#4: 3 Strategies to Foster a Culture of Servant Leadership in Academic Development

A Butler serving a room full of seated academic staff.

Learning and managing academic and research staff in universities can be challenging.

“Herding cats” is a common description of the role.

But what if you need staff to change how they work?

What if there are financial pressures to increase performance?

What if the student experience or research quality has to improve?

Understanding how staff respond to management is important. Traditional managerial styles and controls tend not to work too well in academic environments.

For the best outcomes, think collaboration over hierarchy.

And that’s where servant leadership can succeed. It’s a transformative approach that can benefit both staff and students.

Here are three strategies for building a culture of servant leadership.

1. Lead By Serving

Academic leaders live the values they instil in others.

Actively seek opportunities to support staff. Demonstrate that service is valued. Collaborate in projects and be present in both formal and informal settings.

Be committed to ensuring the well-being of staff. Promote the use of mentoring to support junior staff, and the sharing of responsibility. This will foster a sense of community.

Managerial approaches can alienate staff and undermine change initiatives.

Reject the traditions and believe in your staff.

2. Cultivate Empathy And Understanding 

Empathy is a cornerstone of servant leadership.

Academic staff respond positively when their needs and concerns are listened to. Showing that you understand their perspective, and strive to respond with compassion, can help facilitate change in university environments.

To create the space to listen, facilitate mechanisms for regular feedback. Staff surveys are important, but not the whole solution. Arrange opportunities for both group and one-to-one sessions.

Build coaching capacity amongst staff. Encourage open dialogue so that leaders can understand all the nuances that different staff present.

And get stuck-in, working collaboratively to address issues.

Would a traditional manager do this?

3. Promote Lifelong Learning 

Academia is a dynamic environment and staff need to constantly adapt to change.

We might assume that universities are learning environments. But there are often examples of dysfunctional systems, outdated processes and arcane working practices (“how we do things around here…”). 

This suggests that organisational learning is slow.

Servant leadership promotes growth and learning.

Leaders who listen to staff needs understand what development is required. They support staff to learn – and that means making mistakes and experimenting.

Academic staff relish the opportunity to develop themselves. Harness this to facilitate effective, collaborative change and innovation.

Be inspired by lean start-up practices. Take action, learn from mistakes, improve and iterate.

As a community.

Service For Success

Fostering a culture of servant leadership in academic development requires you to:

1. Be intentional about serving others.

2. Cultivate empathy. Listen.

3. Promote a growth mindset.

By embracing these strategies, academic leaders can create an environment where collaboration, understanding, and continuous learning are prioritised.

This contributes to the holistic development of staff and students, creating a positive and thriving academic community.