Integrating Spirituality in Student Leadership Involvement

By Andrew Lehr

    Student leadership positions are not new aspects of higher education. For years, students have been given opportunities to lead their college campuses in various capacities; however, little attention has been paid to the spiritual implications and opportunities for student growth within these roles. As other trends within higher education rise, the need for leaders with spiritual wisdom becomes more important in higher education, and the process begins with our students (Astin, 2000). The rising trend of influencing and addressing spiritual development in student leadership positions encourages students to not only grow deeper in their relationship with their respective faith, but also to grow more holistically as humans. 

    Historically, the term “spirituality” has been ill-defined. Due to the ambiguous nature of this idea, there is no consensus regarding definitions for this term. This must be accounted for when considering spirituality in student leadership. So, as not to limit the amount of research considered or the thoughts involved in this idea, its definition remains broad to include multiple ideas. According to the literature, spirituality, or “faith development” as Love (2005) calls it, can be defined as the process of developing meaning-making in the world not limited to a single religion or faith (Gehrke, 2008; Love, 2005). It is a universal need for all students to implement into their lives (Gehrke, 2008). It promotes the interconnectedness of thinking, and weaves together action and belief (Garber, 1996; Love, 2001). Spirituality, then, is not limited to a specific faith or religion, but is the idea that each person is spiritual and has the capacity to grow spiritually over the course of their lifetime, especially during their college years. Love notes that this development “lies beyond the range of ordinary perception and experience and thus is ultimately unknowable, and it remains within us and the particulars of our experience” (Love, 2001, p.8).

    In the same way, leadership has been difficult to define. Prior to approximately the last twenty years, leadership had been limited to the industrial, managerial realm until the emergence of the idea of transformational leadership. Burns (1982), in his book Leadership, describes leadership as “a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents” (p.4).  Leadership, then, took on a moral emphasis opposed to simply a power-wielding position. In an effort to define it more specifically in higher education, a leadership model of social change emerged, in which students go through “a purposeful, collaborative, values-based process that results in positive social change” (Komives, Wagner, & Associates, 2009, p. xii). Leadership, then, is not limited to a specific type of position, but refers to a holistic process that occurs in a variety of campus leadership positions.

    In 2009, Haber and Komives conducted research on the roles of students in leadership and involvement experiences, focusing on their development as leaders in relation to social change (Haber & Komives, 2009). Interestingly, much of their research uncovered the differences between genders in leadership. Men were less intentional about seeking out leadership opportunities, including community service and leadership opportunities, while women actively sought these out (Haber & Komives, 2009). For both sexes, formal leadership training proved not to be a significant factor (Haber & Komives, 2009). In another study, researchers found that faculty involvement, mentoring, and community service contributed significantly to students’ development. Additionally, this study indicated that the most significant factor in student leadership development is peer-to-peer conversations regarding socio-cultural issues (Dugan & Komives, 2010).

    On the other end of the spectrum, spiritual development continues to become more integrated with holistic learning in the university. Spiritual searching for fulfillment can be evidenced through increased involvement in service-learning initiatives, the new age movement, attraction to cultic religions, and the servant-leadership model (Love & Talbot, 1999). Through these avenues, students made it clear that they are spiritual beings in need of development in that aspect of their lives as well.

    The Social Change model of leadership provides an example of a leadership framework that incorporates spiritual development into its structure. Originally developed in the early 90’s, the Social Change model sough to emphasize the idea of leadership as a process which enhances students’ self-knowledge and leadership competence, as well as creating positive social change in the community (Astin & Astin, 1996). This model accommodates for students who hold non-traditional leadership roles, a unique contribution to the realm of leadership. Students operating in this model hope to gain critical values such as (but not limited to) consciousness of self, congruence, collaboration, and citizenship. While this model emphasizes growth within the group or organization, it also encourages individual growth, recognizing that leadership is more than just holding a position. Students grow more when they are encouraged to develop as whole persons, not just as position-holders. Yasuno states, more leadership models are emphasizing “leadership as a relationship” (Yasuno, 2008, p. 3).

    This model quickly found its way into college student development circles and is built upon previous ideas. Experts such as Palmer describe leadership as a spiritual practice in which not only the leader engages with spirituality, but so do those whom are led (Palmer, 1994). These leadership models emphasize non-hierarchical leaders that seek to collaborate with their fellow peers rather than trying to tyrannically rule over them. This aspect alone changes leadership from formal position holding to those who would effect positive social change (Astin & Astin, 1996; Yasuno, 2008). Such an emphasis leads to the connection to spirituality in which students lead from a place of inner strength rather than outer appearance or position (Yasuno, 2008).

    Students operating in non-hierarchical leadership models awaken to spirituality in positive ways that develop both their spiritual lives and leadership competence (Outcalt, Faris, & McMahon, 2001). In a case study done by Outcalt, Faris & McMahon (2001), a student in a leadership position found that her ability to lead her peers in her program enabled her to reach deeper into her own spiritual life. She reported that her leadership experience taught her that she could lead simply by being her own person, and “living out [her] faith in such a tangible way gave [her] a sense of purpose and direction” (Outcalt, Faris, & McMahon, 2001, p. 136). Students in leadership positions, particularly non-hierarchical models, are able to fully understand and claim their gifts and passions and simultaneously foster their spiritual development (Outcalt, Faris, & McMahon, 2001). Outcalt, Faris, and McMahon (2001) also highlight the idea that leadership requires personal congruence since leadership “emanates from an integrative, holistic spirituality based on service with and for others” (p. 131). The connection, therefore, between leadership and spirituality is crucial for the students’ leadership development and personal development (Outcalt, Faris, & McMahon, 2001).

    Susan Gehrke (2008) became one of the first to study the correlation between spirituality and leadership development. Each of her measures between the two ended in a positive correlation, illustrating the positive connection between spirituality and leadership, even if some were very weak (Gehrke, 2008). The strongest connection exists between “aspects of equanimity and components of socially responsible leadership” (Gehrke, 355, 2008). Equanimity signifies a mental evenness especially under stress. Gehrke says it is a sense of connection with humanity and the ability to make meaning out of hardships, a point of connection with the social change model of leadership (Gehrke, 2008). Equanimity closely resembles elements of leadership including citizenship, inner congruence, and self-awareness (Gehrke, 2008). Students in leadership also wrestle with developing a meaningful philosophy of life, something that extends far beyond the bounds of leadership itself and incorporates the whole person as a spiritual being (Gehrke, 2008). In their research on spirituality in higher education, Astin, Astin and Lindholm (2010) found that providing opportunities for students to grow spiritually not only positively affects their leadership skills, but academic performance, self-confidence, psychological health, and overall college experience. These findings were similar to those of Gehrke’s.

    Extracurricular leadership experiences have a high correlation to spiritual growth for students. Spiritual growth can occur when organizations incorporate clarifying values and goals into their planning (Capeheart-Meningall, 2005). As such, these organizations will aid students in recognizing the values and beliefs that shape their actions (Capeheart-Meningall, 2005). For example, in a case study done within a Christian student organization, Magolda and Ebben (2006) discovered that students who were attending the organization’s events were able to grow despite various differences in lifestyles and personalities. The particular organization provided several layers of involvement for students to enhance their learning experiences, challenging them in their abilities to “work collaboratively with their peers, define their own beliefs, and develop leadership skills” (Magolda & Ebbens, 2006, p. 292). While the organization itself is spiritual in nature, the developments that take place within such an organization also allow for leadership developments. These implications not only hold weight in faith-based institutions, but secular institutions as well (Magolda & Ebbens, 2006). Students in extracurricular positions, including those in leadership, may be using these positions to develop spiritual meaning as well (Love, 2001).  Astin and Astin (2000) concur, saying that giving students opportunities to tie their spirituality, as well as other vectors of their lives, into their leadership positions allows for students to “practice commitment to developing shared purposes, develop competence in effecting a division of labor, and be challenged to interact authentically and with integrity as they learn to reconcile disagreements with respect” (p. 53).  

    While the focus of this research points toward students, this trend has implications for student development professionals as well. Potentially most important is the need for student development professionals to model these behaviors (Astin, 1996). Rogers and Dantely (2001) argue that student development professionals must model spiritual growth in their leadership and invite fellow faculty and students to journey alongside them in their search for spiritual fulfillment. Palmer (1994) advocates for professionals demonstrating these attributes because we “project” either a spirit of light or darkness on the world through our leadership (p. 24). If leaders are projecting their spiritual lives on the world around them, then they must take care to project the correct light, and not shadow (Palmer, 1994). In the same way, Palmer (1994) describes our spiritual development as essentially a personal matter, but not necessarily a “private matter” (p. 38). Our development cannot be left alone to ourselves. The more willing leaders are to show their spiritual developments, the more students can be transparent in their own spiritual development. If we are to emphasize whole-person growth in students, we must be willing to show our own holistic growth in our interactions with colleagues, peers and students (Rogers & Dantely, 2001). By doing so, we co-create a holistic environment alongside students when we use our leadership to model our spiritual lives (Palmer, 1994).

    The literature, although not extensive, indicates that an emphasis on the connection between leadership and spirituality can help nurture holistic growth in students. Not only does this imply the need to address spirituality in leadership, but it also implies the growing need for colleges to address the issue of spirituality both in and out of the classroom. Not only does addressing spirituality in leadership roles help students develop a greater understanding of social change and action, but it encourages empathy, equanimity, and camaraderie. For student development professionals, addressing and modeling spirituality with student leaders can lead to deeper growth within students and encourage connectedness in their lives. More than that, as Palmer (1994) says, “we can lead, instead, from an inner place of trust and hope, thus creating a world that is more hopeful and more trustworthy” (p. 40). Leadership, then, not only can benefit greatly from our inner spiritual lives and our students’ lives, but the world can as well.


    Andrew Lehr serves as a Graduate Assistant for Student Programs at Taylor University, located in Upland, Indiana.



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