Five Traits of a Servant Leader

May 31, 2024
Compass pointing towards "Leadership"

Professor Matt Quade describes how servant leaders get ahead by putting others ahead of themselves. 

At Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business, the concept of servant leadership is central to training MBA students to make a positive impact on the world around them. Following the example of Jesus, the ultimate servant leader, requires students to think intentionally and counterculturally about how they approach leadership. 

Matt Quade, PhD, the Kimberly and Aaron P. Graft Professor in Christian Leadership in Business, has researched and taught students about servant leadership for nearly 15 years. During this time, he has noticed a paradox: Even though the percentage of the U.S. population that identifies as Christian shrinks every year, an increasing percentage of the business community is recognizing the merits of servant leadership.

“There is a greater sense of moral righteousness in the workplace,” he said. “People want to know that companies are treating their employees well.” 

In the classes he teaches, Matt trains MBA students to recognize and emulate the servant leaders they encounter. 

Below, he shares five defining traits of a servant leader:

1. Stewards the resources entrusted to them. 

In the biblical parable of the talents, servants are held accountable for how they steward or squander the resources entrusted to them. In today’s workplace, a servant leader feels similarly accountable for how they care for their organization’s people, time and treasure. Instead of viewing employees as cogs in a machine, servant leaders view people as image bearers of God with infinite worth and potential. When an employee knows that their leader cares about them as a person, not just as an input, they are inspired to grow and achieve. 

While Quade focuses on leadership at a micro level, he also finds countless instances of servant leadership at the macro level. A servant leader in the C-suite may only have touchpoints with a small handful of people, but they impact many more lives through the decisions they make.

2. Views success as an opportunity for more impact.

A servant leader is not afraid of success. In fact, they strive to achieve even greater success, because they know that impact will follow. 

“I had a guest speaker in my class, a former C-suite executive, who viewed leadership throughout his career as stewardship and wanted to grow his team from 10 to 12 people,” Matt said. “He wanted to lead these people so well that his company sent more his way.”

The world is full of leaders who chase money and power for the sake of accumulating these things and feeding their own ego. In contrast, servant leaders embrace bigger budgets, teams and opportunities in order to touch more lives, solve problems and create prosperity. 

3. Focuses on the self-interest of those they are leading. 

It is evident when someone’s leadership style is rooted firmly in their own self-interest. In their eyes, their employees exist to help them look good, earn more and advance. A servant leader, on the other hand, looks to the self-interest of their employees, always looking for ways to help them grow and reach their own career goals. Rather than taking credit for someone else's effort, they publicly praise and promote their employees. 

4. Gives everyone a voice. 

“On a typical team of a dozen people, there will usually be a few who feel like outsiders,” Matt said. “The role of a servant leader is to ensure that everyone has a voice.”

A servant leader pays special attention to those who feel pushed to the margins by acknowledging them in a group and soliciting their input. In some situations, they act as a referee to prevent more confident, outspoken employees from inadvertently running roughshod over those who shrink from the spotlight. For an employee to maximize their potential, they need to feel seen and appreciated.  

5. Maintains healthy boundaries. 

Jesus could have spent all his time delivering sermons and performing miracles, but he frequently retreated to quiet places to pray and rest. There is no valor in overworking and becoming too burned out to serve anyone. 

A servant leader is anything but a doormat or a pushover. They draw clear boundaries and expectations around performance and behavior, and in doing so, honor the people and the organization they serve. 

Putting it into practice

Matt advises his students to start becoming servant leaders by observing the leaders around them.

“I ask them to become a student of the people around them, even their current professors,” Matt said. “Notice which leadership practices are particularly effective and which are a turn-off.”

He also recommends books like “Dare to Serve” by Popeye’s CEO Cheryl Batchelder or “Give and Take” by Adam Grant, a noted business professor. These books illustrate a powerful truth: The traditional bottom-line mentality that prioritizes profits over people is not a viable way forward. Most people enjoy working for servant leaders and flourish under their leadership. Ultimately, servant leadership is not an impediment to success—it is a path to success. 

What’s Next

Do you aspire to become a servant leader? Click here to learn more about Baylor’s MBA programs or fill out this form to speak directly with an Enrollment Coordinator.