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Traits Of Servant Leaders – Be A Person Of Character

Be a person of character is an important trait. There is an initiative being taught in school systems called Character Counts. The curriculum teaches six essential values to being a person with character: responsibility, respect, trustworthiness, fairness, caring, and citizenship.

Those are all traits I would like my children to have. And also my neighbors. What about our co-workers? Should we be teaching good character traits at work? Would a business organization of people with good character traits outperform the competition?

In Seven Pillars Of Servant Leadership, the authors make the case that yes we can define, teach, and coach the development of character in our leaders. They conclude that leaders with character display these three traits:

  • Maintain Integrity
  • Demonstrate humility
  • Serve a higher purpose than themselves


Have you worked for a leader without integrity? I have. I’ve been asked by a boss to lie. I’ve worked for leaders who did not do what they promised. I’ve worked for people whose word could not be trusted. I’ve worked for leaders who did not do the right thing in the moment of truth. A lack of integrity results in lack of trust. Patrick Lencioni establishes in his book Five Dysfunctions Of A Team that trust is the foundation of all high performance teams. Trust depends on integrity.

Integrity starts with knowing your own core values and sharing them with your team. It continues with leading by example to demonstrate what your core values look like in action. If you have a core value of honesty, you will need to define it to your team and discuss specific examples of what honesty looks like at work.

For example – I believe honesty means telling your supervisor the truth even if it is bad news. But to live out this value, my team must feel that I provide a safe haven for bringing forward bad news. If I lose my temper and treat the messenger badly, that will be the last time I get the truth from that team member. Instead, I need to evidence calm as the news is delivered, ask clarifying questions, and ask how I can help the team solve the problem. Over time, if bad news is received constructively, my team will feel confident in always telling me the truth. Know your core values. Live them and teach them.


Humility is a misunderstood word. Most think the word implies weakness and low self-esteem as compared to the opposite end of the spectrum – ego, hubris and high self-esteem. Humility is not about your self-esteem or strength. Humility is about how you act towards other people. Do you put your needs first or their needs first?

A humble leader listens carefully to the needs of their team and makes sure they have the resources they need to be effective. The humble leader gives frequent tribute to the contributions of others. The humble leader does not reference their title to get work done. The humble leader admits mistakes promptly. The humble leader coaches the team towards the winning outcome. The difference maker – the humble leader simply thinks more about their people than themselves.

How much time are you spending developing the individuals that work for you? Are they your #1 priority? Are you working with them on a plan to grow and achieve? A humble leader spends the majority of their time helping others reach success. Interestingly, that service towards others generates the best performance for the leader as well. Serve the people and succeed.

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but rather thinking about yourself less.”
~ C.S. Lewis

Higher Purpose

A recent book called Grow: How Ideals Power Growth & Profit At The World’s Greatest Companies by Jim Stengel documents that those companies who center their business on improving people’s lives have a growth rate three times that of their competitors and they also outperformed the S&P 500 by a wide margin.

These companies rally their teams by working towards a higher purpose that improves people’s lives. The purpose could be as simple as bringing people a fabulous cup of coffee like Starbucks, or as ambitious as bringing clean drinking water to a third world country. The higher purpose aligns the team towards the mission and away from their self-centered needs.

Think about the phenomenon of Toms shoes in recent years. Toms chose to donate one pair of shoes to a poor nation for every pair that our wealthy nation buys. Everyone is wearing TOMS’ shoes in the U.S. and millions of poverty stricken nations now have shoes for every person.

While these mission-oriented companies have an impressive purpose that drives performance, the principle holds true for individuals, as well. You can have a higher purpose of your own – right where you are in your workplace. Your purpose can be to serve the people in your immediate circle of influence.

For example, you may have a personal purpose of growing the competence and character traits of the team that works for you. Your focus on training, coaching, supporting, and having their back is a purpose beyond yourself. You are serving people, advancing their capabilities, and preparing them for future opportunities. This higher purpose is more important than the type of business you work in. Example: My purpose is to develop leaders. I do that in a company that sells delicious chicken and seafood.

Frankly, your personal purpose is “more” important than the purpose of your employer. To perform well, you need to know what you are doing at work. What is the point? What purpose drives you? What makes you feel you are doing valuable work? Until you can articulate this and live it in your daily routines, you will not love your job, you will not have many followers, and you will not experience top performance.

“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
~ Confucius

In summary, one of theSeven Pillars of Servant Leadership is to be a person of character. Act with integrity. Be humble: think about yourself less. Find a higher purpose for your work that helps other people and the business succeed. And watch what happens to your performance results.

4 Responses

  1. Cheryl,

    Truly appreciate the thoughtful approach to writing, leading, and living. One nugget of gold in this post is the line, “Over time, if bad news is received constructively, my team will feel confident in always telling me the truth.” That gives leaders (and parents) something to shoot for — an environment where truth and honesty are honored and valued even when the news is bad.

    Grateful to know you and follow you on this journey.


    1. Hi Kevin,
      I’ve learned this idea of creating a safe haven for people so that they can take risks and tell the truth from my talented leader of International Popeyes. Home and work should be just that…a safe haven for growing in competence and character.

      Today was a very full and inspiring day at Servant Leadership Institute in San Diego. My workshop went very well; thank you for your help getting ready for this event. The leaders I met were inspiring on so many levels. Look forward to the Greenleaf conference in June.

  2. Wow – what a powerful blog! I can’t agee with the points more. And recently I was honored to experince the beauty of putting my employees first. The way he developed and consistently rose to the occassion was moving. His transformation was also physical he looked different because he was confident. And accomplished things that others said he couldn’t. Because of this experience I always make a point to put employees first!

    1. The experience you described is what makes developing leaders such a rewarding endeavor. Many times the leader envisions capability in the person that they have not yet discovered or imagined. And when they find this new found confidence, the delight changes their whole countenance. Keep up the good work of putting your people first.

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