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Servant Leadership: Seven Characteristics of Follower-Centered Leaders

Updated on August 30, 2011

In her doctoral dissertation,Dr. Kathleen Patterson (2003) presented a theory of organizational leadership called servant leadership. Dr. Patterson's theory was an extension of servant leadership first presented by Dr. Robert Greenleaf in 1977. Each explained that servant leaders serve with special attention on their followers, whereby the needs of followers are primary and objectives of the organization are secondary. They believed that if organizational leaders paid special attention to the needs of their followers, their followers would give extraordinary efforts to fulfill the vision and objectives of the organization.

From her research, Patterson uncovered a combination of seven virtues or characteristics that she found indicative of those who demonstrated servant leadership. Patterson suggested that this follower-centered leadership...

1. Demonstrates agapao love;

2. Acts with humility;

3. Is altruistic;

4. Is visionary for the follower;

5. Is trusting;

6. Empowers followers;

7. And, is serving. (Dennis & Bocarnea; Waddell).

Agapao Love

Agapao love is the cornerstone of the servant leader/follower relationship. According to some language experts, the Greek term agapao refers to “a moral love” that compels a person “to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason” (p. 5). More specifically, “agapao [love] means to love in a social or moral sense, embracing the judgment and deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty, and propriety” This type of love causes leaders to consider each person as not simply a means to end, but as a complete person: one with needs, wants, and desires

In reference to agapao love’s relationship with servant leadership, Patterson (2003) found that agapao love is consistent with servant leadership to the extent that servant leaders must have such great love for their followers that they are willing to learn the giftings and talents of each one of the followers. The leader that leads with agapao love has a focus on the employee first, then on the talents of the employee, and lastly on how this benefits the organization


Sandage and Wiens (2001) defined “humility” as “the ability to keep one’s accomplishments and talents in perspective.” Essentially this means that those who practice humility maintain a sober view of themselves. They think neither too highly nor too lowly about themselves and practice self-acceptance without being self-centered. Swindoll (1981) agreed with this view of humility and argued that humility is not to be equated with a poor self-esteem, but rather a healthy ego. As such, humility is not groveling in the dirt as one with a low self-worth, but having a right view of one’s self and others. Hunter (2004) explains the paradox of humility in leadership by saying humble leaders realize they came into the world with nothing and will leave with nothing (Waddell, 2006). Furthermore Waddell explains

People mistakenly associate being humble with being overly modest, passive, or self-effacing. To the contrary, humble leaders can be very bold when it comes to their sense of values, morality, and doing the right thing. They view their leadership as an awesome responsibility that affords them a position of trust and stewardship to take care of the people entrusted to them. (p. 3).

As applied to servant leadership, humility guides the servant leader to lead from an authentic desire to help others and search for ways to serve others by staying in touch with subordinates within the organization (Swindoll). Moreover, those leaders who practice humility are (a) willing listeners; (b) accept accountability to those they serve; and (c) openly accept criticism and advice (Patterson, 2003; Harrison, 2002; Blanchard, 2000).


Altruism is the act of lending a helping hand to others without any need of pay back or appreciation in return. It is a giving of one's self to another just because they are fellow human beings. In a sense, altruism is the action that results from the heart fueled with agapao love. As a characteristic of servant leadership, altruism propels an organizational leader to do what is best for the follower just because he is a fellow member of humanity.


Vision is normally associated with the organization and not the individual. However, Patterson observed that in servant leadership theory, vision refers to the idea that the leader looks forward and sees the person as a viable and worthy person, believes in the future state for each individual, and seeks to assist each one in reaching that state.


Trust is the fifth trait included in Patterson’s (2003) seven virtues of servant leadership. Story (2000) believed trust was an essential characteristic of servant leadership (Dennis & Bocarnea, 2005).

Hauser and House (2000) defined trust as “confidence or reliance on another team member” in terms of their morality and competence while Nyhan (2000) described trust as the level of confidence one individual has in another person’s competence and his or her willingness to act in a fair, ethical, and predictable manner (Dennis & Bocarnea; Waddell, 2006).

Melrose (1995) acknowledged that trust’s definition yielded a two-way street, stating that servant leaders instill trust in their followers by being trustworthy. While at the same time, servant leaders help their followers toward self-actualization by trusting them (Dimitrova & Bocarnea, 2010; Waddell, 2006).

Dimitrova and Bocarnea observed that Patterson’s model shows trust occurring at the same time as vision. In commenting on trust and vision working together, Winston (2003) wrote that this helps present the process of how the leader engages with the follower to establish the vision with the follower and to establish/place trust in the follower with regard to organizational element. Winston also noted that in these two variables of vision and trust, there is no cost benefit analysis to determine if the follower’s vision is worth doing. (Dimitrova & Bocarnea, p. 28).

Essential to the establishment of trust are the qualities integrity and honesty displayed by the servant leader to their followers (Russell, 2001). When the servant leader does what they said they would do, they lay a foundation of trust which leads to credibility of the servant leader and the organization. In this way “the trust bond nurtures teamwork, confidence, self-esteem, and self-actualization” (Patterson, 2003, pp. 22-23). In Patterson’s scheme, the combination of vision for the follower and the instilled trust lead to empowerment (Dimitrova & Bocarnea, 2010).


Bass (1990) and Veronesi (2001) noted that there is no servant leadership without sharing of power and that empowering people to be involved in the planning and decision-making of the organization is at the heart of servant leadership (Patterson, 2003; Dennis & Bocarnea, 2005; Dimitrova & Bocarnea, 2010). Empowerment is entrusting power to others and involves (a) effective listening, (b) making people feel significant, (c) emphasizing teamwork; and (d) valuing love and equality (Patterson; Kezar, 2002; Russell & Stone, 2002). Farling, Stone, and Winston (1999) and Covey (2002) suggest a leader serves as a role model for empowering others and that a servant leader empowers followers in accordance with acting on their values. Moreover, Winston (2003) posited

that in the process of empowering, the servant leader is willing to give up control and power so that the follower can be effective and successful in the accomplishment of the tasks at hand, but that such ‘freedom’ is not carte-blanche and anarchist in design, but progressive in nature, with the follower being empowered in small amounts, allowing him or her to learn and grow to the point of being capable and willing to handle larger levels of empowerment.


At the core of servant leadership is the trait that is inherent in the label servanthood or service (Russell & Stone, 2002; Dennis & Bocarnea, 2005; Waddell, 2006). From their respective research, Patterson, 2003, Dimitrova and Bocarnea (2010), and Dennis and Bocarnea found that “the act of serving includes a mission of responsibility to others and that people are accountable to those they serve, whether they serve customers or subordinates (Wis, 2002; Greenleaf, 1996). Furthermore, Winston (2003) noted that the servant leader sees his or her role to the follower as one of providing the follower with what is needed for the follower to accomplish his/her task (Dimitrova & Bocarnea, 2010). After reviewing the literature, Kimura (2007), following Patterson (2003) and Swindoll (1981), observed that service requires the leaders’

1. giving of time, energy, compassion, and one’s belongings;

2. personal involvement in followers’ lives;

3. authenticity in what they do;

4. and, serving as a role model in behavior and style that sets the foundation the servant-led organizational culture (p. 7; Lytle, Horn, & Mokwa, 1998).


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    • ecoggins profile image

      ecoggins 2 years ago from Corona, California

      Thank you serenity jmiller for your encouraging words. I appreciate them very much.

    • serenityjmiller profile image

      Serenity Miller 2 years ago from Brookings, SD

      Terrific piece - thank you for sharing! I especially like this: "To the contrary, humble leaders can be very bold when it comes to their sense of values, morality, and doing the right thing." Indeed, humility does not equate with passivity, but rather with actually {being} whatever we are at any given moment. Thanks again for the good hub!

    • newjerusalem profile image

      victor 3 years ago from India

      Great job done. The Agape love and humility are the real keys. But, I found that some people consider these virtues as weakness and try to overpower the leaders. Some people respond only the Authoritative approach.

    • profile image

      JIL SIMONSON 5 years ago

      Please provide references so we may look further into the research mentioned on this hub.

    • profile image

      kathleen patterson 6 years ago

      yes, it is counterintuitive and yet it works. we see many companies making it work--SWA, southwest airlines; TDIndustries, the Container Store...

    • ecoggins profile image

      ecoggins 7 years ago from Corona, California

      Dr. Peterson, a pleasant surprise. I hope I represented you well. The essence of leading does seem to be serving. Although it does also seem counterintuitive, doesn't it?

    • profile image

      kathleen patterson 7 years ago

      The very essence of leading is serving, espcially in today's turbuent world.

    • ecoggins profile image

      ecoggins 7 years ago from Corona, California

      Thank you abundant life for your encouraging feedback. I appreciate it greatly. Servanthood is an essential trait in today's leader.

    • Abundant Life profile image

      Abundant Life 7 years ago from Texas

      You are SOOO right!!!! Service to others is what makes the solid foundation of a true leader. I hope to read more from you soon!

    • ecoggins profile image

      ecoggins 7 years ago from Corona, California

      LillyGrillzit, thank you again for your super encouragement. I do hope these articles on leadership will be useful for many.

    • LillyGrillzit profile image

      Lori J Latimer 7 years ago from The River Valley, Arkansas

      Excellent! voted up, useful, awesome and beautiful,tweeted, and facebooked. This is a wonderful charter for desired leadership. Thank you for sharing and preparing this well structured Hub~

    • ecoggins profile image

      ecoggins 7 years ago from Corona, California

      Jason Thank you for the encouraging comment. Love and humility are important characteristics for leaders aren't they? John Maxwell often raises the quote: "Others will not want to know how much you know until they know how much you care." If leaders will commit to help their followers fulfill their legitimate needs and dreams, then they will gain the full support of those followers.

    • Jason Matthews profile image

      Jason Matthews 7 years ago from North Carolina

      Great Hub! I love how you talk about agapao love and the importance of humility.