Lingnan University (LU) is one of 8 tertiary institutions in Hong Kong that have received sponsorship for undergraduate students to acquire knowledge and develop attributes relating to service leadership. Service leadership may be conceptualized as leadership for service, exercised through distributed authority, aimed at identifying and meeting genuine needs of service recipients. Building on prior experience of embedding service-learning projects into discipline-based credit bearing courses, in term 1, 2012-13, LU introduced service leadership through service-learning into four courses. A predominantly qualitative, critical-incident approach was adopted to study processes of students’ learning on these courses. Data were collected through open-ended team reflection and self-reflection pro-formas, a peer review rubric, and focus group meetings.
Findings suggest that service-learning projects can be powerful vehicles for learning and practicing service leadership attributes. Positive learning outcomes reported by students included: increased skills of oral communication, relationship building, time management and problem solving; and greater personal discipline, emotional intelligence, empathy for disadvantaged people and cross-cultural awareness. Students mentioned the importance of mutual care and support in teams, of formative feedback from host agencies/enterprises; of being appreciated by end service recipients; and of turning cultural diversity among team members into a powerful resource.
We shall draw on an established model of competence development (Robinson, 1974; Wilhelm, 2011) to analyze students’ reported experiences. In terms of unconscious learning needs, students seemed relatively insensitive to the particular expectations of gatekeepers in their host organization and the constraints that they were facing, and rather than attempting to understand nuances and tensions within the service recipient habitat/ecosystem, they tended to fix their attention on the concerns of end-user service recipients. In terms of conscious learning needs, some teams became aware of the inadequacy of the traditional autocratic leadership paradigm, but appeared not to fully grasp the principles and practices of distributed leadership, while some students noticed service leadership qualities in other team members that they perceived were lacking in themselves. In terms of conscious competence, some students came to recognize their own talents in certain areas through taking initiatives to overcome difficulties. We discuss implications.