The Hidden Messages in Leadership Theories, By: Daria-Yvonne J. Graham

Leadership, as a concept, is not an unusual topic in higher education; it is often referred to in multiple ways and areas within colleges and universities. Marketing materials, student affairs programs, and academic courses often refer to leadership development as a learning goal or learning outcome. The concept of leadership varies greatly and is presented through multiple models and theories that refer to positionality, skills, abilities, and preferred human characteristics. Admittedly, most leadership frameworks seem constructive and claim necessary qualities and steps to being catalysts for positive social change and progress, but in order to validate these claims, an assumption must be accepted that the formula for “good” leadership is universally applicable across social identities. Popular leadership theories, such as Servant Leadership (Greenleaf, 1977) and the Leadership Challenge (Kouzes & Posner, 2012) offer guidelines that name behaviors such as being of service to others, gentleness, and challenging the process as necessary habits for good leadership. Similarly, Gallup’s StrengthsQuest (Clifton & Schreiner, 2006) and Transformational Leadership (Bass, 1990) are leadership approaches that are situated as foundations for understanding leadership styles and the implications on organizational health and individual influence.

It is understandable why many of the programs and topics of higher education are connected to the goal of producing leaders.  By infusing leadership concepts into multiple aspects of universities and colleges, students are called to academic excellence, reminded of the importance of self-care, and the effect of their behavior on others. In referring to leadership as a foundation, universities can point to the importance of congruence, center living and working as a community as a value, and challenge faculty, staff, and students to work together towards a common good.  With such selfless and productive concepts at the core of the messaging and structure of colleges and universities, it is no wonder why leadership models and theories are not better interrogated before they are espoused and bolstered. Like most things in life, there is another perspective to consider.

When considering the role that social identities play in society, the assumptions that prescribe leadership concepts as universal is faulty. Social identities and the intersection of those identities have multiple effects on individuals’ experiences, and prescribed responses and plans of actions could likely have dire consequences. One population to consider would be women of color who work in higher education.  While 55% of higher education faculty and staff are women, members of underrepresented populations represent only 21% in upper administration (Chronicle, 2016).  Due to the demographics of our institutions and the social identities of those in positions of power, expectations for behavior and meaning-making typically reflect the race, gender, culture and value systems of those in senior leadership. Indicators of “good” leadership are often coded for “White, heteronormative, misogynistic, hegemonic, cisgender, and financially privileged”. Leadership tenets such as “anticipating the unknown” or healing others before healing self (Greenleaf, 1977) must be considered within the United States’ historical context of White privilege, genocide, and slavery. The residue of the history of the United States is evident as there continues to be acts of violence motivated by hate (, the statistical representation of Black and brown men in incarceration (, and the lack of people of color in upper administrative roles, particularly at private White institutions ( Leadership theories cause harm by erasing the historical context for underrepresented populations, by denying the harm that may result when a leadership tenet reaffirms a racial or gender stereotype, and by increasing feelings of taxation for those who see leadership tenets as methods of survival.  For example, as part of the Servant Leadership model, Greenleaf (1977) states that leaders must use the tenet of withdrawal from a situation or relationship as a tactical defense or prioritization process. By strategically withdrawing and re-entering, leaders are able to rejuvenate, reassign resources, and take time for self-care. Members of underrepresented populations experience taxation because of their inability to see the tenet of withdrawal as an optional strategy.  While members of majority populations can be mindful of this tenet as a tool when appropriate, the act of withdrawal by some individuals will be (mis)interpreted as shows of anger, hostility, disconnection, indifference, hostility, a disinterest in collaboration, or at minimum a lack of investment. Society has inherited a perspective that believes members of underrepresented populations should work despite the need for rest and to do so with minimal complaint for as long as necessary to complete the task at hand.  Withdrawal is not a viable option for a “good” leader who has marginalized identities.  This discrepancy illuminates one example of how Greenleaf’s (1977) prescription for “good” leadership is not universal as power and privilege make blind application problematic.

Some consider executing leadership techniques as welcomed opportunities for growth, but others, particularly members of underrepresented populations, interpret a university’s leadership message as reaffirming a historical posture of servitude.  With such dire possibilities for members of the university’s community, it is incumbent upon faculty, staff, and students to critically examine leadership theories that are often written by White men and from a White perspective.  By silencing a possible counter narrative on leadership – through ignoring the counter narrative or negating it – the use of popular modern theories can negatively impact individuals and the institutions for which they “serve”.


Daria-Yvonne J. Graham (she, her, hers, herself) currently serves as the inaugural Director for the Office of Student Leadership Programs and as an adjunct faculty member for the department of sociology, anthropology and social work at the University of Dayton (UD). The Office of Student Leadership Programs supports the leadership development of all students by providing support, programming, and leadership tools.  Daria has been affiliated with UD for over 27 years, where she received her bachelor of science in business administration, her master of science in education and allied professions, and anticipates completing her Ph.D. in higher education in May 2017. Her dissertation study uses the experiences of black women in student affairs to interrogate leadership theory. She has presented on social justice, diversity and inclusion, collaborative strategies and initiatives in higher education, and mission-informed practices in higher education. She is a member of ACPA – College Educators International and served as a directorate member for the Coalition for Women’s Identities from 2010 – 2013.



Bass, B. M. (1990). Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, research, and managerial applications (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The Free Press.

Clifton, D. O., & Schreiner, L. A. (2006). StrengthsQuest: Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career, and beyond. (G. Organization, Ed.) (1st ed.). Washington, DC: Gallup Organization.

(2016, August 19). Gender, Race, and Ethnicity of College Administrators, Faculty, and Staff, Fall 2013. Chronicle of Higher Education. p. 16.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2012). The Leadership Challenge (5th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.


What Do You Have to Offer? Establishing A Social Justice Vision That Matters! By: Gregory Fontus, M.Ed.

Being in an office that focuses on all things social justice, diversity, and inclusion can be quite challenging, all things considered. Right now, there is a president in the White House who blatantly seeks to daily infringe upon the civil liberties of underrepresented groups, thus causing social justice offices to have to focus on addressing and responding to the rise in student mental health issues and student activism that’s becoming the new norm of the collegiate experience. Additionally, there is, of course, the everyday invisibility that historically marginalized groups continue to face while trying to survive in a society that often relegates them to its margins. With all of this, how does one implement a social justice vision that addresses the white supremacist culture embedded within the fabric of our country, invites meaningful and fearless dialogue of opposing views, and creates opportunities for underrepresented groups to feel welcomed?

It wasn’t until I began to champion the philosophies of the late Howard Thurman that answers to these questions began to appear. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman asked a provocative question regarding religious institutions that I found to be metaphorically quintessential to the foundational impetus of developing a framework for a social justice or multicultural office. Thurman wrote:

“The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life?” [1]

Thurman challenges and invites us to self-reflect not upon what we are doing as an entity, but rather what we are offering to communities that identify as the disinherited. It’s my argument that social justice and multicultural offices at higher education institutions need to establish visions that focus on what they are offering the communities they are purposed to serve. At Vanderbilt University, the Office of Inclusion Initiatives & Cultural Competence (IICC) offers a comprehensive service model vision that focuses on 5 competencies of A.C.C.E.SS.

A: Advocate

The first competency of A.C.C.E.SS. is to Advocate. To advocate is to intentionally advise and holistically support the needs and issues surrounding and affecting multicultural, international, and underrepresented students and groups. Being at a PWI that serves over 40 undergraduate multicultural organizations and has increased its efforts and resources towards social justice and identity, the obligation to advocate for students is critical, both academically, politically, and socially. Often times, the work of social justice is rooted in dismantling the negative representations, historical legacies, and institutional patterns and practices that have been perpetuated and upheld by generations of white supremacy. To advocate within the A.C.C.E.SS. model is to focus on celebrating diversity while confronting ideological frameworks that have rendered groups of people invisible in efforts of fostering a campus community of recognition and respect.

C: Critical Dialogue

The second competency of A.C.C.E.SS. is to engage the campus community in Critical Dialogue. Within the IICC office we offer a catalogue of cultural competency trainings, modules, and workshops to the entire campus community in efforts to deepen the level of authentic and inclusive dialogue across difference. This need for critical dialogue is key for social justice and multicultural offices to participate in because it is through this modality that the self-exploration of ideologies and identities can be addressed. The ability to dialogue promotes and nurtures the practical communication and leadership tools necessary to effectively navigate diverse communities with sensitivity, empathy, and confidence.

C: Culturally Relevant Programming

The third competency of A.C.C.E.SS. is to offer Culturally Relevant Programming. It’s imperative that social justice offices create programming initiatives for various identities of race, faith/religious traditions, nationality, class, gender, sexual identity, ability, and other social identities to meaningfully engage with one another. Relevant programming initiatives allow for multiple communities to be heard, opportunities for faculty engagement, personal storytelling, and the social/identity development of students to take place. The more we offer culturally relevant programming, the more we validate and humanize the voices and experiences implanted within our various campus communities.

E: Environments of Reprieve

The fourth competency of A.C.C.E.SS. is to offer Environments of Reprieve. What can be forgotten in the work of social justice is the space for people to kickback and take mental breaks from the racial, political, and academic fatigue often times presented. Social justice and multicultural offices should be identified as environments that engage in healthy wellness and well-being initiatives for their students. Offices need to be spaces where students don’t have to be victims of pretension or in competition with their peers. Social justice and multicultural offices should be a place where the full and complex humanity of each individual is acknowledged and authenticated.

SS: Strategic Success

The final competency of the A.C.C.E.SS. vision is to offer Strategic Success. As offices are charged with sharing the narratives of various cultures and dismantling the notions of white supremacy, we need not forget that practitioners are here to serve the holistic student need. Therefore, strategic success plans should be established in which offices collaborate with university and community partners to build a diversity network that offers learning and leadership opportunities for all students. This allows for underrepresented students to have access and exposure to opportunities that they would otherwise be slighted from because of the unfortunate realities of white supremacy (i.e. internship opportunities, exposure to job recruiters, and networking with key university alumni). Instead of students seeking out opportunities, our offices should be bringing the opportunities to them!

When Howard Thurman inquired about what religious institutions had to offer the disinherited, he did so with the mindset of re-envisioning what community means. Leading from a mindset of what your office is offering allows for underrepresented students to centered and validated within your office. We should be willing to offer them the access to opportunities, experiences, and resources that their human right has granted them. When we begin to do so, the work of social justice then becomes reality.



Greg Fontus (he/him/his) is the current Assistant Director for the Office of Inclusion Initiatives and Cultural Competence (IICC) at Vanderbilt University. He began working at Vanderbilt in June 2012 after graduating from the University of South Florida where he received both a Bachelor of Science in Finance and a Master of Education in Instruction and Curriculum. During his time at Vanderbilt, Greg has received certifications from the National Coalition Building Institute as a diversity and social justice workshop facilitator (Fall 2012), was named the Dean of Students New Professional of the Year (2012-2013), attended the Social Justice Training Institute (Fall 2013), and was named the OHARE Staff Member of the Year (2014-2015). Greg has conducted many social justice workshops for all parts of the Vanderbilt and Nashville community in hopes of contributing to a community where all people understand the importance of celebrating other groups of people. His passion for diversity and social justice stem from his desire to dismantle systems of oppression that have historically rendered people invisible. To connect further with Greg, please use the following:

[1] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 3.