- Servant Leadership for Higher Education: Principles and Practices by Daniel Wheeler
Americans have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for books that define, explain, instruct on, and convey inspirational stories about leadership. A keyword search on “leadership” at Amazon.com, for example, yields nearly 94,000 distinct titles.
The sheer volume and demand for this steady stream of leadership literature hints at the subject’s underlying complexity and subjectivity. Each new entry reflects that leadership is a fluid concept, ever-evolving to fit corresponding changes and challenges in the environments in which groups and organizations operate.
Servant Leadership for Higher Education: Principles and Practices debuts at a time when those within and outside of academe question its core purposes, processes, and products. Corporate attitudes and practices, many ill-fitting, have encroached on colleges and universities. Calls for greater accountability, efficiency, and productivity in higher education have never been greater. Author Daniel Wheeler, Professor Emeritus of Leadership Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a higher education consultant and leadership coach with the IDEA Center headquartered in Manhattan, Kansas, enters the fray, championing servant leadership as a powerful countermeasure to these and other concerns.
Servant leadership stems from the trait-theory genre of leadership studies, which postulates that successful leaders embody a key cluster of desirable physiological or psychological characteristics. This cluster changes across contexts, according to what is deemed socially desirable in that time and place. Birth order, height, weight, attractiveness, charisma, and being motivated by power and achievement, have been considered essential characteristics for leaders in earlier eras. Today, such characteristics are not in vogue. Instead, modern trait theories emphasize character, values, and excellence.
In servant leadership, a concept popularized in the 1970s by Robert Greenleaf (1982), desired values and characteristics include a strong service ethos, integrity, humility, morality, empathy, and trustworthiness. One leads by serving others and by inspiring and enabling others to exercise leadership responsibilities.
Wheeler postulates that servant leadership, with its emphasis on the common good, empowerment, involvement, and service to individuals and society offers a better way of leading colleges and universities. This book, the capstone of his career as a scholar, coach, and consultant on academic leadership and organizational change, is based on his “own research, interviews with ten servant leaders, the research of others, [and] forty years of work in higher education institutions” (p. xv).
The opening chapters set the stage. Chapter 1 catalogues several common but flawed approaches to academic leadership. Wheeler makes a rather sparse inventory here, not venturing beyond those perspectives already commonly disfavored and refuted in leadership research, such as highly bureaucratic and task-oriented approaches, power and achievement orientations, and laissez-faire approaches. The effect channels the reader toward his thesis: Short-term-oriented or formal leader-centered strategies are ineffective; a more integrated, empowering approach is needed; and servant leadership is the ideal.
Chapter 2 describes characteristics often associated with servant leaders. Clearly, foremost is the strong calling to serve others. Equally important, servant leaders are humble, neither needing nor seeking recognition for achievement and success. Other core attributes include authenticity, self-awareness, responsibility, moral courage, and wisdom. These and other characteristics Wheeler outlines constitute a values system rather than a set of specific leadership practices.
Chapters 3 through 13 translate these values into 10 principles for practicing servant leadership in academic administration. Principle 1, “Service to others is the highest priority,” seems at face value like a redundant description of servant leadership itself. Chapter 3 offers a bit more, though, exploring the origin and nature of callings to serve. Often, Wheeler notes, this calling is described as an innate love for fellow human beings.
A calling to serve others also can be developed through seeing it in role models, experiencing it and seeing that it works as an approach to leadership, or receiving service from others and having a desire for reciprocity or wanting to give back. Wheeler observes that few academic administrators enter their roles through a genuine desire to serve.