Guide: How to identify "servant leaders" through the interview process

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How to identify "servant leaders" through the interview process

Last Updated: April 22, 2020

During challenging times, whether a global economic crisis or declining quarterly sales, employees look to their leaders to motivate and support them. Additionally, to weather challenging times, companies need to rely on innovation to properly adapt to changing circumstances. One type of leadership style that particularly excels at motivating teams, engaging employees, and inspiring innovation during challenging times is “servant leadership”. The principle of servant leadership has been touted everywhere from HBR articles to books such as Simon Sinek’s “Leaders Eat Last”. Famous leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela are all examples of servant leaders. Business leaders who adopt a servant leadership style will create teams who are more motivated, committed, engaged, and innovative. When hiring for servant leadership skills, there are specific values, in addition to technical skills, that we want to look for throughout the interview process such as empathy, empowerment, coaching, humbleness, and integrity.

Guide Creator:Jess Wass Coaching & Consulting

Jess Wass helps individuals and companies reach their full potential through Executive Coaching and Change Management Consulting. She is passionate about elevating ordinary managers to become exceptional leaders. To learn more about how to become an exceptional leader, reach out to me here.

Criteria this guide covers

Interview GPS organizes questions by personal values, competencies, and skills. Click a criteria to explore more questions

Safety Fostering physical, emotional, and psychological health and safety
Coaching Works to improve and reinforce performance of others
Empathy Understands and shares the feelings of others
Ethical Practice Applies integrity and accountability throughout all organizational and business practices
Motivating Others Inspires others' commitment to their work and organizational excellence

Tell me about a time when understanding your employee’s state of mind helped you achieve your goal.

Empathy is a key quality of servant leadership as it helps create safety and trust amongst the team. Additionally, by being able to fully listen to your employees and understand their challenges, it enables leaders to more successfully find solutions and resolve issues. The principles of servant leadership imply that caring about your employees will enable employees to care about their work and that will lead to the company’s success.


Provide examples of the various approaches you used to motivate different people based on their individual traits. How did you determine best approach for each individual?

Empowering employees is the key to success for any leader, but particularly servant leaders. Servant leaders are skilled at encouraging and motivating employees to take ownership over their work. However, in order to motivate your employees, you need to acknowledge that what works to motivate one team member may not work for another. Understanding the differences between each individual on the team and picking the right approach for each person is an advanced skill that is well worth the effort.


Tell me about a time when you had an opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills or abilities of another person.

Servant leaders are skilled at coaching their teams, which means taking the time to invest in the development of their teams. We all know that recruiting is challenging and as a result, it can be difficult to find the perfect candidate. Not only that, but the pace of business is changing so rapidly that your perfect candidate today may not be perfect candidate 6 months down the road. The antidote is to invest in developing your team through feedback, skill development, recognition, and empowerment. These are all core skills of effective coaches and so we need to hire leaders who can flex those muscles.


Tell me the last time you had to admit you made a mistake at work. What was the mistake, who did you tell and what was their reaction? What did you learn?

One of the key tenets of servant leadership is the ability to put your followers first which demonstrates humbleness. One of the best ways to determine if someone is humble is by understanding their relationship to admitting mistakes. Humble leaders aren’t afraid to admit they make mistakes and in return are less punitive when their direct reports make mistakes. This doesn’t mean they don’t hold themselves or others accountable, but rather they create an environment where psychological safety is present and a growth mindset is paramount. Mistakes are inevitable, but what we can control is how we handle mistakes and learn from them.


Describe a time when you came across questionable business practices. How did you handle the situation?

Quite frankly, ethical behavior and integrity should be a requirement of all leaders. For servant leaders, it's even more imperative because these leaders are leading by example. As a result, demonstrating any type of lapse in ethical behavior could spell disaster for a company. Companies like Enron are perfect examples of how a lack of ethical behavior at the top pervaded through the company and was their ultimate downfall. Servant leaders demonstrate they will not compromise their ethics to achieve results and their team follows suit.

About the Author

Jess Wass

Jess Wass is an Executive Coach, Consultant, Facilitator and Speaker. She has worked in strategy consulting at a big 4 firm, a large global hospitality company, and various stage startups. She received her Masters in Social-Organizational Psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University and works with clients to help them reach their full potential.

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