College Students as Emerging Servant Leaders: A Collaboration between Columbus State University, Synovus, and Others

College Students as Emerging Servant Leaders: A Collaboration between Columbus State University, Synovus, and Others

6.5 min read

Mary Sue Polleys, Ph.D.

Our colleges and universities administer an “anti-leadership vaccine,” according to John Gardner (Greenleaf, 1969).  Robert Greenleaf, the father of servant leadership, agrees and adds that we have the misfortune to live in the age of the anti-leader. We’ve done a good job of educating cynics, critics and experts—the technical specialist who advises the leader or the intellectual who stands off and criticizes the leader, but no one wants to educate the leader himself  (Greenleaf, 1969).   And yet the leadership crisis looms.  “We give every appearance of sleep-walking through a dangerous passage of history,” writes Gardner (1990); “we see the life-threatening problems, but we do not react.  We are anxious but immobilized.”

With an increasing awareness of that leadership crisis, more voices are calling for universities to become involved.  The Kellogg Foundation’s “Leadership reconsidered: Engaging higher education in social change” (2000) declares that higher education has the potential to produce future generations of transformative leaders who can help find solutions to our most vexing social problems.  With the help of Synovus, and other businesses following their lead, Columbus State University is accepting the challenge through a commitment to develop servant leaders—leaders committed to the ethical use of power and authority who want to help others grow.

The CSU Servant Leadership Program, now in its third year, seeks to help students develop the knowledge, skills, and spirit of servant leaders through both academic and experiential learning.  Stipends, which are provided mainly by Synovus, are available for a limited number of entering freshmen.  In return for the stipend, students participate in an academic seminar for one-semester-hour of elective credit each semester, engage in community service through non-profit agencies, and participate in mentoring as both a mentor to an at-risk child and as a mentee.  Personal development assessments, conferences, retreats, and social events are also integral parts of the program.  The stipends are renewable for a total of eight semesters.  The program now includes 12 juniors, 13 sophomores, and 15 freshmen.

High school seniors who have demonstrated potential in the areas of service, leadership, academics, and commitment to the development of self and others are recruited during the Fall each year.  Interested students submit applications by January 31, and the selection process takes place during February and March.  Each new year begins with an Orientation Retreat on the Friday before Fall Semester classes begin.  Evaluation of the program continues on an on-going, continuous, cyclical basis with year-end evaluative reports completed during May and June each year.  Results, collected both quantitatively and qualitatively, suggest that the program is a quadruple-win benefiting the university, the community, collaborating businesses, and the students.

From the university’s perspective, good students are being attracted to the program and retention rates are high.  No strict standard exists for SAT minimum scores, and selected students’ scores have ranged from the 900’s-1300’s.  The program does require that students maintain an overall B average, and only three have been lost for academic reasons.  About half of the students are on the Dean’s List each semester, and the overall GPA is about 3.5 each semester.  Servant leadership students are becoming very active on campus and now fill about half of the new positions in student government.

Our servant leadership students are also making a positive difference in the community as they complete 6-8 hours per week of community service through 24 different non-profit agencies.  They give thousands of hours of service each year, and agency directors give them high praise.  Each student mentors a young child in the public school system who is deemed to be “at-risk” by teachers.  “Karen absolutely made the difference for LeAnn; she turned her around,” a teacher recently declared in describing the value of the mentoring relationship.  “LeAnn became a child who believed she could read, and she made amazing progress.”  The effect on the college students is perhaps even greater than on the little children.  “This experience opened my eyes in a way that nothing else could,” wrote one servant leadership student.  “Thank you for making my freshman year the greatest year of my life,” wrote another.  The program participants are learning that it truly is in giving that we receive.

The program is funded entirely through local means.  After the final report was presented from a task force commissioned to explore the development of a formal leadership program in 1998, the CSU administration secured funding through a local foundation.  At the same time, collaboration was established with the Pastoral Institute, a local counseling and educational center.  Through the Business Resource Center and The Center for Servant Leadership, which are divisions of the Pastoral Institute, businesses contribute stipend money for students involved in the program. Synovus has been the principal supporter.

Not only does Synovus give generously for stipends, this locally-founded company, listed among the best places to work in America, supplies mentors for the CSU students.  Synovus is the holding company for Total System Services, one of the largest credit card processing centers in the world, and for Columbus Bank and Trust Company, a locally founded bank.  Executives from the Synovus family of businesses are matched with servant leadership students in mentoring relationships for several reasons.  First, the arrangement puts the CSU student, who mentors at-risk children, in the uniquely important position of serving as a bridge between those in the mainstream of the social order and those in danger of being left out of society.  The relationship also helps our college students to access wise advice and practical help from an adult who is seen as an exemplary servant leader, and, in turn, Synovus benefits by being able to introduce our fine students to the career possibilities available with their companies.  Ultimately, we all benefit, say executives at Synovus, as young people who subscribe to the servant leadership philosophy and who have been educated in servant leadership principles, skills, and attitudes are attracted to Columbus and stay here to make a better quality of life for everyone.

The world needs young people who want to learn to serve instead of rule, who will not gain advantage for themselves by setting individuals or groups against one another, who will not use political patronage to further their own ambitions nor vindictive measures against those who oppose them, who will not exploit the public trust or the public treasury for their own gain, who want to see institutions called back to their primary mission of service and groups move toward goals that are in the best interest of the whole.  It is this need that the Columbus State University Servant Leadership Program addresses.  Through hands-on experience in needy areas, and through learning about themselves and their community and about leadership research and theory, university students are developing responsibility for their community, a sense of engagement, and the knowledge that service is a mutually beneficial thing.  We are learning together to serve as we lead and to lead as we serve.

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 Dr. Mary Sue Polleys holds a B.A. in Speech and Education from Mercer University, an M.A. in Speech Communication from Auburn, and a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Auburn.  Having taught in corporate settings and public and private schools, she has also served for almost nine years as Chair of the Muscogee County School Board, which oversees a public school district of 32,000 students and 5,000 employees.  She serves on the faculty of Columbus State University, Columbus, Georgia, as Director of the Servant Leadership Program.


Technical assistance from Ms. Angela Johnson, Columbus State University


Astin, A. W. & Astin, H. S. (2000).  Leadership reconsidered: Engaging higher education in social change.  Report for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek, MI.

Gardner, J. (1990).  On leadership.  New York: Free Press.

Greenleaf, Robert K. (1969).  The crisis of leadership.  In Don M. Frick & Larry C. Spears (Eds.), On becoming a servant leader.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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