Sunday, November 11, 2012

Servant Leadership

Taken from:

April 30, 2008 – I remember that date very well, and I often list it as one of the best days of my life.  On that night, I was selected to be the director of an organization.  The accomplishment itself is not the reason why I still remember it, although I had worked incredibly hard for the position.  I remember that night because the current director showed up at my doorstep to tell me the bad news that I had not been picked for the director position.  We sat on my couch as I cried and he listed all of the reasons why he thought I would have been an excellent choice.  After about ten minutes of this torture, he revealed that I had actually been chosen and laughed as I was too shocked to speak.  He had let me believe that I wasn't chosen, because he wanted me to experience what it felt like for all the dozens of other candidates that had not been chosen.  He explained that now I could truly empathize with them.  Then, from his backpack, he pulled a bowl and a washcloth and he knelt down in front of me and began washing my feet.  He said a bunch of things as he did it, and I’m sure they were insightful and inspiring words but I didn’t hear any of it, because I was still and shock and because I was slightly weirded out that he was washing my feet.  He was a senior; he had been my director and mentor for over two years, and the first thing he did to transition me and welcome me to the role was washing my feet!

Thinking back to Jesus washing the feet of his disciples in the Bible, has been represented by that act for over 2000 years.  Even his disciples were stunned that their leader, someone who had performed miracles, a man that they believed to be God was doing the dirty work of a servant.  That night as my director was washing my feet, I didn’t get why he would want to do that; in 2008, wasn’t “feet-washing” archaic?  Looking back to that night, he was trying to share what he believed to be the most important lesson for the director position: servant leadership.  

Me with the previous director
That year as director was the hardest year of my life.  I was responsible for leading, mentoring, and teaching almost 80 people, creating a meaningful experience for them throughout the year.  Often that meant being on-call on the weekends, stacking chairs, hosting study sessions, late night trips to the hospital, late nights planning programs, late night phone conversations – giving, giving, and more giving.  Northouse presents Spears' model of servant leadership, which includes listening, empathy, stewardship, commitment to growth, and building community.  These five characteristics defined my experience as director and help tie what I believe to be good leadership traits to the model of servant leadership.  I know what I did as director, but it’s also important to be able to articulate the philosophy behind my actions and leadership style.  

My director taught me so much about what it means to be a servant leader that night.  A year later, as I passed on my directorship to the next person, I was able to explain how I put others first and why I believed that was vital to my success as a leader.  Through all those late nights, menial tasks, and thankless dedication to the organization, I remembered Aaron bending down and washing my feet.  After learning more about servant leadership models, and reflecting on my past leadership experiences, I believe that servant leadership is a style with which I truly resonate and plan to incorporate into my personal leadership philosophy.


Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Since coming to Virginia Tech, I haven’t particularly liked the Division of Student Affair's focus on Strengths, but I could not articulate why.  This summer, during an orientation internship I had at Southern Methodist University, I was asked to select a personality assessment for my student employees to take.  I automatically opted for the Myers-Briggs Type Instrument (MBTI).  After reading more in depth to each approach – MBTI and StrengthsQuest – I understand why one was more attractive than the other in that setting.

The MBTI is designed to assess personality based on how one derives energy, gathers information, makes decisions, and acts throughout the day.  While the MBTI has little research to substantiate its validity, it makes more sense to me practically.  Supervising my students at SMU this summer, I recognized the fact that we were operating on a fast-paced, high-energy, structured time frame.  My students needed to jump right into their work and begin planning and implementing the school’s orientation programs.  Each of them was responsible for a specific project; however, there was a high level of collaboration needed among the group to make them successful.  After mapping out everyone’s personality types, they began to understand their differences and similarities in approaching and executing their projects.  One student was particularly methodical and had high levels of Thinking (T) and Judging (J).  She often clashed with another student who often made decisions with no perceived rhyme or reason, getting lost for hours in making a PowerPoint presentation look attractive rather than filling it with the important information needed for the rest of the team.  This student was assessed to have a high level of Perceiving (P).  As the two students worked together, they begin clashing over their expectations and work performance.  In my mediation efforts with them, we were able to talk about their personality types as strengths in approaching problems and finding solutions.  They were able to discuss and understand each other’s ways of thinking and began to find a way to work together.

What I like about the MBTI is its immediate applicability and simplicity.  One does not need to know all 16 types, but it’s easy to follow.  For example, if one scores highly on Extraversion (E) and is trying to relate to or work with someone that identifies as an Introvert (I), then the two individual can easily recognize that they derive energy through opposite approaches.  The four dimensions measured by the MBTI are dichotomous types, making it easy to identify others that fall on the other end of each dimension.  These four dimensions with opposing types pave the way for conversations that can allow individuals working together to identify potential areas of harmony or distinction.  For the students I was working with, the MBTI was useful in allowing them to understand each other and collaborate more effectively.  Orientation moves so quickly during the summer, that thinking about personality types was the most helpful for our needs. 

After reading about the Strengths-Based Leadership approach I see how the use of a strengths can be used to improve teamwork.  However, Strengths-Based Leadership (SBL) provides a list of talents that were generated as themes from an individual’s responses to the assessment questions.  These talents are perhaps naturally derived and inherent to each person’s personality; however for those talents to be turned into legitimate strengths, much time and energy must be given to cultivate them into something useful.  In thinking about how the MBTI and SBL can be used in the development of team dynamics and leadership, I think that SBL may be more effective for a long-term team, or in selecting members to round out the team’s experience and strengths.  I think the MBTI may play more into a task-focused team, especially in a setting with partnerships or a two-way collaborative relationship because it’s easier to spot the dichotomies between the partners’ personality types.  For me, it’s hard to conceptualize what each person brings to the table with strengths.  If I’m looking at a problem and trying to work with my team for a solution, personally I feel that knowing someone’s top strength is Empathy may not be incredibly helpful or directive in moving forward.  With the SBL, the more broad leadership themes – executing, influencing, relationship-building, and strategic thinking – would be extremely more useful in constructing team balance and understanding of approaches to problems and solutions.  

Perhaps the best thing to do for a team is to understand the complexities and variations that occur between each team member.  Every individual brings strengths and perspectives that can both help and hinder a team's progression.  Personally, knowing my Strengthsfinder talent themes has not been helpful as I think about my work style or approach to leadership, but perhaps my strengths can be used more effectively in thinking about the whole.  The profession that I am entering is very relationship-oriented, so taking care to find individuals who enjoy thinking strategically or influencing or executing will help expand the team's potential.  However, the same can be said for the MBTI personality types results: student affairs is comprised of a majority of extroverted (E) individuals, so seeking out those with introversion (I) can help bring balance to the team.  Ultimately, there is no right answer.  Each of these instruments can limit a team by providing too much simplicity to the complex concept of a team.  I believe that each assessment can be used effectively and can offer its participants another way of reflecting and developing their individual talents, which is ultimately the purpose of leadership development. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Experiencing Situational Leadership

One of my new responsibilities this year in my graduate assistantship is advising FLEX, a Freshmen Leadership Experience sponsored by the Student Government Association (SGA).    
Freshmen Leadership Experience logo for 2012 Recruitment

Historically, FLEX has never struggled with recruitment, retention, or participant satisfaction, but it has dealt with members engaging in inappropriate behavior. Last year, those involved in FLEX made a pretty negative name for themselves after seven of the fifteen women in the program accepted a bid to one sorority and multiple infractions of underage drinking, hazing allegations, and policy violations were discovered.  Sadly enough, a majority of these acts were prompted, encouraged, or overlooked by the student directors.  As such, SGA officers called for a retirement of the program, unless proper oversight could be guaranteed – and that’s where I come in.  I have been given instructions to “turn the program around” and restructure it to accomplish its mission.  Fortunately, I have been blessed with two phenomenal student directors of the organization that care deeply about the success of the program.  
Me with the FLEX directors and the SGA Executive Branch

As I looked more into FLEX, I noticed that the program has strayed from its purpose of leadership, and has evolved into a highly social organization, with few professional undertones.  For freshmen new to a big campus, this social community has been a wonderful experience for them, but I feel that the members are not being challenged enough and are not using the significant amount of potential and resources available to them.  My mission this year is to inject leadership back into the program.  The theories I’m learning about in this class have been a wonderful stimulus for me as I envision what this new program will look like.  I wanted to share some of the approaches to leadership with my two student directors, but I hadn’t found one yet that makes sense in the context that we’re working in until I read about the Situational Approach to leadership (Northouse, 2013). 

Situational Leadership II graph.
FLEX is a yearlong program, and it makes sense that our freshmen members enter the organization low in confidence and high in commitment (D1).  They are so excited to just be involved in something, but so new to college life and what it means to be a leader on this campus.  As the semester goes on, they may start to feel more comfortable in school and in the program as they make connections, but the stress of their first set of finals might prompt a decrease in commitment (D2) as they’re ready to go home for the holidays.  When they return to school after a month-long break, their commitment is likely to be lessened, but hopefully by the end of the year, members exit the program on an emotional high, having made their best friends, and excited to move into other leadership positions on campus.  These four stages of development, being so prescriptive, were very easy for my student directors to understand.  This approach essentially outlines how they should behave and structure activities throughout the year.  For example, in the spring, it may be more important to have a retreat or social event to increase motivation and support (S3) the members as they start to take control of the organization’s programs and direction.  

Ken Blanchard, one of the researchers behind the Situational Leadership theory, clarified the role between the leader and follower, stating that it should be transparent.  He mentions that the leader should explain his/her approach so followers understand the reasons behind his/her efforts; however, in the context of FLEX, I think I disagree with his statement.  For the freshmen in the program, this is an experience, and I think that being forthcoming with each member would take away from the relationship; it would feel more like a teacher/manager than a mentor/friend.  My goal for FLEX is for the freshmen and my student directors to learn and grow together.  I think it might be beneficial for me to articulate my approach to each student director with them, but for the freshmen, we want them to feel like the program is effortless, spontaneous, and completely driven and moved by them.  This ties into Blanchard's final thoughts about leading with rather than leading at; having developmental conversations and programs that achieve the goals of the follower, which is was the Freshmen Leadership Experience is all about. 


Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Water Your Grass!

Last week, I was running and listening to my iPod, when Justin Beiber’s latest hit song “As Long as You Love Me” started playing.  I love him, and so I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times, but there’s a line in the middle of the track that caught my attention.  Big Sean, the song’s featured rapper states, “The grass isn’t greener on the other side; it’s green where you water it.”  I found those two sentences to be surprisingly profound and provocative for being in the middle of a pop song.  As I kept running, I was thinking about how that quote can be applied in so many different ways.  Sean speaks about hard work and cultivation, rather than perspective.

Hopefully everyone can picture one or several individuals in their minds when prompted to think of a leader they know or admire.  I would imagine that, for many, it is much easier to think of a bad leader: a complacent boss, a dishonest politician, an unprofessional coworker, or a coercive group leader in class.  In these positions, it is assuredly easy to look at that boss or politician and think how much better you would do if in his/her position.  Moreover, it may be easy to examine your own position on the social ladder and lament your inability to make a difference or change the way things are done. 

For me, Sean’s quote is about action versus inaction; perseverance versus complacency; learning and listening versus ignorance.  His words reflect a paradigm shift to see what can be made good and new on your side of the fence, rather than waiting for another person in a position of leadership to fix the problem and revive the dying grass. 

In a leadership study context, this reminds me to consider leadership as a process, as a continuous cultivation.  It is an interaction between a leader and followers, and any individual can rise up to become a leader in that framework (Northouse, 2013, p. 7-8).  If you expect your organization or community, or even yourself, to thrive, you need to cultivate it.  

You have to water your grass in order for it to be green. 

By MarcusObal, CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Jennifer Cohen, an author for Linked 2 Leadership, a blog recognized for its collection of posts published by professionals in the field of leadership development, echoes this idea in her posting about Your Influence Inventory.  She connects the power of influence to practice, specific attention, and dedicated time.  Cohen says that these three steps are necessary for “cementing relationships,” an act mentioned in Northouse’s definition of process leadership: the interaction between leaders and followers (p. 8). 

Maybe those that we view as poor leaders simply haven't spent enough time cultivating themselves, their followers, or their resources.  These leaders may be in a role of assigned leadership (Northouse, p. 8-9), where their power is derived from a place of position.  However, I believe the stronger form of leadership is emergent (p.8-9), where any individual can cultivate his/her influence, or referent power (p. 10-11).  

As I begin forming my own philosophy of leadership over this semester, I will remember Sean's words as a reminder of the power of creating and cultivating one's influence.  Furthermore, using Cohen's steps to determine one's scope of power in leadership, I can further develop my own version of leadership and influence. 


Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.