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  • Leadership through Meaning-Making:An Empirical Exploration of Spirituality and Leadership in College Students
  • Sean J. Gehrke (bio)

A recent surge in interest surrounding spirituality has occurred within the context of American higher education (Higher Education Research Institute [HERI], 2005; Hindman, 2002; Love, 2001; Rogers & Dantley, 2001). As our society has become more materialistic, a new desperation for spiritual fulfillment has been evident (Rogers & Dantley). A search for more meaning is apparent in the lives of many people as modern science suggests an interconnectedness of every aspect of our being to everything else, "an unbroken wholeness" (Rogers & Dantley, p. 590). Student affairs professionals once attempted to address this search in college students through a focus on community, civic education, and service learning. It was not until recent years that they began to understand and address this search through a focus on spirituality. A deeper understanding of theories of spiritual development (Fowler, 1981; Parks, 2000) and their application to college students has led to a new era in which spiritual development is often included as "a core component of liberal arts education" (HERI, 2005, p. 2). In addition to spiritual development, leadership development has long been an espoused outcome of higher education (Astin & Astin, 2000; Boatman, 1999; Zimmerman-Oster & Burkhardt, 1999). The role of higher education to develop each new generation of leaders to better serve society has remained consistent (Astin & Astin). As a result, various models of leadership have been developed to aid educators in developing college students as leaders; these include the social change model of leadership (HERI, 1996) and the relational leadership model (Komives, Lucas, & McMahon, 2006).

Spirituality and Leadership

Astin (2004) identified three broad aspects of humanity that spirituality covers: the interior of human existence, the affective (as opposed to logical) human experience, and aspects of the human experience that are hard to define or difficult to talk about, such as "intuition, inspiration, the mysterious, and the mystical" (p. 34). Spirituality is a process of meaning-making attempting to fully understand the human experience (Parks, 2000) and is a universal component of human experience regardless of religion or belief (Fowler, 1981). It differs from traditional cognitive processes in that it is an attempt to find connections and meaning across all dimensions of the human experience (Love, 2002) and is seen as an experience of "being connected with one's complete self, others, the entire universe, and a higher power" (Rogers & Dantley, 2001, [End Page 351] p. 591). HERI (2005) developed 12 scales measuring different aspects of spirituality in college students. Three of these scales measured spirituality independent from religious beliefs and practices. They were:

  • • spirituality, which includes components of a search for the sacredness of human life and a belief that everyone can be spiritual;

  • • equanimity, which refers to an ability to find meaning in hardships, feeling at peace or centered, and experiencing a strong bond to humanity; and

  • • spiritual quest, which reflects a concern for the meaning or purpose of life, a desire to form a meaningful philosophy of life, and a search to uncover the mysteries of human life and existence.

Leadership, as seen through a postindustrial lens (Rost, 1993), is a relational process by which members of a group, consisting of both leaders and participants, work toward a goal of social change for the common good (HERI, 1996; Komives et al., 2006; Rogers, 2003). Three themes that underlie this understanding of leadership are a focus on relationships, a focus on positive change within a group or community, and the purview that leadership can be practiced by everyone, regardless of position or title. Aspects of various models of postindustrial leadership, including transformational, charismatic, and servant leadership, can be found in the root concept of authentic leadership, which focuses on the development of relationships as "a core component process in authentic leadership development" (Avolio & Gardner, 2005, p. 333). Some components of authentic leadership development include positive psychological capital, positive moral perspective, self-awareness, and self-regulation.

In the early 1990s, Walling (1994) observed that language used to describe the human experience through spirituality, such as vision, morality, community, and meaning-making, had begun to work its way into the language surrounding leadership. One such example is...