September Cover
Volume 81 | Issue 5
September 2013

Student Development Theory Series: Leadership Development

Leslie Jo Shelton

The study of leadership spans many disciplines and has various definitions that have evolved over time. Early ideas surrounding leadership considered individuals holding positions of power to be leaders who were born to fill these authoritative roles. Scholars often categorize this as the preindustrial definition of leadership, while postindustrial ideas shifted to management-type views regarding the behavior and style of leaders who direct followers to achieve specific results. The next main shift in thinking about Student Development CCleadership occurred in the 1970s, concerning the idea of leaders and followers holding more mutual relationships resulting in nurturing followers to also become leaders. As leadership studies shifted away from hierarchical relationships, the early 1990s furthered the focus on collaborations, networks, and the process of achieving goals in teamwork-oriented groups. This focus on the process of collaboration was in contrast to previously held traditional ideas surrounding top-down leadership, and instead emphasized leaders and followers acting together to facilitate a group’s success. Around this time, leadership educators began emphasizing the need for college students to be exposed to various leadership approaches so they may develop their own leadership identities. Scholarship on college student leadership identity development is still an important part of higher education today as this information continues to evolve and have a positive influence on helping cultivate students’ leadership identities. 

Evolving Theories

Ideas surrounding leadership have evolved from assuming leaders are born and not made, to observing traits of leaders as managers, to understanding leadership as a complex process where multiple people can achieve success by working together. An early leadership theory is the great man theory, which purports that only a small number of individuals are born natural leaders and others cannot learn to fill leadership roles. This theory also assumes that when a leader is needed, the right person will rise to the occasion based on genetically determined skills. This early leadership theory is no longer commonly accepted, as it is based on early studies that only examined the lives of people who were already considered great leaders. These individuals were generally wealthy white men in the aristocracy, which facilitated the perception that being a great leader was linked to genetics. Thus, this approach excluded women and other diverse individuals as potential leaders.

Another early leadership theory is trait theory, which assumes people born with certain traits that, in combination, result in the ability to be a good leader. Research focused on discovering traits of successful leaders and assumed that others with similar inherited characteristics could also become great leaders. In contrast to trait theories, behavioral theories assume leaders can be made. Underlying this theory is the idea that leadership is based on definable behaviors that anyone can learn, so it is important to focus on what leaders do so others can learn from and adopt these behaviors. Eventually research evolved to include examining situational factors that also affect leaders.

Situational leadership assumes that a successful leader does not implement a single style of leadership, but instead considers situational factors such as the skills and attitudes of followers in any given circumstance. An increasing focus on the role of followers grew in studying leadership, along with emphasizing the importance of the relationship between leaders and followers. For example, servant leadership is a guiding philosophy of leaders who share power by putting others first and facilitating greatness in followers. Similarly, participatory leadership occurs when a leader involves followers in the decision-making process, which is assumed to create increased buy-in for accomplishing goals, including fostering a more collaborative environment.

Transactional leadership assumes people are motivated by reward and punishment based on performance, which is passed down through a clear chain of command. Transactional leaders function by creating a clear structure of expectations for followers, including identifying rewards for successfully completing expectations. A different view on leader and follower relationships is seen in transformational leadership, where a charismatic leader inspires followers. Passion, enthusiasm, and positivity are key elements for leaders to exhibit in moving a group to accomplish lofty goals. Transformational leaders genuinely care about their work and the people around them, and they want everyone to succeed in accomplishing goals that are facilitated through trust and excitement. The importance of a positive leader/follower relationship is also seen in James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s popular resource, The Leadership Practices Inventory. The authors asked people about the top things they look for, admire, and willingly follow in a leader, and they found that people prefer the following five characteristics: honesty, forward-looking, competent, inspiring, intelligent, and fair-minded. Kouzes and Posner also identify five actions for successful leadership: modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act, and encouraging the heart. These positive, collaborative views of leadership relate to leadership models developed specifically with college students in mind.

A 1993 U.S. Department of Education grant was awarded to prominent leadership educators to revolutionize how college students learned about leadership. The goal of this work was to “enhance student learning and development of leadership competence” and “to facilitate positive social change,” according to the resulting text, Leadership for a Better World. Based on work from this grant, the 1996 social change model of leadership came into focus. This model “approaches leadership as a dynamic, collaborative, and values-based process grounded in relationships and intending positive social change,” authors Susan Komives and Wendy Wagner wrote. Focused on college students, the model is a framework for personal development and for working with others to create positive change for society. Underlying assumptions of the model are that leadership is collaborative, is a process versus a position, and is values-based. Other key themes are that all students are potential leaders, regardless of holding formal leadership positions, and that service is an important way any student can develop leadership skills.

In 1998, another important contribution to the literature evolved as Komives and fellow leading scholars Nance Lucas and Timothy McMahon applied relational leadership to a variety of college students interested in developing as leaders. The book Exploring Leadership resulted as authors investigated relational leadership, or when leadership is viewed as “a relational and ethical process of people together attempting to accomplish positive change.” This model does not describe how leadership is practiced, but rather offers how a healthy, ethical, effective group can be developed and supported through the five elements of being inclusive, empowering, purposeful, ethical, and process-oriented.

Another frame for examining college student leadership is the leadership identity development theory, which Komives and colleagues introduced in a 2009 Journal of Leadership Education. This grounded theory explores how college students develop the social identity of being collaborative, relational leaders who interdependently engage in leadership as a group process. In this model, student leadership development is viewed as an intersection between relational leadership and student development theory. The leadership identity development theory includes psychosocial and cognitive stages to development in establishing leadership identity. There are six stages with transitions of increasing complexity that individuals experience, resulting in students reflecting on their roles of doing leadership in groups, and expanding their views of leadership. Since its inception, the theory has been used in various studies on college student leadership.

Current Trends

The leadership identity development theory has remained popular in scholarly literature on college students, and several follow-up studies have occurred using it as a framework. These more recent studies have emphasized the need for leadership scholarship for diverse student populations. For example, Mercyhurst College doctoral candidate William Gonda Jr. applied the theory to women for his 2007 dissertation, finding evidence that participants only experienced certain stages. Another study published in a 2006 NASPA Journal, applied the theory to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, discovering evidence supporting the stages in the leadership identity development model. The 2011 text Early Development and Leadership: Building the Next Generation of Leaders reported findings from a large-scale U.S. study on college student leadership using leadership identity development concepts.

According to the results, having a definition of leadership that is not position-based and working interdependently with others facilitates progress toward valuing socially responsible leadership. Overall, recent literature on the development of a leadership identity emphasizes the interconnected nature of cognitive and identity development processes, as individuals with varying developmental levels make meaning of group leadership experiences.

Wagner focused her 2011 dissertation on this topic. Her study tested the validity of the leadership identity development theory, with results indicating the importance of learning about students’ current perspectives on leadership so related programs may be designed to target current styles and skills while also effectively introducing new ideas about leadership. Wagner also found that practitioners might encourage student leaders to serve as mentors too often. There is an assumption that this role will facilitate leadership development, but not all students are interested or capable in serving as an effective mentor to other students. Last, Wagner found that understanding student leaders’ views on and motivations for leadership involvement can help educators better communicate messages to student leaders, especially in various groups with diverse members and missions.

This emphasis on translating leadership identity development theory to practice is also seen in another prominent body of scholarship on college students. The Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership is an international research program focused on understanding the influences of higher education in shaping socially responsible leadership outcomes such as efficacy, cognitive skills, and resilience. The study is designed as a collaborative research program and allows for evidence-based practice for institutions while also expanding knowledge on college student leadership development. As with some other larger national databases and research projects, there is a fee associated with participation in the program. For some institutions, this is a potential cost-prohibiting aspect, resulting in an opt-in sample. However, the program is involved with a variety of colleges and universities covering more than 250 institutions across the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Jamaica and provides “critical data source for students traditionally underrepresented in quantitative research, including students of color, LGBT students, and commuter students,” according to its website.

Findings from the 2012 Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership emphasize the importance of several practices for cultivating student leadership development. These areas include discussing sociocultural issues in all areas of campus, involving students in at least one organization, encouraging students to attend at least one leadership program, and decentralizing leadership programs. The findings also highlight the importance of focusing on student organization members and not just positional leaders, discouraging too much breadth in involvement, developing mentoring relationships with students, designing distinct programs for specific groups, and aligning students’ self-perceptions of leadership competence and confidence. Overall messages from the study include collaborating across campus to infuse leadership opportunities for all students while matching these efforts to students’ developmental levels and their potential fit and interest for particular leadership roles. Given that students with various roles and interests hold leadership potential, educators can focus on fostering opportunities for students in and out of the classroom in multiple contexts.

In addition to using the leadership identity development theory and Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership to inform practice with students, other studies have indicated additional areas for future scholarship on leadership. Recent literature emphasizes a life span model, which “will greatly aid intentional leadership development interventions” as, “Leadership life span development is enriched by recent students conceptualizing ‘leader’ as a social identity as perceived by the self and others,” Komives and her collaborators stated in the Journal of Leadership Education article. Other emerging trends discussed in ACUI’s 2009 online learning program about college student leadership programs include continuing to examine diverse identities and the effect on leadership development, and leadership in various areas including civic engagement and service learning, spirituality, and sports. The online program also called for reexamining and assessing leadership studies programs, emphasizing sociocultural conversations, focusing on graduate and professional students, and exploring global leadership. Scholarship on this topic points to multiple ways educators can encourage students’ leadership identity development, and college unions are ideally poised to foster this growth in students.

College Unions and College Student Leadership

The Role of the College Union explains, “The union offers firsthand experience in citizenship and educates students in leadership, social responsibility, and values. … These models of college union governance foster student/staff partnerships that form the foundation for student development and leadership training.” The standards published by the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Educationdetail effective student leadership development as involving self-awareness and working in groups with others from diverse backgrounds. Also, they explicitly state that leadership “requires competence in establishing purpose, working collaboratively, and managing conflict. Institutions can initiate opportunities to study leadership and to experience a range of leadership-related activities designed to intentionally promote desired outcomes of student leadership learning.”

Union and activities professionals can facilitate these goals surrounding leadership development in students, given many avenues such as programming, student employment, role modeling, mentoring, and offering space for diverse student groups. Cultivating a working knowledge of scholarly literature is one way to inform intentional practice based in an understanding of college student leadership identity development. Educators working in student unions hold the great potential of shaping student’s leadership identity development, which is a path of discovery and growth that will enrich students’ lives and communities both during and after their time in college. 




SheltonLeslie Jo (LJ) Shelton is a doctoral candidate in Michigan State University’s Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education program. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Ohio University where she studied sociology, women’s studies, and college student personnel. Her research and teaching currently focus on the college experiences and identity development of diverse students, learning outcomes for graduate education abroad, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Her email is