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Service-learning: developing servant leaders.


This study evaluated the effects of student service-learning experiences on the development of Servant Leadership competencies. Students assessed their leadership competency based on the characteristics associated with Servant Leadership: empathy, integrity, self-awareness, influence, vision, development of others and community building. The service-learning group viewed themselves more favorably than the group not engaging in service-learning. Strategies for incorporating service-learning into the curriculum are also discussed.


As technology, globalization, and shifting workforce demographics continue to reshape the world of work, the need for effective leadership becomes paramount for navigating its complexity (Marquardt & Berger, 2000; Morrison, Rha, & Helfman, 2003). In response, the study of leadership has given rise to a substantial body of research and has become an increasingly popular subject in undergraduate, graduate, and executive education programs (Doh, 2003).

How does one learn to become a better leader? Proponents of experiential learning argue that although a classroom education helps the learner acquire knowledge about leadership, it is not sufficient for translating concepts into skills required of effective leaders. A practical component may help (Mitchell & Poutitiane 2002; Doh, 2003). Connaughton, et. al. also maintain that leadership competencies are best developed over time through a program that fosters personal integration of theory and practice, and suggest a model of leadership development that is both reiterative and reflective (2003).

Service-learning, popular in a variety of academic settings, is an educational model that encourages learners to actively apply what they are learning as they work to meet a community need. It is a pedagogical strategy that provides an avenue for students to develop leadership skills as they work through practical challenges outside of the traditional classroom. Service projects, developed with community partners, are linked to academic content. According to the National Service Learning Clearinghouse:
 Service-learning combines service objectives with learning
 objectives with the intent that the activity changes both the
 recipient and the provider of the service. This is
 accomplished by combining service tasks with structured
 opportunities that link the task to self-reflection,
 self-discovery, and the acquisition and comprehension of values,
 skills, and knowledge content (2004).

Learning occurs experientially through the process of action and reflection, resulting not only in academic and cognitive development but in personal and social development as well (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Kayes, 2002). This approach allows for issues to be addressed contextually rather than abstractly, providing a richer, more meaningful learning experience which more closely reflects the real world students will encounter.

Numerous studies have reported that service-learning experiences can enhance a variety of competencies typically associated with leadership effectiveness--communication, self-knowledge and awareness, critical thinking, sense of personal efficacy, and ethics and moral decision-making (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Astin & Sax, 1998; Vogelgesang & Astin, 2000; Peterson, 1998; Boss, 1994; Gorman, 1994). Since most service learning projects involve cooperative rather than competitive or individualistic learning experiences, researchers have additionally reported that students improve both interpersonal skills and team skills (Eyler & Giles, 1999).

Service-Learning and Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership, introduced by Robert Greenleaf, emphasizes service to others, a holistic view of work, community building, and shared decision making (Spears, 1998). According to Greenleaf (1970):
 the servant leader is servant first ... it begins with the natural
 feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious
 choice brings one to aspire to lead ... the difference manifests
 itself in the care taken by the servant, first to make sure that
 the other people's highest priority needs are being served. The
 best test, and the most difficult to administer 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.

Spears suggests that there are ten characteristics central to the development of Servant Leaders: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community (1998). Farling, et. al. suggest five central competencies for the purpose of exploration: vision, influence, credibility, trust, and service (1999).

Since service-learning and Servant Leadership both emphasize service to others, it follows that the competencies representative of Servant Leaders could be practiced and developed though service-learning experiences. To evaluate this potential correlation, competencies derived from both Spears and Farling were chosen to serve as the framework for evaluating student leadership skills as defined below:

* Empathy--striving to understand the viewpoints of others; listening actively to determine the will and needs of the group, displaying genuine concern and care for others; making decisions considering input from others.

* Integrity--authentic; building trust through honesty and consistency in words and actions; allowing the needs of the group to supercede any personal agenda.

* Self-awareness--in touch with feelings, having clear personal values, and understanding one's own strengths and limitations; being open to feedback as a means to further personal development.

* Influence--exerting influence through patient questioning, understanding, and discussion rather than coercion; serving as a positive role model.

* Vision- having foresight through a strong sense of personal mission; articulating a strategic vision that can inspire and motivate others.

* Development of others--commitment to the growth of others through empowerment and shared knowledge; valuing contributions of all members; discovering the hidden talents in each member.

* Community building--enhancing collaborative efforts of the group; building community spirit by fostering cooperation.

Study Design and Findings

This study evaluated the effects of student service-learning experiences on the development of Servant Leadership competencies. It targeted the student population of a small university branch campus in the Midwest where "pockets of service-learning" are present in a variety of business-related disciplines such as accounting, marketing, communication, and organizational leadership. A survey was developed and circulated to a cross-section of students nearing completion of senior level classes in business, leadership, communication or writing. Classes were chosen to include a cross-section of majors and to minimize variability in competency attributed solely to overall longevity in the "college experience." Students were asked to evaluate their behavior in their most recent experience as a member of a project team.

The survey consisted of three parts: a self-assessment, collection of demographics, and description of service-learning experience. Items on the self-assessment, based on the work of Page and Wong (2000), described behaviors and attributes associated with seven key components of Servant Leadership: empathy, integrity, self-awareness, influence, vision, development and community-building. Students rated themselves using a Liken scale ranging from 5 (strongly agree) to 1 (strongly disagree). Upon completion of the ranking, students turned the survey over and responded to questions related to personal demographics and specific service learning experiences. They were also requested to list any specific learning outcomes that they could directly attribute to their service-learning experience.

A total of 238 completed surveys from upperclassmen (junior or senior status) were analyzed and formed the basis of this analysis. Majors reported included organizational leadership, business, accounting, liberal studies, and "other." Approximately twenty percent of surveyed students (60 of 238) reported participation in a service-learning activity. Self assessment scores related to Servant Leadership characteristics obtained from the service-learning group (SL) were compared to the results of the group not participating in service learning (NSL) using t-test and ANOVA statistical analyses. Table 1 summarizes the results of the self-assessment. Although sample sizes were somewhat disparate, application of Levene's test for homogeneity of variances indicated that the variances were not dissimilar statistically. See issue website

The results obtained support a positive correlation between service-learning and enhanced Servant Leadership behavior. The mean scores of the SL group were higher than the scores of the NSL group for 90% of the indicators (32 of 35 items). In twelve instances (34%) the differences were statistically significant at p< 0.05. The most marked score differences were reflected in vision, community building, integrity and influence categories.

Table 2 summarizes the learning outcomes reported by the SL group that were directly attributed to their service experience. Skill-based as well as affective outcomes most frequently cited include better communication skills, improved teamwork, empathy, increased sense of self-efficacy, and increased satisfaction from serving others. See issue website

Although constrained by the relatively small sample size, the findings suggest that a service-learning experience enhances the development of Servant Leadership characteristics, particularly related to integrity, influence, vision and community building. The data presented in Tables 1 and 2 support the findings of others who have reported positive effects of service-learning on interpersonal development, the ability to work well with others, and leadership skills (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Astin & Sax, 1998; Vogelgesang & Astin, 2000; Peterson, 1998; Boss, 1994).

It is not surprising to document a positive correlation of service-learning with community-building as most projects did involve teamwork. Several researchers have shown that being part of a team that works on a well-planned project can expand the opportunity to develop cognitive and interpersonal competencies crucial for success (Siciliano, 2001; Johnson, Johnson & Holubek, 1998; Strom & Strom, 2002; Young & Henquinet, 2000). And, since a majority of service learning projects involve working with community agencies that assist the less fortunate, the exposure may help to raise awareness and empathy as King suggests (2004).


This study was limited by the relatively small number of service-learning opportunities available on this campus at the time. However, several faculty workshops have been presented to increase its visibility and it is hoped that as more faculty members embrace this pedagogy, further study will be possible using larger sample sizes.

It can be argued that students having more developed leadership capability have an increased likelihood of choosing courses providing a service-learning component. Although the magnitude of this effect is not clear in this study, it can be presumed to be negligible because several of the courses incorporating a service learning component on this campus are required for graduation, therefore involving the students regardless of interest or motivation.

One final limitation may also be in the underlying self-assessment methodology relying on one's perception instead of actual observed behavior. Although self-assessment has been shown to be a valid methodology (Mabe & West, 1982), additional data collected from third party observers or peers would be valuable to minimize possible bias.

Incorporating Service Learning into the Curriculum

Although service learning can be an attractive pedagogical strategy, making the initial connection with an appropriate community agency can be difficult for those intending to incorporate service-learning in their course offerings. It may be difficult to find out what projects are available or who to contact initially. On this campus, faculty members can take advantage of a recently developed website serving the local United Way organization which catalogues the needs of all member agencies. Relationships can also be cultivated through one's own personal and professional contacts, local Chambers of Commerce, or other service organizations. Students, typically overlooked as a resource, may also serve as a connection to a community agency and indeed, they were responsible for making the connections in several projects included in this study.

Merely making the connection however is not enough. Although many organizations need "helping hands," service projects must be substantial enough to provide meaningful experiences that can be directly linked to course concepts. Projects can vary widely--activities reported by the students in this study include:

* Preparation of taxes for the disadvantaged by accounting majors

* Presentation of Junior Achievement programs by students studying training methods

* Development of marketing plans for non-profit organizations by marketing students

* Development of public relations pieces for non-profit organizations by communications students

* Raising funds for a wildlife preservation organization

* Participation in youth mentoring programs by communications students

* Management of a house rehabilitation project by students majoring in organizational leadership

One must also ensure that students make the connection between course concepts and their experience. Reflection, an integral part of the experiential learning model, has been shown to greatly enhance learning and is considered an integral part of any service-learning endeavor, be it team-based or individual (Eyler, 1999, 2002; Mabry, 1998). It is the key that connects the service to learning and encourages the development of self-awareness, crucial for any emerging leader. Students should be encouraged to reflect upon their experience and its impact on personal values, thoughts, and behaviors from the beginning of the project until its completion. Useful prompts to facilitate the connection can include the questions: What happened? How does this relate to our chapter on ...? How has this experience changed my thinking about ...? What will I do differently next time?

Students working as a team to provide service to community partners can add another layer of richness to the educational experience by incorporating elements of cooperative learning. Although there are many benefits to team-based learning, adding the complexities of group dynamics to a service-learning project can be challenging. Simply putting students into groups and expecting them to engage in cooperative behavior does not ensure that they will do so. Issues related to conflicting commitments, individual availability, personality differences, and performance will arise and should be anticipated. To facilitate an effective group process, one must incorporate projects that are large enough in scope to require true teamwork and develop a strategy for evaluation that considers both individual contribution as well as group performance. One should also be willing to provide coaching when difficulties inevitably occur--typically at the beginning to establish goals and set the tone of the project, in the middle when conflict arises, and upon project completion to celebrate accomplishments and cement "lessons learned" (Hackman & Wageman, 2005).


The findings of this study support a growing body of evidence that suggests servicelearning experiences enhance the development of leadership competencies, particularly related to vision, community building, integrity and influence--all of which are becoming increasingly necessary for success in the contemporary world of work. Although incorporating service learning projects into the curriculum may seem daunting at first, the potential benefits may serve as encouragement to do so. It is hoped that further studies be undertaken to support and strengthen this link.


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Eyler, J. (2002). Reflection: Linking service and learning-Linking students and communities. Journal of Social Issues. 58(3): 517-534.

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Greenleaf, R. (1970). The Servant as Leader. Indianapolis, IN: Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership.

Hackman, J. & Wagemen, R. (2005) A theory of team coaching. Academy of Management Review, 30(2): 269-287.

Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Holubek, E. (1998). Cooperation in the Classroom. Edina, Minn: Interaction Book Company.

Kayes, D.C. (2002). Experiential learning and its critics: Preserving the role of experience in management learning and education. Academy of Management Learning and Education. 1(2): 137-149.

King, J. (2004). Service learning as a site for critical pedagogy: A case of collaboration, caring, and defamiliarization across borders. Journal of Experiential Education 26(3): 121-137.

Mabe, P. & West, S.G (1982). Validity of self evaluation of ability: A review and meta-analysis, Journal of Applied Psychology. 67(3): 280-296.

Mabry, J.B. (1998). Pedagogical variations in service-learning and student outcomes: How time, contact and reflection matter. Michigan Journal of Community Service. 5: 32-47.

Marquardt, M. & Berger, N. (2000). Global Leaders for the 21st Century. New York: State University of New York.

Mitchell, M. & Poutitiane, M. (2002). Finding an experiential approach in graduate leadership curricula. Journal of Experiential Education. 24(3): 179-186.

Morrison, J., Rha, J., & Helfman, A. (2003). Learning awareness, student engagement, and change: a transformation in leadership development. Journal of Education for Business. 79(1): 11-18.

National Service-Learning Clearinghouse. Retrieved February 12, 2004 from

Page, D., & Wong, P. T. P. (2000). A conceptual framework for measuring servant leadership. In S. Adjibolosoo (Ed.) The human factor in shaping the course of history and development. Boston, MA: University Press of America.

Peterson, E.A. (1998). What can adults learn from community service? Lessons learned from Americorps. Community Education Journal 25(1-2): 45-46.

Siciliano J. (2001). How to incorporate cooperative learning principles in the classroom: It's more than just putting students in teams. Journal of Management Education. 25(1): 820.

Spears, L. (1998). Insights on Leadership. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.

Strom, P. & Strom, R. (2002). Overcoming the limitations of cooperative learning among community college students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice. 26: 315-331.

Vogelgesang, L.J, & Astin, A. W. (2000). Comparing the effects of service-learning and community service. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning.7: 25-34.

Young, C.B. & Henquinet, J. (2000). A conceptual framework for designing group projects. Journal of Education for Business. 76(1): 56-60.

Cynthia Roberts, Purdue North Central, Westville, IN

Cynthia Roberts, MSOD, MSTD is an assistant professor of Organizational Leadership and Supervision at Purdue University North Central
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Author:Roberts, Cynthia
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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