Servant leadership in Fountain University

On the 1st day of March 2024, the first female and fourth substantive Vice-Chancellor of Fountain University, Osogbo, the highly cerebral and prolific Prof. Olayinka Ramota Karim, marked her first year in office. To commemorate the event, apart from a sod-turning ceremony for the construction of a sit-out facility, which the Vice-Chancellor has attracted to the University, she also organised a public lecture.

As Guest Lecturer on the occasion, I spoke on “Servant Leadership as a Catalyst for National Development: Principles, Problems and Prospects”. Having observed, as a visiting Vice-Chancellor then, during the 13th convocation ceremony of the University on January 14, 2024 the leadership style that defined Prof. Karim’s Vice-Chancellorship, I have no doubt that the style can catapult institutions, states and Nigeria to the pinnacle of development. Being a servant and transformational leader has evidently accounted for the plethora of achievements Prof. Karim recorded within her first year in the saddle.

Rooted in the saying of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that the leader of a people is their servant, documented since about 1,450 years ago, the concept of servant leadership became popular when Robert K. Greenleaf, an American businessman and author, first used it in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader”. In the essay, Greenleaf advocated a shift in leadership philosophy, suggesting that leaders should prioritise serving others rather than seeking power and control. He posited that a servant leader is someone who puts the needs of others first and works to empower and develop his/her team members and followers.

According to Greenleaf, “the servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

Greenleaf further noted that the difference between the leader-first and the servant-first manifests itself in the care taken by the latter to ensure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. He stressed that the questions that a servant leader asks himself are: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived? ”

Therefore, as Ken Blanchard, formerly of Ohio University, Ohio, asserted, servant leadership is the foundation for effective leadership. “I truly believe that ServantLeadership has never been more applicable to the world of leadership than it is today… Servant Leadership works. ServantLeadershipis about getting people to a higher level by leading people at a higher level,” he said. Though not without its problems, its principles and prospects make it most enduring and beneficial. The principles of servant leadership include listening, empathy, healing, self-awareness, persuasion, conceptualisation, foresight, stewardship, empowerment, building community, humility and integrity.

Impassioned by a sense of service, within one year, Prof. Karim has got approval for eleven new undergraduate and six postgraduate programmes from the National Universities Commission (NUC), attracted full scholarships for 25 students, obtained #50 million scholarship for brilliant students, secured scholarship for the first 20 students admitted to the Arabic and Islamic Studies programme and got additional #10 million for the indigent students.

The University has also witnessed tremendous growth in infrastructural development in projects such as Public Health and Environmental Laboratories and Museum, College of Arts Building, Jubrilia Ayinla 292-bed space hostel accommodation and many others. More than 2,000 titles of books have also been received from international and national organisations to boost the University Library. Staff have equally been motivated to win competitive international and national research grants while others have benefitted from staff development, leading to seven PhDs and four Master’s degrees between her assumption of office and now, apart from increasing their salary by 35%.

From the list of what has been recorded within the past one year, one can actually extrapolate close to 365 achievements meaning that each day is an achievement day. And everything is due to the leadership philosophy that is based on vision, compassion, service, humility, kindness, empathy and generosity towards everyone in the system.

Without equivocation, if servant leadership is adopted at all levels of governance in Nigeria, from the federal and state levels down to the local government area and various institutions and organisations, Nigeria will be a haven of peace, prosperity, development and security.

Prof. Adedimeji is of the University of Ilorin, Ilorin.