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A professor practicing servant leadership in education by attentively listening to students.

How Humility is Becoming the Next Revolution in Higher Education

In academia, servant leaders impact student lives through ethical guidance, respect, and adaptability.

In Romans 12:8, Paul writes, “If it is to encourage, then encourage … if it is to lead, do it diligently.” Servant leaders are blessed with the spiritual gift of leadership and use it to glorify God by embodying the teachings of Jesus Christ, seeking to serve and find happiness in helping others. As servant leaders in higher education, we must be humble, ethical, and empathetic, and strive to empower others by encouraging and guiding our students so they can reach their highest potential.

What does servant leadership look like in higher education? How can we empower the next generation of servant leaders? Serving as leaders in higher education provides us with a vast opportunity to work as domestic missionaries, influencing students’ lives while focusing on their educational needs. To do this, we must earn students’ trust and enrich their lives by showing them compassion and respect, emphasizing the importance of hard work, honesty, integrity, and accountability. As servant leaders, we can assist in achieving a competitive advantage for our institution by building community relationships and improving student achievement and retention. We must support our students and practice flexibility in the classroom by utilizing various teaching methods to maximize students’ growth and learning potential to empower future generations of servant leaders. 

 Traits of Successful Servant Leaders in Higher Education

Respect for Others

Servant leaders respect others and treat everyone equally, regardless of their status in the workplace or community, which impacts our students’ lives, strengthens the institution, and makes the world a more compassionate place to live. As servant leaders in higher education, we should strive to become the type of leader that students want to follow voluntarily, despite our title or position. When we show our students respect, we create a unified culture in the classroom, and it encourages them to share their personal experiences and beliefs; students then put forth a more conscientious effort into their work so they can reach their greatest potential.

Ethical Character

Dwight Eisenhower once said, “The supreme quality of leadership is integrity.”  As servant leaders, we must consistently demonstrate exceptional work ethics and be held accountable for our actions in every decision we make. We must be forthcoming and display honesty and transparency when interacting with students, refusing to take advantage of opportunities for dishonest gain. Being influenced to possess highly moral and ethical characteristics allows students greater opportunities for lasting success, which motivates them to have a heightened sense of accountability toward their personal development and growth. A lack of integrity can be costly; therefore, ethical behavior must be practiced daily. It is the ethical characteristics we show students daily through our actions and words that empower our students to become future servant leaders. 

Balancing Focus with Flexibility

The world is constantly in motion and always changing; being flexible and willing to change is crucial for the success of institutions in higher education. Overcoming obstacles, such as COVID restrictions in 2020, revealed the importance of being flexible and willing to change to best serve students, as many institutions had to adapt the traditional classroom into an online learning environment quickly. Servant leaders must recognize the uniqueness of student populations so objective decisions based on current internal and external trends can be made. Servant leaders must also have the willingness to abandon any activities that prove to be futile. A one-size-fits-all approach to classroom management is not effective in maximizing the learning potential of our students. When determining the method for delivering lectures, we must consider the student demographics and classroom dynamics, as they affect a student’s ideal learning style. We must be flexible and willing to deviate from a lesson plan or alter a particular teaching style to provide a stimulating educational environment that can prompt a student’s understanding of the material being presented. Remaining versatile while leading is not always easy; however, building relationships with our students in the classroom can solidify trust where students feel they can share their own experiences, give their opinions, ask questions, and make mistakes without repercussions, which results in our students performing at their highest potential and ultimately empowering the next generation of servant leaders.

 Increasing Community Partnerships

As servant leaders in higher education, we should be active and consistently strive to build relationships with people in our community. Being engaged and committed to our community allows us to collaborate with other leaders and form community partnerships that will benefit our students. We can work closely with community partners to host events such as job fairs, where students can meet with employers in the community and apply for internships so they can gain real-world experiences in their field prior to receiving their degree. Students who form bonds in the community may choose to stay after graduation and seek jobs from a community partner or return to the institution for a graduation degree, thereby increasing student achievement and retention. The community partnerships formed will help students reach the goals they have worked so diligently to achieve while at our institution.  

Servant leaders should always remember we have been blessed by God with an invaluable gift. We must serve our students diligently as enthusiastic servant leaders have a contagious energy that drives student performance, and this impacts our institutional culture. All the knowledge in the world will not make anyone a great leader; it is the desire and willingness to help others and the love we show them that makes a great servant leader. True servant leadership lies in guiding our students to success, ensuring that they are all performing at their best, doing the work they are asked to do, and doing it well.

About the author

Melissa Kirby

Dr. Melissa Kirby is the Department Chair, Business Administration and Assistant Professor of Accounting at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. She has a PhD in Business Administration from Liberty University.
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