Order Now

Over 40,000 Books Sold!

Five Traits Of Leaders Who Serve

Several of you have asked me what traits I look for that I believe are essential to servant leadership. One good book on servant leadership, Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, by James Sipe, says there are seven core attributes of a servant leader and 21 behaviors to look for. This is an excellent treatise on the subject. 

For today, I’d like to share my five favorite traits in a servant leader. Traits that help me determine whether their heart is in the right place for service above self.


Through the 26 years that I have been raising three daughters, they would tell you that I often say to them your attitude is your altitude. And this is certainly true for leaders as well.

As a leader, you must get up in the morning and determine your approach to the day. You decide your attitude. And when you decide your attitude for today, which will determine the attitude you model for your team.

Great leaders have great attitudes. They may express it differently, but at the core they approach life with a positive mindset. That shows up in a variety of ways: energy for the task, optimism about outcomes, inspiring or encouraging words, a can-do state of mind.

At Popeyes we’ve settled on the word passion as the expression of our attitude. Passion shows that you care about the people and the business. It affirms that we are doing important work together. It says let’s give this our best effort. It’s the attitude we need to succeed.

Listen First

Robert Greenleaf, the original thought leader of servant leadership said that listening was one of the most important traits of a servant leader. In 2008, when I arrived at Popeyes, my leadership team and I promptly did a seven city listening tour.

In every city we asked for feedback from three constituents our franchisees, our restaurant general managers, and our guests. It was our first act of leadership, to listen. It was the beginning of the turnaround of Popeyes. Everyone involved knew what the problems were. They just needed a team that would listen carefully and then collaborate with them on solutions. You simply must listen first to lead effectively.

Too often, we ignore the warning signs of people with poor listening skills. They are actually quite easy to spot. They talk a lot. They use the pronoun I multiple times. They interrupt. They answer a question you didn’t ask. They never ask you anything about your life or your function. If you look carefully you’ll see leaders genuinely listen.

Continuous Learners

I have to admit this is my personal favorite trait in leaders. I love curious people that seek out new ideas, additional information, and opportunities to learn. They might love reading books, taking classes, getting a certification, going to a conference, or better yet, they may like to observe talented leaders and see what new skills they can add to their leadership capability.

“Leadership and learning are indispensible to one another.”
~ John F. Kennedy

Perhaps the most important way continuous learning helps a leader is that it keeps their mind open to the possibilities. The learner doesn’t assume they have all the answers. They are more likely to hear new ideas or solutions from secondary sources. They give options a more genuine exploration to make sure they haven’t missed a better conclusion.

In an interview, ask candidates, “What is the last thing you learned and why was it valuable to you?” Or, “What did you do last year to grow in capability as a leader?” The answer could pertain to any aspect of life or work, but it will tease out whether they are curious, continuous learners. Leaders learn for the rest of their lives.


Just as a bad attitude sends the wrong messages to your team, so does lack of accountability. Lack of accountability is best summed up as “I was a victim of circumstances outside my control.”

A victim tells you the ten reasons the project failed, and not one of the reasons includes them. The economy crashed. The manager quit. The timetable was hopeless. The resources were inadequate. There was no sponsor, and a million more.

The accountable person says instead. I have to take responsibility for my part of the project. I would do it differently the next time. We made a mistake in judgement. We overlooked certain information. And all of these words express that they see themselves as a member of the team that stumbled, they regret the outcome, and they are going to apply what they learned to the next opportunity.

The best expression of accountability is often the words “I’m sorry. I was wrong about that. I hope you’ll give me the opportunity to apply what I learned in another project.” Leaders must be personally accountable. We are the models of accountability for the teams we lead.


Being humble is knowing in your heart of hearts that the world does not revolve around you. In fact, as I like to say, you are a mere grasshopper in the scheme of the grand universe we live in. I love the word-picture of a grasshopper. He is very small, vulnerable to getting squished, and he’s not even very cute to look at. It would be impossible to be a grasshopper and have a big ego.

I keep a picture on my desk of an ugly green grasshopper to remind me of this. And my favorite award that I give at Popeyes is the Grasshopper Award. It is only given to people that quietly, without fanfare, do excellent, important work and don’t ask for a lot of recognition.

After giving multiple Grasshopper awards, I’ve discovered that most of the award winners are introverts and actually don’t even like public attention drawn to them. I think this is an important point for leaders to ponder.

Some of your very best leaders may be quiet introverts. Their important and excellent work may be going unnoticed. And worse yet, you may be giving recognition primarily to those that seek it and demand it. To clarify, I certainly think extroverts can lead with humility, but they probably have to work harder at it. Great leaders acknowledge other’s contributions before their own.

So the next time you are hiring or evaluating leaders for your time, find out the answers to these questions:

  • Do they come to the day with a positive attitude?
  • Do they listen to what others have to say?
  • Are they curious, continuous learners?
  • Can they say “I was wrong,” taking full accountability?
  • Do they seek out attention and recognition for themselves or constantly shift the focus to other team member’s contributions?

I promise you, if they pass these tests, they will be effective servant leaders for your organization.

0 Responses

  1. You can tell we spent some time together Cheryl. I feel as though I could have written these words myself.

  2. Cheryl, you’ve captured the secret ingredient.
    I think these are also traits of the “Un-intentional” Leader. One, who intended to do a good job, intended to gain the skills of business and execute well but didn’t see themselves becoming a great leader. I believe it is difficult for an outsider to dissect or emulate the path of the “Un-intentional” Leader because these traits are difficult to observe.
    The un-intentional leader is likely also passionate, competitive, intelligent, a great presenter….but emulate all of these without the “Five Traits of Leaders that Serve” and the recipe will not come out the same.
    Thanks for your insight.

    1. Thank you Pat for your comments. My favorite Jim Collins quote is that the Level V leader ( a servant leader) “has a terrifying iron will and ambition for the enterprise, not themselves.”

  3. Hi Cheryl –

    I really like the questions that you remind us to think about at the end of your blog post. I’m thinking I’m going to post them on my computer to hold myself accountable to these questions as well.


  4. The humility piece is the great challenge in many ways. The outreach to each other is so exciting, but making sure that one’s ego doesn’t then say “it is all because of what I am bringing to the table” is the challenge for some of us. This is good and important work which can help work, homes and communities. Thanks for all of the time and effort that you are putting into this. Bill

    1. Dear Bill, I keep in mind the C.S. Lewis quote….”Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” But C.S. Lewis also wrote an amazing chapter on how pride is the ultimate failing of men and women. It is a daily struggle to be humble. Cheryl

  5. Cheryl: A friend and former client at Tyson Foods recommended I check out your blog. Boy am I glad I did so. I want to thank you for investing your energy and authenticity in a blog dedicated to leadership development. Too often, leaders look for the latest formula, instead of seeking the ancient paths–such as the servant-leader model. Keep up the great writing!

    1. Dear Sheri, I am glad that you are enjoying the blog. Servant leadership is counter every teaching of our current culture, but as you said, its basis is ancient and accurate teachings, and it drives amazing results to this day. All the best to you, Cheryl

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.