Volume 79 | Issue 6
November 2011

Servant leadership practices among student affairs professionals

Christina Reddick

Many student affairs administrators operate according to mission statements or in pursuit of goals that emphasize “serving students;” however, servant leadership may or may not be a guiding principle. The aim of the research presented here was to discover if servant leadership is currently being practice by student affairs administrators. To evaluate current leadership practices among student affairs professionals, a survey was distributed to college students involved in student activities who are advised by student affairs professionals. For this study, the student’s perception is more important than the administrator’s self-perception. It is the student’s experience of a leadership style practiced by the student affairs administrator that should give guidance to best practices among professionals. Effectively leading staff and supporting the student to graduate and succeed as a contributing member of society are different goals. 

About servant leadership

Robert Greenleaf first coined the terms “servant leader” and “servant leadership” in 1970. He reviewed management practices and recommended ideal behaviors for those in charge of large profit and nonprofit organizations to help those leaders achieve high levels of excellence while supporting the morality of humankind. Greenleaf defined a “servant leader” as one who begins with a natural desire to serve; that desire then fosters a desire to lead by serving others. In Greenleaf’s book, “The Servant as a Leader,” he lists the moral test of servant leaders in the form of four basic questions:

  • Do those served grow as persons?
  • Do they, while being served, become wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
  • And what is the effect on the least privileged in society?
  • Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

Similarly, student affairs professionals ask themselves and those they supervise: Do students grow, graduate, and gain the skills necessary to learn and think critically and to become successful contributing members of society? Can students define their own values and create identities of their own, not those imposed on them by cultural or family expectations? Are campus professionals creating environments that support such identity development? Supporting students’ growth is what union and activities professionals do each day, and researching how to better support student development is a high priority.

Larry Spears, author of “Reflections on Leadership,” maintains that servant leadership provides a stronger foundation than any kind of approach to leading because it clearly defines values and ethics as well as a desire to serve others. Defining one’s purpose is closely related to an awareness of their operational values, as values and purpose are the foundation of what is meaningful in life. One who values money over friendship often finds reward and meaning in accumulation of financial gains, even at the expense of interpersonal relationships. One who values others over themselves will find altruistic pursuits highly meaningful and a guiding purpose in life. 

Servant leadership and student affairs

According to the book “Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership,” “Servant leaders help others meet their highest priority development needs.” Theorists such as Alexander Astin and Vincent Tinto emphasize how the student affairs professionals’ obligations include creating environments and offering opportunities, which support the students’ developmental needs. If servant leaders help others meet their highest developmental needs and student affairs professionals have an obligation to offer environments and create opportunity that support student development, then one might ask if student affairs professionals should embody or strive to become servant leaders.

Many leadership scholars and some business experts agree on the complementary roles between servitude and leadership. In his 1997 Strategy and Leadership article, C. William Pollard contended that the real leader is not the holder of the highest title or longest tenure or the individual who possesses the greatest ability to self-promote; rather, he or she is the one who is the greatest promoter of others. This is an important mindset to keep as a higher education professional: ultimately, administrators are teachers and servants tending to students’ needs so that they will grow intellectually, spiritually, and professionally. Higher education professionals should challenge students while supporting their desires for greatness and growth.

An obligation of student affairs administrators is to “seek new understandings” of how the college student searches for and creates meaning, according to the article “Finding Wholeness: Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose” in the Journal of College and Character. Other leadership scholars such as Stephen Covey focus on the importance of organizations and their leaders maintaining a principle-focused approach. Covey believes development of the leader should move beyond self-development to inspiring others to develop, an important practice of the servant leader. Moving beyond self-development is precisely what student affairs professionals aspire to do. These individuals are leaders who guide others on their path to leadership within the desired educational discipline. The servant leader does not operate to gain followers but rather to support followers in their leadership pursuits.

Several aspects of the servant leadership paradigm may be unique to its application by student affairs professionals, particularly the idea that the leader-follower relationship of the servant leader is not that of a “client-server nor supervisor-subordinate,” according to Sen Sendjayas and James Sarros in the September 2002 Journal of Leadership and Organization Studies. Discussing university faculty in a 1998 issue of the Journal of Leadership Studies, Irving Buchen explored how hierarchal, egotistical faculty at universities do not have followers, but rather “obedient puppets.” He posits that, by enacting a first-among-equals approach, faculty can create collaborators among students and “inculcate an ethic of collective study and culture of collaboration” through servant leadership instruction in the classroom.

Many student affairs professionals find themselves mentoring and advising student leaders outside of and separate from the analytical, informational experience of the classroom. Researchers address this practice in Learning Reconsidered, which states that today’s students require a fusing of academic learning and student development in a transformative process that is “centered in and responsive to the whole student.” Learning Reconsidered uncovers the importance of the student’s transformative process.

Cognitive-structural theory states that change occurs as a result of assimilation, the process of adding new information and accommodation, the modification of existing thoughts or ideas to incorporate new ones that did not fit with previous notions. Often a transition period occurs during accommodation, and during transition a student’s thinking may seem inconsistent. The idea is that students evolve from simpler ways of viewing information to more complex thinking. David Kolb’s theory of learning styles notes that challenges in learning are important for growth. Kolb concludes that academic programs that wish to be accessible to all students with diverse learning styles must value various styles of learning. 

The study

Little research explores servant leadership practices among college administrators nor examines how they impact or foster the transformative process that students encounter during college. Previous studies, such as “Servant Leadership: Setting the Stage for Empirical Research” from the Journal of Leadership Studies, have compared and contrasted Greenleaf’s servant leadership perspective to James MacGregor Burns’s transformational leadership perspective and found that servant leaders are indeed transformational leaders. Both types of leaders use transformational processes. Since servant leadership is a comprehensive philosophy, many leadership styles may be applied using a servant perspective.

The idea of “serving students” and encouraging them to become leaders is often a priority for student affairs departments; however, it is important to distinguish the ways that administrators interact with student leaders versus staff or other professionals. If serving students is the mission, then evaluating how administrators serve is important. This study focuses on the leader/follower relationship between the administrator and the student leader to discover if administrators not in the supervisor/employee relationship but in the professional/student advisor relationship are using servant leadership practices when interacting with students.


The research design employed a quantitative approach by the use of an online survey to ACUI student members. The instrument utilized was John Barbuto and Daniel Wheeler’s Servant Leadership Questionnaire, introduced in a 2006 edition of Group and Organization Management. The questionnaire operationalizes servant leadership for empirical study. It measures the five constructs of servant leadership that Barbuto and Wheeler defined as unique to the servant leader: emotional healing, altruistic calling, persuasive mapping, organizational stewardship, and wisdom. The psychometric and conceptual information on Barbuto and Wheeler’s questionnaire led to the decision to utilize it in this research. Additional reasons for using the instrument were the ability to assess the servant leadership of individuals rather than the organization; and the ability to utilize the rater portion to evaluate the student leaders’ perceptions of administrators’ leadership practices.

Statements were aligned with a four-point Likert-type scale in which 1 – Strongly Disagree, 2 – Somewhat Disagree, 3 – Somewhat Agree, and 4 – Strongly Agree. Students

completed the survey questions regarding the leadership styles of the administrators with whom they directly interact and/or are advised by either through involvement in a student organization or student club. Of the 1,396 recipients of the online survey, 38 opted out and 260 responded, giving a response rate of 19 percent. Of the 260 respondents, only 135 completed all of the survey questions. 


Overall, those ACUI student members who are highly involved in one or more organizations most often find that the advisors with whom they work are servant leaders.

The average score ranged from 3.0125 to 3.624 for all servant leadership scales. These findings support the assumption that student affairs professionals seek to “serve students first” and are presently practicing a servant leadership approach.

Emotional Healing
According to Barbuto and Wheeler, “Leaders using emotional healing are highly empathetic and great listeners, making them adept at facilitating the healing process.” In activities offices, students are challenged to balance class, social activities, campus involvement, and personal or family obligations. Students often can feel overwhelmed or pulled in opposing directions while moving through the stages of student development and identity development. Access to support services that can help students through developmental stages can lead to students feeling better supported through building relationships during emotionally difficult times.

When reviewing each subscale, emotional healing scores the lowest among the five. One particular statement of the emotional healing construct received the most strongly disagree responses, “This person is one I could turn to if I had a personal trauma.” Other emotional healing statements include, “This person … is good at helping me with my emotional issues” and “is talented at helping me to heal emotionally.” Many student affairs professionals may find this surprising due to their close relationships with student leaders. This response could be due to little formal training in counseling services or motivational interviewing skill sets of student affairs professionals. The profession and most institutions encourage administrators to demonstrate clear boundaries and to remain professional when interacting with students. It may appear to students that professionals outside of the counseling center on campuses are not available or open to discussing personal topics such as depression, dating, or issues typically viewed as emotionally charged. Surely, student affairs administrators cannot diagnose mental illness unless licensed, but perhaps students being able to turn to university administration when seeking assistance on handling emotionally charged issues and/or challenges could result in positive results for the student and administrator. Further explorations of this may be beneficial.

Altruistic Calling
Altruistic calling describes the desire to make a significant difference in others’ lives. Individuals do not typically choose student affairs because of the salary or hours, so this construct truly focuses on the “servant” aspect of servant leadership. Student respondents agreed their advisor “does everything he/she can to serve me” (3.53), “goes above and beyond the call of duty to meet my needs” (3.32), “sacrifices his/her own interests to meet my needs” (3.07), and “puts my best interest ahead of his/her own” (3.07).

Fulfilling others’ needs is most important for those high in this construct. Listening to better recognize students’ needs is fundamental for improving in this construct, as it is essential for hearing, empathizing with others, and fully understanding what the other is communicating on the surface and a deeper level. Often we are busy relaying policy and procedures to students; however, listening to students’ needs, reflecting on what is said, how it is said, and the experience of the students during the moment makes fully understanding the student possible.

Persuasive Mapping
Leaders who demonstrate great persuasive mapping, “encourage others to visualize the organization’s future and are persuasive, offering compelling reasons to get others to do things,” Barbuto and Wheeler wrote. Student affairs leaders who are able to translate the institutions strategic plan within their divisions and offices model this construct.

Respondents agreed that their advisors encourage them to dream “big dreams” about the organization (3.55), offer compelling reasons to get the student to do things (3.29), were very persuasive (3.16), were gifted when it comes to persuading the student (3.07), and were good at convincing the student to do things (3.07). This reinforces results from another recent ACUI study, “Assuming the Role: The Successful Advisor-Student Relationship,” in which students reported seeing their advisors in the role of motivator.

Organizational Stewardship
According to Barbuto and Wheeler, organizational stewardship includes, “an ethic or value for taking responsibility for the well-being of the community and making sure that the strategies and decisions undertaken reflect the commitment to give back and leave things better than found.” There are many opportunities for student affairs professionals to practice organizational stewardship through living-learning communities, alternative break programs, and the many charitable endeavors that begin with a group of students’ desire to become involved in their community.

In the study, students reported that their advisors believed their organization needed to function as a community (3.77), saw the organization’s potential to contribute to society (3.67), prepared the organization to make a positive difference in the future (3.65), encouraged the student to have community spirit (3.55), and believed the organization needs to play a moral role in society (3.48). Given college union and student activities professionals’ role as community builders, these results are perhaps not surprising. Additionally, the Social Change Model of Leadership Development reflects this component of servant leadership within the collegiate context—that leadership is socially responsible, effects positive change on behalf of others, and is a collaborative group process, as presented in the book “Leadership for a Better World.”

Wisdom is the ability to predict outcomes and reflect on past experiences of students. Student affairs leaders high in this construct are seen as ideal mentors and teachers; students feel confident in taking guidance from those high in wisdom. Indeed mentoring is an essential role of advisors, according to “Advising Student Groups and Organizations.” In the September 2010 Bulletin, Deepti Vanguri also found that advisors see mentorship as one of the most beneficial components of their work.

The questions in this area of the study focused more on whether the advisors were attuned to happenings within the organization. Students confirmed that their advisors were “alert to” (3.59), “in touch with” (3.57), and “has great awareness of” (3.47) what’s happening. More specific to the ability to predict outcomes, respondents agreed their advisors were “good at anticipating the consequences of decisions” (3.54) and seemed “to know what is going to happen” (3.39).

Limitations and future research

When evaluating the reliability of the Servant Leadership Questionnaire, Barbuto and Wheeler conclude that “the differences in the relationships between self (leader) and rater (follower) reports of servant leadership and perceptions of organizational effectiveness raise many issues related to perceptions of leadership effectiveness.” Their research showed that motivating factors defined by the leader were not congruent with the motivating factors defined by the follower in regard to organizational stewardship, wisdom, and emotional healing. In this study, administrators did not self-report leadership practices; student leaders only reported their observations of administrators’ leadership practices. Since the survey did not include self-reported data from administrators about their own daily interactions and self-reflection, the leaders’ perceptions of themselves were left out. However, this does eliminate the possibility that respondents will not self-report accurately.

In this sample, the regions of the United States were not represented equally: 96 from the Midwest, 62 from the West, 52 from the South, 49 from the Northeast, and one from the Pacific region. Therefore, the geographical, cultural, and social norms of the student-advisor relationship may have influenced students’ perceptions. Since accepted social norms and relational expectations can vary across geographical regions, the ability to generalize the servant leadership characteristics practiced nationwide is limited. Additionally, no one from outside the United States completed the survey.

Further research could evaluate regional differences among leadership styles among student affairs professionals. Perhaps student affairs administrators in the Midwest region are more familiar with Greenleaf’s work and the concept of servant leadership. It would be beneficial to evaluate student affairs administrators’ knowledge of servant leadership and whether they feel that particular leadership philosophy speaks to the profession.

From the responses reviewed, student affairs professionals appear to be operating as servant leaders as defined by the authors of the questionnaire. This finding supports the assumption that student affairs professionals are abiding by their organization’s mission and are “practicing what they preach” in the advisor-student relationship. Student affairs professionals are in a unique position to engage and interact with students outside of the traditional classroom experience. Future research could explore how effective advisors’ modeling of servant leadership is in helping students become servant leaders themselves. The research used here employed Barbuto and Wheeler’s Servant Leadership Questionnaire to evaluate administrators perceived leadership practices. As leadership scholars develop new servant leadership instrumentation, further studies utilizing those servant leadership instruments could be used to confirm this study’s findings.