Research administrators as servant leaders.

Author:Waite, Joann


The increasing competition in recruiting students and faculty puts predominately undergraduate institutions at a financial disadvantage. The external demands of graduate programs and the workforce are the primary cause. The demand is that undergraduate students have research and experience in their respective fields prior to a baccalaureate graduation. Both tuition-driven private and state-funded public predominately undergraduate institutions (PUI) suffer from tightening budgets. This restriction hinders a transformation from lecture-based teaching to a more desired global and experiential learning environment. Grant funding is a way for institutions to meet the external demands and recruit top tier faculty and students. Faculty can support the cultural transformation by generating grant funds for institutions. Proactive institutional leaders provide services that remove roadblocks and motivate faculty through professional development and student success. The implementation of a sponsored research office is a catalyst for increasing grant submissions, appropriate budgeting, and fiscal oversight of successful sponsored awards. Research administrators are often referred to as servant leaders by their own professional society's staff-sponsored research offices. The faculty, students, and institutions all benefit from the fruitful results of grant awards.

Research Administrators as Servant Leaders

The perception of research administrators as servant leaders by their membership organizations is influenced by survey results focusing on character. Parolini (2004) suggested that, "Servant leaders are defined by their ability to bring integrity, humility, and servanthood into caring for, empowering, and developing of others in carrying out the tasks and processes of visioning, goal setting, leading, modeling, team building, and shared decision-making" (p. 9). These research administrators serve and lead the external funding activities at predominately undergraduate institutions. Vargas and Hanlon (2007) described the primary goals of research administrators, "to both serve and lead our researchers (faculty), while still keeping in mind our responsibilities to our institutions, sponsors, and community" (p. 45).

Van Dierendonck and Nuijten (2010) suggested that leadership is a key factor for engaged employees and innovative organizations. They further observed that servant-leadership was introduced by Greenleaf (1977) and has recently been rediscovered by scholars.

The term "servant-leadership" is a leadership paradigm introduced in an essay by Robert Kiefner Greenleaf (1904-1990). Greenleaf worked first as a telephone lineman and eventually moved into organizational management at AT&T, serving in that role from the mid 1920s to the 1960s. He became a lecturer at prestigious schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dartmouth College, and the Harvard Business School. Greenleaf is credited with the first continuing education program model used in colleges and businesses today (Ferch & Spears, 2011). Greenleaf's 25-year longitudinal study of managerial lives is credited with pioneering much of today's leadership practices. He described how he discovered the concept of servant-leadership through reading a book, Journey to the East (Hesse, trans. 1956). According to Spears (1998), Greenleaf believed the message of the story was that one must first serve society, then, through one's service a person, will be recognized as a leader. Leadership is about service.

The servant leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. ]he difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant; first, to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. ]he best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or at least not be further deprived. (Greenleaf, 1977, p. 27)

The paradoxical expression, "servant-leadership," is expansive of individual service to society irrespective of hierarchical position. This principle of a leadership-service blend differs from the hierarchical model of leadership. In hierarchical leadership the power of the leader was visible and obeyed by those lower in the organization (Crippen, 2005). In servant-leadership, through strategies of service and stewardship, a leader was identified by the people to be first among equals or "primus inter pares" (Greenleaf, 1977, p. 84).

Not Much Happens Without a Dream

Greenleaf (1977) suggested that, "... for something great to happen, there must be a great dream. Behind every great achievement is a dreamer of great dreams" (p. 30). The dreams of faculty developed into a proposal and eventually supported financially by a sponsor is one area in which a research administrator perceived as a servant leader is valuable at institutions. Van Dierendonck and Nuijten (2010) stated, "Given the central role of leaders in the social setting of most organizations, the behavior shown by leaders towards their followers plays an important role as to how supportive a work setting is perceived" (p. 13). Moreover, it is believed that leadership is an increasingly acknowledged factor for follower well-being. Van Dierendonck and Nuijten cited abundant evidence that a controlling, less supportive leadership style, with vague responsibilities and lack of feedback, is related to lower levels of well-being (Cartwright & Cooper, 1994; Van Dierendonck, Haynes, Borrill, & Stride, 2004). Van Dierendonck and Nuijten (2010) explained that, "A supportive environment provides positive effects, a sense of predictability, and recognition of self-worth. As such, it is likely that servant-leadership behavior is beneficial for follower engagement, job satisfaction, and performance" (p. 13).

Ten Characteristics

Ten qualities of a servant leader have been identified by Spears (1998), Ferch and Spears (2011), van Dierendonck and Nuijten (2010), and Crippen (2005), as follows:


This quality refers to a profound obligation to listening to others. There is a need for reflection, silence, meditation, and active listening, in fact hearing what is said and is not said. Servant leaders are skillful communicators and excellent listeners, to themselves (through their inner voice), as well as to others, specifically their followers (Spears, 1998). Ferch and Spears (2011) emphasized that, "Listening also encompasses getting in touch with one's own inner voice and seeking to understand what one's body, spirit, and mind are communicating" (p. 11). Greenleaf (1977) stated, "In saying what I have in mind, will I really improve on the silence?" (p. 31) He further stated that only true servant leaders automatically react to problems by listening first.


A good servant leader strives to empathize with others through supportive understanding. Greenleaf wrote that trust could be developed through the use of empathy:

Individuals grow taller when those who lead them empathize and when they are accepted for what they are, even though their performance may be judged critically in terms of what they are capable of doing. Leaders who empathize and who fully accept those who go with them on this basis are more likely...

To continue reading