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The Higher Education Servant Leader

As we adapt to this new shift in higher education, it’s critical to reshape leadership to be more conscious choice to serve first and aspire to lead. 

Higher education is a world of natural servants, and the last eight months have brought that idea to the forefront. People are giving everything they can at every level of the institution. They’ve pivoted and pivoted and pivoted. They are exhausted, yet they continuously rally. 

Certainly, a new era of higher education arrived about five years before the dreaded “enrollment cliff” for which we’d been preparing. There is no doubt that the brave, kind and earnest souls of higher ed will continue to rally. You’d be hard-pressed to find an industry with so many purpose-driven givers. Despite this, we cannot continue to ask people to give and follow without giving them a new North Star. We must make a conscious effort to be courageous, bold leaders, and doing so requires us to lead in ways that can feel uncomfortable. We need to lead with love, not fear. We need to become artists, creating what comes next, not fundamentalists who cling to what has been. We must lead with love.

God help anyone who has spoken to me since I picked up a copy of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. This tiny book, a guide for moving through resistance in the creative process, has influenced my thoughts on leadership more than anything I’ve read in the last year (and that’s saying a lot from a person who is literally studying organizational leadership). 

Pressfield presents examples of thinking and activities that we put in our own way to avoid creating, but the strongest concept from the book is the way Pressfield presents the artist vs. the fundamentalist. He writes, “The artist and the fundamentalist both confront the same issue, the mystery of their existence as individuals. Each asks the same questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life?” 

He goes on to explain that fundamentalist ideology is rooted in our tribe and clan origins, and their focus is on returning humanity to a state they believe was closer to perfect. To do so, they continually return to what once was. Pressfield writes, “He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats into the past. He returns in imagination to the glory days of his race and seeks to reconstitute both them and himself in their purer, virtuous light. He gets back to basics. To fundamentals.” 

On the flip side, Pressfield explains, “The artist is grounded in freedom. He is not afraid of it. He is lucky. He was born in the right place. He has a core of self-confidence, of hope for the future. He believes in progress and evolution. His faith is that human-kind is advancing, however haltingly and imperfectly, toward a better world.” 

Right now, in higher ed, each institution is tackling the pandemic’s challenges in its own way, but many follow the same formula. There is no guidebook for surviving and thriving through a pandemic, so we cling to and copy one another. The answer will not be found collectively; rather, it will be found in quiet movements of courageous leadership from individuals who serve first. 

When we feel vulnerable, we often turn to manipulative tactics such as blame, fear and coercion. The best example of this is how we’ve approached student behavior as they return to campuses across the country. 

We tried to modify behavior through catchy slogans and campaigns explaining the risks associated with COVID-19. When that didn’t work, we plead with students to not do all the things their teensy, tiny, baby pre-frontal cortexes were telling them to do (or not do). And when students continued to gather, to party, to do the stupid things that are part of coming of age, we scolded them, threatened them and then punished them.

We took a scary situation and injected more fear into the psyches of our students. We blamed them for failing to exert some semblance of control. And while their behavior has not always been responsible, these students will remember the way they were treated during this time. They will remember that those whose duty it is to help them thrive as inflicting shame, guilt, blame and scapegoating. 

So, how do we lead like an artist? I believe it comes down to love. Plainly put, a fundamentalist comes from a place of fear, while an artist revels in the beauty of what can be, looking for ways to approach the world from a place of respect and adoration. The fundamentalist says, “We must do this or we will be ruined.” The artist says, “But what if we tried this?” The fundamentalist says, “We’ve always done it this way.” The artist says, “What could be?” But this isn’t an essay from the pulpit of condemnation. There is not a leader out there right now who needs to hear that what they are doing is wrong. I love this industry. I love the people. I love our students and, yes, I even love our faculty. We have made mistakes along the way. Some big. Some small. We’ve held our breath as our colleagues at other institutions are raked over the coals in the media, knowing that we are only one tiny misstep away from being in the same place. 

Higher ed leaders are being asked to step into roles for which they had no preparation. On our campuses, we are doing our best to follow scientific developments while attempting to solve problems of public health, struggling local economies, systemic racism, contentious national elections, mental health, and the new daily grind that lacks boundaries and throws a new obstacle on the course just when we think we’ve memorized the new map. 

How many of us approach leadership as a conscious choice? I’d argue that for many of our current leaders, management was the next stop on their Monopoly map, the next pay grade, or a way to amass power. We spend years becoming the best practitioners of a certain skillset, but when given a formal leadership role, how many of us spend time cultivating the associated skills? 

Leadership without reflection and discernment often leads to fear-based management tactics that harm individuals and organizations. However, studying and adopting a servant leadership style can help us move past a place of fear, and the ripple effect challenges us and our followers to be better versions of ourselves. Imagine the legacy that creates.  

Servant leadership is a ubiquitous, often overly simplified, style of leadership with roots in nearly every religion, spiritual practice and culture. While its modern roots are attributed to Robert Greenleaf, in the simplest of terms, servant leaders lead from a place of love. Greenleaf’s writings are full of wisdom and beauty, and are rooted in this statement: “The servant-leader is servant first, it begins with a natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then, conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely to become servants themselves?”

Servant leadership features ten key characteristics: empathy, listening, community building, foresight, healing, conceptualization, awareness, persuasion, stewardship and growth of people. Each challenges the leader to show up authentically, to lead with courage and to choose love over fear. So, while higher ed is full of natural servant leaders, I believe we must take the conscious next step to adopt this style of leadership to usher in the next era of higher education. At every level, in every function, we must ask, “How do we serve first?” 

Here’s what might surprise you: organizations led by servant leaders show healthier bottom-line performances. In his book, Good to Great, MIT researcher Jim Collins found that leaders at the highest performing companies were servant leaders. This research was reinforced by James Sipes and Don Frick’s comparative study of the companies from Good to Great, companies that claimed to be servant-led in their values statements, and the companies listed on the S&P 500. They found that servant-led companies consistently outperformed those with more inward-facing styles of leadership. Anecdotally, guests on my podcast, The Servant Marketerreport that their organizations have become more equitable, happier and have healthier conflict after adopting servant leadership. If we are going to rise to the challenges of the next chapter of higher ed and the needs of our culture, we need to commit to leading in ways that we’ve never tried before. It will require us to roll up our sleeves, be vulnerable, and do the work that spurs growth within ourselves and others.  

But asserting ourselves as servant leaders is scary–what if we fail? What if leading with love sounds terrifying? What if we don’t know how to do it? Guess what? We’re all making it up as we go. In Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers, author Anne Lamott writes, “If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we die there. We become like mushrooms, living in the dark, with poop up to our chins.” If you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. You’re saying: leave me alone. I don’t mind this little rathole. It’s warm and dry. Really, it’s fine. When nothing new can get in, that’s death. When oxygen can’t get in, you die. But new is scary, and new can be disappointing, and confusing–we had this all figured out and now we don’t.” 

Leaders have a choice right now: do we lead as fundamentalists, or do we become the artists who build what comes next? 

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