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The Servant Leader in Higher Education

One of the greatest leaders in the history of the United States commonly closed his correspondence with “Your obedient servant, A. Lincoln.”

There is much we in higher education can learn from Lincoln, not the least of which is his approach to leadership. He led with courage, conviction, and a vision of service that encompassed America. It is that vision of service that made his leadership stand out. The 16th US President was not focused on his personal advancement, wealth and reputation, but rather on serving others.

There are other leaders who are often cited as servant leaders, among them Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez, and host of religious figures who put others ahead of themselves. Even successful contemporary corporate leaders are heralded as service leaders, such as Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines; Cheryl Bachelder, former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen; and Art Barter CEO of Datron World Communications, Inc. are among those cited for putting high priorities on the success of their employees. Jack Welch, the at times controversial former CEO of General Electric, wisely wrote, “before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

Although there were many great servant leaders in history, the leadership approach gained a name and some definition through Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.” Greenleaf was a career leader at AT&T; however, he was also known as an author, management consultant, and educator. He articulated the concept of a style of leadership that is based on the idea that leaders prioritize serving the greater good. Leaders with this style serve their team and organization first. They don’t prioritize their own objectives.

This approach is a great fit for higher education leaders. Our mission is in the service to our learners and broader society carried out by our employees. Writing in the BetterUp blog, Aída Lopez Gomez notes that if you have a desire to work toward the greater good or inspire your employees to make an impact, servant leadership might be right for you. She goes on to write “Servant leadership seeks to achieve a vision by providing strong support to employees. In turn, this allows employees to learn and grow while bringing their own expertise and vision to the table. This hinges on building influence and authority rather than using control and toxic leadership tactics. In servant leadership, employees are empowered. But the leader doesn’t just disappear.”

Servant leaders empower and serve their followers to achieve a shared vision for the future; effectively “leading from behind.” Leadx, the leadership development platform company, describes in Servant Leadership: Definition, Examples, Characteristics, that “the upside-down pyramid” is another way experts describe servant leadership. In a traditional hierarchy, the CEO and upper levels of management are at the top of the pyramid, and those underneath—including middle management and frontline employees, are responsible for catering to their needs. Servant leadership flips this model on its head, putting employees and customers at the top.

Aida Lopez Gomez notes “Servant first” leadership represents the opposite of the traditional leadership model. Traditional leadership is defined as a model of leadership where the leader is seen as the central point of the team. Employees are there to support the leader’s efforts to meet company goals. In contrast, servant leadership puts the needs of others at the forefront. Under this leadership philosophy, the more you invest in serving as a “scaffold” for your employees, the more productive your team becomes.

Gomez identifies seven characteristics of servant leadership:

  • Teamwork: The team needs to come first.
  • Employee satisfaction: Employee satisfaction and cooperation turn the wheel.
  • Adaptability: Servant leadership varies from revenue-focused sales environments to non-profit organizations that set out to promote social good.
  • Motivation: Servant leaders provide high levels of support to employees, fueling motivation and engagement.
  • Transparent communication: The team trusts a leader who can provide clarity, even in complex, changing situations.
  • Authenticity: Servant leaders need to genuinely care about individual and team development. Leadership must embrace authenticity.
  • Accountability: Ownership activates commitment and purpose. Employees work toward goals they’ve set for themselves and take responsibility for the results.

In years as a department head and administrative leader in higher education, I came to understand that, in my case, it was the knowledge, skills, and strengths of the team that superseded my abilities alone. It was in cultivating, supporting, and sustaining the team that we were able to excel in our mission to serve the students through advancing effective distance learning practices and programs.

The success of the mission was not my success. It was the cumulative successes of the team that brought about our accomplishing the shared vision and mission. My role was to directly support the team. It was to create an environment and conditions that made their work and their collective vision possible.

In recent months, I have received high honors and awards in recognition of the successes I have seen. Thank you to UPCEA and the University of Illinois Springfield. In accepting those, however, I have tried to explain that the successes were not mine, but rather they were directly earned by the team. That is the truth. My success, came through selecting, encouraging and supporting team members who possessed the qualities of shared purpose, intelligence, communication and caring for the mission of serving the university and the students. I was part of the team, but not at the at the top of the pyramid.

Have you considered the role of the servant leader? In higher education we have such talented, highly educated, and socially committed people who have the ability to move mountains. Ours is a natural environment for servant leadership. Those in leadership positions now might find it worthwhile to read the few articles cited in this piece. I encourage those who aspire to leadership positions also to read about servant leadership. It is not in your vision and ability alone that leadership succeeds best, rather it is through supporting, encouraging and facilitating a team that many of the greatest accomplishments are achieved.


This article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed’s Transforming Teaching & Learning blog. 

A man (Ray Schroeder) is dressed in a suit with a blue tie and wearing glasses.

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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