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.


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