The Positive Impacts of a Servant Leadership Training Program Structured for Students The Positive Impacts of a Servant Leadership Training Program Structured for Students

Organizations are in need of employees and leaders who can aid them in remaining competitive in an ever-changing world, and leading the charge to develop leaders are higher education institutions that have formal and informal leadership development programs on their campuses. Institutions have created, funded, and run leadership development programs that offer opportunities for students to engage in leadership development and provide them the ability to become strong contributing members of society upon graduation. 

Although research has increased explaining the influence of leadership development programs on the college student population, indications are that existing research is narrow in focus and that there remains a lack of empirically based research on the benefits of these programs. 

A recent study explored how a servant leadership training program completed by students in a higher education setting influenced their knowledge and skills of servant leadership. Prior research has explored servant leadership and its influence on individuals and organizations; however, the need remains to further investigate how servant leadership development programs can influence the development of servant leadership knowledge and skills needed to become a servant leader. 

Generally, the results from the study suggested that leadership growth and development can occur as a result of a leadership-based training initiative or program. Specifically, the study found that servant leadership can be increased in participants who complete a leadership training program that is designed around and based in that leadership style.   

About the Study  

Servant leadership as a theory has not been extensively researched with regard to training programs, but it has been recognized as being able to develop effective leaders. This project sought to understand how a servant leadership training program completed by students in a higher education setting influenced their knowledge and skills of servant leadership.  

Upon identifying that the leadership style of servant leadership has no specific definition, but rather is often defined by a list of characteristics, it was important to identify a conceptual framework to guide the study. For the study, the servant leadership model by the Canadian clinical psychologist Paul T. P. Wong and Don Page, a senior fellow at Trinity Western University, was selected as part of the conceptual framework. Their assessment, the Servant Leadership Profile-Revised, was used to measure the level of servant leadership for participants of the leadership program examined.  

Page and Wong created the earliest servant leadership survey, the Self-Assessment of Servant Leadership Profile, which led to the creation of a list of 200 descriptors of servant leadership. By eliminating redundant descriptors and combining items, they were able to reduce the descriptors to 100. They then classified the descriptors into 12 categories: Integrity, Humility, Servanthood, Caring for Others, Empowering Others, Developing Others, Visioning, Goal Setting, Leading, Modeling, Team-Building, and Shared Decision Making. Next, they performed a factor analysis on their original servant leadership profile and created the Servant Leadership Profile-Revised, which consisted of 62 items employing a Likert scale of (1) strongly disagree to (7) strongly agree. These 62 items are grouped into seven factors:

1. Empowering and Developing Others 

2. Vulnerability/Humility 

3. Serving Others 

4. Open, Participatory Leadership

5. Visionary Leadership 

6. Courageous Leadership (Integrity/Authenticity) 

7. Inspiring Leadership. 

Servant leadership chartFor this study, 26 students who had been through an impact leadership program completed the profile before and after the program. The program was designed to train college students on the theory of servant leadership with characteristics found from existing research. Data from the completed profile surveys were entered into an Access database and then used for assessment and measuring any changes that occurred. Each subscore of the profile provided a measurement of the different attributes of servant leadership, but the overall score provided from the assessment does not provide a specific result. “They measure different attributes, including negative attributes such as power and pride. Therefore, it does not make sense to use the total score,” Wong explained. 

The model is made of expanding circles of servant leadership to represent the sequence in the development, practice, and influence of the servant leadership concept they developed. Someone using this model should start at the center and as they grow in their servant leadership, knowledge and skills will grow outwardly into the additional levels of the model. This represents a growth in the servant’s heart to an outward focus and impact on society. 

Servant Leadership Profile-Revised Aggregate Scores before and after Participation in training programTo facilitate the qualitative process, an interview was conducted with students who participated in the leadership program to understand their perceptions on what they believe caused a change in their level of servant leadership. Additionally, descriptive data collected from the pre- and post-test profiles explored the means of seven subscores of servant leadership. For this study, pre- and post-test scores of seven subscores were measured of servant leadership using the profile. The expectation was that there would be an increase in participant level of servant leadership, which would support the implementation of the specific leadership program. 

The hope was that results of the study would add to existing empirical research describing how participation in a leadership program will increase leadership skills. In the context of higher education, the study further explored the importance of developing future leaders, how this can aid in the improvement of student success, provide career readiness, and grow the potential of students during their time on campus. By providing empirical research on the impact of a program like this, the goal was for similar programs to be implemented and supported on college campuses. 

With that goal in mind of determining the influence of a servant leadership program on college student participants, the following research questions guided the study: 

  • How do university students who participate in the program describe their improvement of servant leadership knowledge and skills while enrolled in the training program? 
  • How does the leadership program influence each of the seven profile subscores of servant leadership by participants in the training program based on descriptive data collected? 
  • How do specific components of the training program influence the development of participants’ servant leadership knowledge and skills during the program? 
  • How have external factors and/or experiences influenced participants’ development of servant leadership knowledge and skills
    during the program? 

There were two areas of focus related to researching this specific leadership program, the first being to add empirically based research on effective programs for college leadership development, as prior research has been narrow and more is needed. The second area focused more on servant leadership as a foundation for a training initiative to provide additional research on organizational training programs. That research could then be utilized within organizations to provide further evidence of servant leadership’s effective utilization in training initiatives. Both of these areas were supported in the findings of this study and details supporting this for each research question will follow. 

How do university students who participate in the impact leadership program describe their improvement of servant leadership knowledge and skills while enrolled in the training program? 

Results from the data provided evidence that participants were influenced by the hands-on practice and experiences, and it grew their knowledge of servant leadership and growth of self-awareness that their own leadership skills had on others. Within the interview process, participants also commented that their definition of servant leadership has changed over time, as well as their ability to use their knowledge toward ongoing practical experiences during and after their time in college. 

How does the program influence each of the seven profile subscores of servant leadership by participants in the training program based on descriptive data collected? 

This question looked at the improvement of each of the seven subscores of servant leadership contained within the profile assessment. The data analysis process provided a qualitative approach to looking at data by comparing the pre-test score to the post-test score. Looking at each of the seven subscores of servant leadership, there was an increase in each of the scores, which provides evidence that the program aided in the increase of servant leadership for participants. The two subscores that saw the greatest amount of growth were empowering and developing others and serving others. Both of these concepts were discussed within the interview process and were identified in the results of the third research question, as it related to the characteristic of servant leadership and the specific program workshops identified in those results. 

How do specific components of the leadership training program influence the development of participants’ servant leadership knowledge and skills during the program? 

The program was developed as a series of workshops with each focused on one or multiple characteristics or behaviors of servant leadership. Through the interview process, participants were able to identify specific workshops that resonated with them the most in helping them develop their knowledge and skills surrounding servant leadership. Participants were able to identify various workshops of the program, and according to the collected data, the themes of shared values, trust, and integrity were most prominent. These three themes related to specific workshops and were mentioned by name within many of the interview responses. 

How have external factors and/or experiences influenced participants’ development of servant leadership knowledge and skills during the program? 

In the last question for the study, a set of interview questions provided data on any external factors or experiences that may have influenced participants’ perceived servant leadership knowledge and skills while they were enrolled in the program. Participants responded that the program was the foundation for their understanding and development of servant leadership and further prepared them for future leadership positions, which is similar to prior research that supports that college leadership programs have influenced growth in leadership skills and abilities. Discussion around activities such as leading a mission trip, involvement as a resident assistant, and club membership occurred during the interview process. However, these responses were less prominent with only 33% bringing them forward, and even with the responses, the participants still indicated that the program served as a foundation for their development of servant leadership. 

Developing Servant Leaders

The research sought to add empirical data on college leadership programs by exploring a specific style of leadership, servant leadership, within a college leadership program. Like prior studies examined through a review of relevant literature, this study contained a small population from which it drew its results, which appears to be a trend in this arena. This is most likely due to the nature of involvement within these types of programs within a college setting where students have competing interests. 

In reflecting on Wong and Page’s expanding circles of servant leadership within the context of this research, the results provided evidence of the two inner circles of this model, character-orientation and relationship or people-orientation. The results from this study did not provide results that the specific program supported the remaining three circles—leadership task, leadership process, and leadership role model—but a reason for this could be that the program is only an introduction to servant leadership knowledge and skills participants. Participants stated in the interviews that it was the first time they had interacted with the concept of servant leadership. Additionally, the program only took place in one semester of a student’s time in college. 

Still, the findings demonstrate the importance of leadership development programs on a college campus and provide evidence that growth can occur as a result of college student participation. Students who participated in the leadership program demonstrated that knowledge and skills of servant leadership were gained as a result of their involvement in the program through discussions in the interview process as well as through the pre-test and post-test survey that was provided during the implementation of the program. These programs can be considered effective for college leadership development and the theory of servant leadership, as shown here, to be an important piece of the training initiative. 

The study focused on the development of servant leadership knowledge and skills for college students, and the results of the study supported that these skills can grow within this population. Professionals on college campuses could examine a program like the one used for this study to implement within their own campus to prepare college students for leadership opportunities and to build competencies to aid them in their respective career. Non-college environments could also view the results of this study and the leadership program to implement within their professional training and staff development, although adjustments to the workshops might need to be taken into consideration to meet the needs of professionals and their work experience and competencies. 

The findings also offer recommendations that could help enhance other college leadership programs on college campuses, the field of servant leadership, and organizational settings that are looking to develop leadership programs and competencies. The study provided evidence that servant leadership knowledge and skills can be gained through a leadership training program. Additionally, the findings and implications as a result of the findings support two of the ACUI research agenda items, student success and student engagement. 

Three recommendations for future practice that are relevant to the field of student affairs, college unions, and student activities include: 

  • The findings of this study confirm that the leadership program appeared to be successful in increasing college students’ level of servant leadership, and it is recommended that higher education professionals implement and adapt this program as a part of their leadership curriculum.  
  • There continues to be a lack of focus on servant leadership-based interventions within an organizational setting. In an organizational setting outside of higher education, a training program like the one evaluated in this study should be implemented and adapted to the needs of that organization. Professionals in human resources and organizational effectiveness should look to programs such as these in order to further develop their employees and enhance their skill sets to better serve the organization. Having employees that have already experienced a servant leadership learning experience could also be considered advantageous to the organization.   
  • The final recommendation for future practice is focused on the continued research of leadership theories and leadership-based initiatives. While this study provided evidence that the leadership program was able to develop knowledge and skills of servant leadership among its participants, the leadership program was founded on a specific model and framework of servant leadership. Leadership practitioners should evaluate other models of servant leadership, as there is not one single definition of servant leadership but instead a series of characteristics. Evaluating other models of servant leadership and applying these models to the program framework may provide additional practices and leadership initiatives that can further expand the work within both higher education institutions as well as organizations. 

Further supporting the student affairs field and the two research agenda items of ACUI, leaders in both organizational and higher education settings can benefit from the results of this study. Managers within an organization setting can use the findings when considering implementing a similar program within their organizations and provide professional development for their employees. 

In student affairs, this study provides further evidence that a servant leadership training program can have a positive impact on student development, which provides information for their leaders to consider as they select options for developing their students for career readiness and overall student success. While additional research is needed, higher education professionals should be encouraged to continue to develop and implement leadership training initiatives on their campuses based not only on this study but also based on many of the other studies that have looked at the actual impact of programs. 

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