Ease your student supervision speed bumps.

Servant Leadership : A Way of Being

There is an endless array of leadership paradigms and philosophies. The study of leadership is built into my doctoral program at California Lutheran University, even in the name ‘Higher Education Leadership.’ Considering this, nearly every paper and project is built around various leadership theories. Recently, I have been working on a book review of one such concept called Servant Leadership.
This kind of leader has been written about in a variety of contexts, however recently a book was released written for higher education practitioners called fittingly “Servant Leadership for Higher Education.” In my post today I hope to give you the cliff notes of the text as well as my thoughts on the application for all leaders.

Servant Leadership came about first through an essay by Robert K. Greenleaf called The Servant Leader in 1970. Now there is a Center for Servant Leadership in Roberts name that produces an annual conference and offers various publications, trainings, and membership
Based on the centers’ website: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership is an international nonprofit organization that serves individuals and organizations seeking to be better servant-leaders.  We provide that service through a variety of programs you will find described here on our website. We are guided by the wisdom of our founder, Robert K. Greenleaf, who wrote The Servant As Leader and launched the modern servant leadership movement nearly 50 years ago.  Both an ancient philosophy and modern practice, servant leadership enriches the lives of individuals, builds more effective organizations of all kinds and, ultimately, creates a more just and caring world.

The author of Servant Leadership for Higher Education, Daniel Wheeler built the text off the Servant Leadership movement. The Center for Servant Leadership defines it as

“a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.”

The book was set-up to be read tactfully and quickly, great for a busy leader. Each chapter provides bullet points at the end with points to consider, developmental aspects to explore and strategies to develop servant leadership awareness.

Lists and bullet points?! This book already had me hooked!

I appreciated  in the introduction section of the text, the author listed the following three points under Strategizes to Develop Servant Leadership Awareness

  • Interview someone you see as a servant leader. At this point the person could be outside of higher education. Listen to how he or she lives and leads.
  • List the major goals you have in your work and as you move through the book; reflect on whether servant leadership is a philosophy you will help you achieve those goals.
  • Consider whether you are pleased with your leadership philosophy and style. If you have concerns list them and keep them in mind as your read through the book.

I attempt to journal daily, so reflections and prompts like these were wonderful additions to my reading experience. In this text, as well as from Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership is a philosophy of living, a way of being. It is who you are.
I love this concept because one does not simply put their leader hat on or off. Other aspects of being a servant leader include

  • Authenticity
  • Humility
  • Being (openly) on a Spiritual Journey
  • Moral Courage
  • A Call to Serve Others

In chapter three, the 10 Principles of Servant Leadership are explored. The rest of the book uses each chapter to discuss each principle further. These principles include:

  1. Service to Others is the Highest Priority
  2. Facilitate Meeting the Needs of Others
  3. Foster Problem Solving and Taking Responsibility at All Levels
  4. Promoting Emotional Healing in People and the Organization
  5. Means are as Important as Ends
  6. Keep One Eye on the Present and One on the Future
  7. Embrace Paradoxes and Dilemmas
  8. Leave a Legacy to Society
  9. Model Servant Leadership
  10. Develop more Servant Leaders

I will write briefly about three of these that I connected with the most.
Promoting Emotional Healing in People and the Organization
Spending over half of your time on the job, it is no surprise that from time to time employees would have something from their personal life affect their abilities at work. We are whole human beings, bringing along with a need for emotional healing even in the workplace. Aside from personal challenges, work can produce traumatic changes that can significantly affect staff. Things like budgeting cuts, changing in senior leadership or reorganization. Without attending to the holistic needs of your staff, it will lead to an inevitable costly burnout, institution disconnection and employee turnover.
That being said, it is much easier to do nothing. Ground rules are important, but to draw thick boundaries with your employees and ignore warning signs from broken hopes and dreams will end in organization weakness. At the end of the day, work is designed to produce something. In the book it offers the following advice to leaders when feeling stuck in how to help someone in emotional need and struggling in their job duties,

“Be hard on the problem and easy on the people.” (Wheeler, 2012, p. 92)

If you are reading this and consider yourself in a leadership position, Servant Leadership would call you to be a leader invested in the whole person. Not just the product or the professional role they fill for you. Get to know them personally, really know them. Don’t be scared of the inter-relationship of professional and personal. It is your job as a leader to bring out the best in each of your staff. Serving as role model in servant leadership emotional healing will include valuing everyone around you and making it clear that collegiality is a value of your organization.
Keep One Eye on the Present and One on the Future
Upon first reading this practice I was intrigued. I love to plan for the future, but I also struggle keeping focused on the present (and really being in the present moment). Author Wheeler applied the opposite to institutions of higher education,

“The concern is if the institution becomes absorbed in the present then it will not be positioned for the future” (2012, p. 103).  It goes on to say “The ideal is to be able to reflect on and plan for the future as well as take care of the everyday details” (p. 104).

This is my kind of bus to get on.

I enjoyed the use of Jim Collin’s book Good to Great in citing an example of how crucial it is to have the right people on the bus. As my previous supervisor would state to my department, “You are ether on the bus or you are off the bus.”  He led very strategically; taking this statement further. He spoke about how it is one thing to have people wanting to stay on the bus, but another to make sure they are in the right seats. This begins to touch upon another leadership philosophy called Strengths supervision. But back to Servant Leadership, he always had one eye on the present and one on the future.

“Leaders should spend 35 to 50 percent of their time in activities that included visioning, strategic thinking, planning, and professional development” (Wheeler, 2012, p. 111).

Just reading this list excites me, as they are all activities I am naturally drawn to. Professional development was something I heavily advocated for at my previous institution and still make a priority for in my own growth. Leaders must continue to learn and grow. They will never make it to ‘leader land.’
Leave a Legacy to Society
Upon my last month at my previous institution, I felt like a broken record with my students stressing this idea: leave your legacy. How would these student leaders want to leave their leadership position and be remembered on the team? While Servant Leadership takes this same idea to the society level, it all starts with service over self. By having leaders on board to better the organization/society, it commits them to create a positive culture, based on who they serve and not serving themselves.

“One of the most important questions for any unit, whether a department, school, or college, is who to serve and then addressing their highest-priority needs” (Wheeler, 2012, p. 133).

Said another more obvious way, for those working in higher education: your job is not about you, it is about serving the students. One last element to highlight, a Servant Leader who leaves a legacy leaves things better than they found them. This honestly was one of my biggest reliefs but also fears when leaving my job. In my heart, I believe during my time there I served the institution to better the services for students. However, being my biggest critic I can quickly pinpoint to bumps along the way. Reading this section was almost therapeutic in letting those little things go and being proud that I had/have been living this philosophy.
Overall I enjoyed reading this leadership text. However it was not without areas of weakness.
Two of these for me were:

  • I wanted more content, examples and sources.
  • There were times it was written too generally.  But even more it was written for academic affairs leadership roles like Deans or department chairs, not other areas of higher education such as student affairs, technology, alumni, business affairs, ect.

There are several pieces of Servant Leadership that I hope to apply to my leadership development. I appreciated seeing many of the principles that I already identify with, listed as principles.
Would I define my style as a leader completely as Servant Leadership? Does all my bedroom furniture match completely?  No.  However, I love each piece for what it completes for my home. I view leadership the same way. There is no reason to push yourself into one philosophy. I believe it is okay to take pieces of this text to apply to your life.
Would you consider yourself a Servant Leader or a combination of other leadership traits? I would love to hear about it!
Wheeler, D. (2012).  Servant Leadership for HIgher Education.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

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