Servant leaders should not be slaves to their institutions

Senior administrators should serve the greater good, not pander to their most powerful stakeholders, says Kathy Johnson Bowles

January 14, 2021
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Source: iStock

On 1 January, we rejoiced at the passing of 2020 and indulged the hope of soon returning to “normal”. But if 2020 taught us anything, it is that normal for many people is pretty terrible. When coupled with a pandemic, the injustices of race, poverty, class and identity became more visible and severe. And just five days after the calendar flipped forward, a coup was attempted in the US, fuelled by lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories.

What can higher education leaders do in the presence of such pain, chaos and wilful ignorance? The answer is to re-examine what it means to serve.

Leadership is bound to service. In recent times, leaders claim servitude to the institutions that employ them – of which they become proxy agents. But what if that institution’s history and values have caused and continue to cause pain and suffering? Should a leader really be in service to those forces?

No. This type of service protects an institution’s systems of power – and those who benefit from them – at the expense of those who are victims of it. How many times have we heard about leaders failing students who have been sexually assaulted, or staff discriminated against and silenced, or alumni who cannot repay their student loans, or a populace who cannot discern fact from fiction?

Rethinking vows of service requires leaders to act upon principles rather than the politics of power and place. It requires them to stop looking and behaving as if they are playing a role rather than presenting an integrated self, capable of thinking and acting independently. We need leaders to be teacher-activists who dare to disrupt, employ the language and logic of change to serve a greater good, helping individuals rise from poverty and realise their potential for prosperity.

In particular, leaders fit for the age of diversity, equity and inclusion need to speak out against those whose actions (or inaction) are discriminatory, unlawful and perpetuate violence – even if they are board members, donors, alumni, government officials, tenured faculty members or student groups. Yet such leaders are not to be found among the standard crop of applicants for senior positions, who have taken each careful step to move through the ranks by never disrupting the status quo – and who, when appointed, adopt a fear-based approach to leadership, whereby their decisions focus on pleasing and pandering to those in power so that they keep their jobs.

Search committees and boards must eschew such approaches to servant leadership. Institutions cannot be fearful of what to announce in a press release, or what constituents might say about the hiring of an outspoken individual who has risked their reputation when acting upon their principles. They should prioritise those whose diversity statements evidence their actions, rather than merely philosophising about their theoretical beliefs.

Moreover, governing boards and institutions must adopt explicit statements and mechanisms to support and encourage principled leadership. Auxiliary board by-laws must clarify roles and responsibilities to interference in institutional management by those with vested interests in maintaining privilege. And all cabinet-level leaders must be given the freedom to act without fear of retaliation.

Perhaps that means giving a professorship – and the academic freedom and job security that comes with it – to all cabinet-level leaders, rather than (as is typical in the US) merely presidents and provosts. No doubt there would be objections to awarding professorships to vice-presidents, chief financial officers and chief information officers who lack the standard academic credentials required. But perhaps that would be the lesser evil if, by doing so, we empowered university leaders whose priorities are to serve the greater good, rather than pandering to the interests and prejudices of the most powerful stakeholders.

Those kinds of servant leaders facilitate education and research so that a cure can be found for a virus that devastates populations worldwide. They encourage study, discourse and testing to develop better medical equipment and more efficient supply chains. And they ensure the creation of poetry, literature and art so that there is hope in difficult times, and solace can be found in the face of death.

True servant leaders choose to speak on behalf of those in pain, rather than those who inflict pain. Those who only do so when it is convenient are failing not only higher education but the world as a whole.

Kathy Johnson Bowles is an artist, writer, independent scholar, and founder of Gordian Knot Consulting.  Her 30-year experience as a  faculty member, department chair and senior college administrator informs her work helping educational institutions realise their missions to serve and to seek social justice. 

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