant as Leader.[1] According to Greenleaf, both organizations and individuals can be servant leaders. 

Greenleaf states that, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”[2]  Greenleaf further defines servant leadership through the following statements:

  • A servant leader is a servant first.
  • A conscious choice brings the servant to aspire to lead.
  • Servant leaders ensure other people’s needs are being met.
  • Servant leaders ensure their choices/actions will benefit (or at least not further deprive) the least privileged in society.

Servant leaders ensure that other people’s needs are being met by asking the question “Do those served grow as persons?” in the context of their health, knowledge, freedom, autonomy and potential to become a servant leader themselves.[2]

While acting as a servant leader, one must also take into account the effect of what is being done on the least privileged in society. Will these individuals benefit or at least not be further deprived by the servant leaders’ actions?[2]

Servant leadership is also defined in Servant Leadership: A systematic review and call for future research[3] as "an (1) other-oriented approach to leadership (2) manifested through one-on-one prioritizing of follower individual needs and interests, (3) and outward reorienting of their concern for self towards concern for others within the organization and the larger community."

8 Characteristics of Servant Leaders

According to the Servant Leadership Scale, there are eight dimensions of servant leadership.[3]

  1. Empowerment: assists others in realizing their full potential.
  2. Accountability: holds self and others responsible for actions within their control.
  3. Standing Back: followers are the priority and receive credit for their work.
  4. Humility: places one’s self in perspective and admits when one needs assistance.
  5. Authenticity: is true and genuine to oneself professionally, publicly and privately.
  6. Courage: embraces innovation, takes risks and overcomes fears.
  7. Interpersonal Acceptance: understands the perspectives and experiences of others.
  8. Stewardship: practices services and takes responsibility of the larger institution or society.

In this article we explore the eight characteristics of servant leadership and how each dimension is described by participants of ASEC’s SLDI and HESA programs for Catholic Sisters in Africa.

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Empowerment in Servant Leadership

Empowerment is defined as “a leader's ability to assist others in realizing their full potential.”[3]

“I gained confidence in handling issues, even to a point to influencing others (those whom I work with) in exercising their potentials.”[5] -HESA participant

Accountability in Servant Leadership

Accountability is defined as “holding self and others responsible for actions within their control.”[3]

“I am...given a position in my congregation as general bursar as a result l am in a position to train all community bursar on how to keep proper books of accounting.”[5] -SLDI participant

Servant Leaders "Stand Back"

Standing Back is when a leader’s “followers have priority, receive credit for their work.”[3]

“When we meet our success stories, what has helped us, what we are able to use through this program. Its always marvelous and amazing to see...each sister coming from her share...some kind of joy she has been able to do.”[5] -SLDI participant

Societal Impacts of Standing Back[4]

Alumnae discussed their prioritization of others and increased capacity to meet the needs of others, particularly those who are vulnerable and/or marginalized. Sisters conceptualize their roles within the context of meeting local and regional needs, and serving the individuals, families and communities affected by numerous social issues.

"Meeting people where they are" and working at the grassroots level while embracing new and more effective organizational practices were approaches sisters used to make an impact on society.[5]

“For 12 years I have been teaching in a community school where you find the vulnerable children. They are...coming from well to do families but they are vulnerable and...I put more effort to helping them to educating [sic] them and reach that standard which will be good for their future.”[5] -SLDI participant

“As a sister I am expected to mix with different groups of people from low middle high but for me I feel it [SLDI]...helped me really to with the poor, feel with them and reach out to them in any way that I can and I feel that has moved me to work with those people.”[5] -SLDI participant

“I’m happy doing what I’m doing [and] to see the impact of the work we are doing as an institution...doing something in a different way, being able to reach out to people and becoming innovative in our society.”[5] -SLDI participant

Servant Leaders Demonstrate Humility

Humility is defined as “placing one’s self in perspective, admit when they need assistance.”[3] 

“I acknowledge all the support I have gained or I have received as a person.”[5] -HESA participant

Servant Leaders are Authentic

Authenticity is defined as being “true to oneself, being genuine professionally, publicly and privately.”[3]

“Having been a beneficiary of HESA program, I can say it has had a lot of impact on me because going through the university system your are able to get new skills to be able to get grounded as a person."[5] -HESA participant

Courage and Servant Leadership

Courage is defined as “taking risks, being innovative, overcoming fears.”[3] 

HESA program gave me the courage at least to be before people, to have that courage to was very easy for me when I went in the field because of that connection to do well in my teaching practice.”[5] -HESA participant

“Participating in HESA was very empowering...Going through the HESA program and getting higher levels of education we’re able to get the skills that measure to the expectations of the people we are serving and the standard that other people are also doing it. So you don’t find yourself doing things in fear or working in fear but as a professional, so it gave me the background and the strength of working professionally.”[5] -HESA participant

Interpersonal Acceptance in Servant Leadership

Interpersonal acceptance is defined as the ability to “understand others' perspectives and experiences.”[3]

“I was able to meet people with different experiences which has helped me to learn more things and make more friends.”[5] -HESA participant

“The opportunity to meet and make connections with people during my college years. These are networks which have been enriching even afterI graduated from the university.”[5] -HESA participant

Servant Leaders Exhibit the Quality of Stewardship

Stewardship is defined as “practicing service, taking responsibility for the larger institution or society.”[3]

“I have made sure that the local resources we have as a congregation are being well utilized so as to generate more income and we have succeeded in that.”[5] -SLDI participant

Societal Impacts of Stewardship[4]

While alumnae most frequently discussed their impact at the organizational level (including interpersonal, congregational and ministerial levels) they did recognize the ways in which their ability to impact society improved through participation in SLDI. Alumnae most commonly described their societal impact through the theme of stewardship, indicating a sense of social responsibility for the people they serve.Sisters spoke of their ability to identify human development needs and source funds to sustainably meet those needs. Alumnae mentioned funds they secured to improve education, health, livelihoods and agriculture.

“I will be able to use the skills gained to analyze the needs of the society and...I assist the uplifting of their living standards.”[5] -SLDI participant

Servant Leadership as it relates to ASEC program alumnae

The concept of servant leadership provided the theoretical foundation of ASEC's largest and longest running program, Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI).[5] Through ASEC’s SLDI program, individual sisters increase their leadership, administrative, financial and technology skills. Sisters embark on a journey of lifelong learning, educating and leading. As they develop skills in areas relevant to their ministries and congregations, they build their capacity to act as servant leaders and role models.[5]

ASEC’s Higher Education for Sisters in Africa (HESA) program provides opportunities for Catholic women religious in African countries to access diploma, undergraduate and master’s level education. HESA is delivered through partnerships with higher education institutions in Africa and online in the USA. Although the development of servant leadership characteristics was not part of HESA's original theoretical framework, in 2019 it was discovered as an outcome of this program as well.[6]

Problems with Servant Leadership

While ASEC there are many positive impacts that can be seen from servant leadership, it's important to also consider problems that may arise from applying servant leadership models. In an article by Sampson Quain, many of these limitations are discussed. Quain states that servant leadership models work against traditional authority and can even make managers less authoritative in their roles. It may also cause employees to be less motivated, expecting the servant leader to step in and fix every problem and issue that may occur in their role.[10]

The key takeaway here is that every model, even servant leadership, has pros and cons that need to be considered before implementation.

Famous Servant Leaders

Mother Theresa

Mother Theresa is often described as the perfect model of servant leadership. A Catholic nun and a charity worker in India, Mother Theresa looked after the poor, sick, orphaned and dying (stewardship). Upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Theresa exemplified the servant leadership characteristic of Standing Back, stating, "I am unworthy, I accepted the prize in the name of the poor. The prize is the reorganization of the poor world…By serving the poor I am serving Him.”

Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people. As a servant leader, the Dalai Lama often the time and energy to listen to the people he serves (compassion). He demonstrates a genuine desire to understand other people’s problems (interpersonal acceptance) and work out realistic solutions (courage).

Abraham Lincoln

The 16th President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln is a great example of a true servant leader. The Civil War provided the platform for Lincoln to to demonstrate his servant leadership characteristics.Lincoln’s produced radical and transformational change in America (courage), positioning the US as the premier example of a working democracy. By freeing the slaves, Lincoln extended opportunity and liberty to all Americans (interpersonal acceptance, empowerment). Lincoln’s ultimate goal was to give the people he served what they needed (empowerment).

Servant Leadership Thought Leaders

The servant leadership philosophy and practices have been expressed in many ways and applied in many contexts. Some of the most well-known advocates of servant leadership include:

Servant Leadership & Sustainable Development: ASEC's Impact

Detailed information about this research is available in ASEC’s 2019 Special Qualitative Evaluation Report on Servant Leadership (PDF) prepared by Jennifer Mudge, LSW, ASEC Assistant Director Program Evaluation and Tara Lopatofsky, Ph.D., ASEC Research and HESA Evaluations Manager.

Qualitative data was collected from ASEC program participants via convenience sampling in the form of written responses, focus groups, individual interviews and site visits. 


[1] Greenleaf, Robert K. (1970). The Servant as Leader.

[2] The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, What is Servant Leadership.

[3] Eva, N., Robin, M., Sendjaya, S., Dierendonck, D. V., & Liden, R. C. (2019).  Servant leadership: A systematic review and call for future research. The Leadership Quarterly, 30(1), 111-132. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2018.07.004

[4] Barbuto, J.E. & Wheeler, D.W. (2006). Scale development and construct clarification of servant leadership. Faculty Publications: Agricultural Leadership, Education & Communication Department.

[5] Lopatofsky, T. & Mudge, J. (2019, April). Servant Leadership & Sustainable Development: ASEC’s Impact Qualitative Evaluation Report. (Special Report, African Sisters Education Collaborative).

[6] Lopatofsky, T. (2019, March). The Perceived Impact of a Post-Secondary Education Program on Kenyan Catholic Sisters’ Understanding of their Lives as Women Religious: A case study (Doctoral dissertation, Marywood University)

[7] Greenleaf, Robert K. (2009). The Institution as Servant.

[8] Wikipedia, Servant Leadership.

[9] Sendjaya, Sen; Sarros, James C. (2002-09-01). "Servant Leadership: Its Origin, Development, and Application in Organizations". Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. 9 (2): 57–64. doi:10.1177/107179190200900205. ISSN 1548-0518.

[10] Quain, Sampson (Updated October 22, 2018). Problems with Servant Leadership Model. Houston Chronical.

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Amy Fedele

Amy Fedele
Former ASEC Media & Communications Manager - USA  

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8 Characteristics of Servant Leaders (with examples and quotes)