Servant Leadership Workplace-Cardinal Virtues

3 Cardinal Virtues of a Servant-Leader

What are the virtues of a great leader?

Here are some to choose from, based on the wonderful work of French philosopher André Comte-Sponville: politeness, fidelity, prudence, temperance, courage, justice, generosity, compassion, mercy, gratitude, humility, simplicity, tolerance, purity, gentleness, good faith, humor and love.*

It’s probably safe to say that great leaders exhibit most, if not all of these virtues.

But are there particular virtues that make servant leadership distinctive?

I believe so.

Those who have studied the servant leadership literature – and, as importantly, experienced servant leadership in life – tend to recognize these 3 cardinal virtues of a servant-leader:

  1. Humility.

Most simply defined, humility is not acting as if one were better than others. It is the opposite of arrogance.

More broadly, humility is about appreciating something greater than oneself. Servant-leaders tend to be humbled by the cause they serve. For the servant-leader, “it’s not all about me” – it’s about serving something greater than me.

Based on extensive research, author Jim Collins found that the best leaders “blend the paradoxical combination of deep personal humility with intense professional will.” Collins considered using the term “servant-leader” to describe them, but settled on “Level 5 Leader” instead. Either way, humility is essential.

  1. Generosity.

Generosity is the virtue of giving. Giving elevates us towards one another. Gifts can bring people together and bond them.

So, not surprisingly, servant-leaders are givers. In the workplace, they give time, attention, advice, coaching, feedback, praise and constructive criticism, among other things. Perhaps most importantly, servant-leaders are generous with power.

In his important book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Wharton professor and best-selling author Adam Grant examines the science behind giving. Based on rigorous research, he shows that the most successful people – which would include the most successful leaders – are the ones who give widely, freely and intelligently.

  1. Prudence (Foresight).

Prudence is good judgement, sound decision-making and wisdom in knowing what will be needed in the future. Its synonyms include “foresight.”

“Foresight is the lead the leader has,” writes Robert K. Greenleaf, who coined the term “servant leadership” in his foundational 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader. For Greenleaf, exercising foresight is an ethical obligation of a servant-leader.

A “loss of leadership,” Greenleaf continues, comes from “a failure to foresee what reasonably could have been foreseen, and from failure to act on that knowledge while the leader had freedom to act.”

What do you think? Do you agree with this list? Are there virtues you would add or subtract?

Let us know.

As always, we appreciate your views. Thanks!


*I highly recommend his best-seller: A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life (New York: Metropolitan Books 2001).