Student Leadership Program Impact after COVID-19 Pandemic


The purpose of this study was to investigate the thematic elements of a student leadership program. The methodology involved qualitative research using document analysis. The results indicated the program’s documents included some expected themes in the areas of human leadership (specific to servant leadership), belief, and growth; however, the documents lacked discussion in some other areas intended by the program. The results of this study are useful for practitioners and researchers seeking to understand the impact of a co-curricular student leadership development program for business students. Furthermore, due to the timing of the study, the research identified some differences in the student leadership development program before and after a time of crisis. Finally, the study outlines a systematic methodology for document analysis for novice qualitative researchers based on the Fitzgerald (2012) model. 


The Servant Leader program is a student leadership development initiative in the ACBSP-accredited College of Business & Health Administration at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois. The program began in 2019 as one component of a new initiative to increase values-based education in a business college. The Servant Leader program is a co-curricular element, and start-up costs were funded thanks to a generous grant received from the Wheeler Foundation. 

The Servant Leader program is dedicated to enhancing the University’s development of inspirational learners toward their personal and professional vocational goals. The Servant Leaders are business students who choose to serve and are asked to act in the role of mentors in the College of Business & Health Administration and additionally throughout their local community. A primary objective of the program is to educate and prepare the College of Business & Health Administration students to lead purposeful lives while encompassing the University’s Franciscan values of respect, integrity, service, and compassion. 

This research study will (1) briefly review the theory of servant leadership, and (2) examine secondary data in the form of document analysis in an effort to quantify the impact of the Servant Leader program.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study was to investigate the thematic elements of a student leadership program (Servant Leader program). This research study involved document analysis using qualitative research methods. The following research question was developed to help guide the study and research process and to further understand the impact of the program: How has the Servant Leader Program impacted business students after the COVID-19 pandemic? We expect to find themes within the data that suggest specific impacts. We also expect to see some variation in the level of activity and perhaps the type of activity pre-and post the crisis period caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic. We believe this research is important because it provides the opportunity to quantify the results of a new program. Further, the research conducted will provide information to the program to analyze and reevaluate the progress made within their mission for the College of Business & Health Administration. 

Literature Review

Student leadership development

Leadership development is an important aspect of higher education programs as they prepare students to enter the world (Kiersch & Peters, 2017). Research in the area of student leadership development specific to colleges and universities has grown and has focused on being more intentional (Barnes, 2020). The idea is that student leaders are asked to make connections between their academic studies and their co-curricular activities to find meaning in their education (Barnes, 2020). In short, the goal is to reach a highlight of the academic experience which would be to connect theory to practice (Barnes, 2020). Student leadership development takes on various formats including workshops, courses, and retreats (Kiersch & Peters, 2017), and students find leadership experiences in student government, residence halls, orientation programs, leadership centers, and other curricular and co-curricular campus experiences (Barnes, 2020). However, it is challenging for those building student leader programs because there is some level of disagreement as to the best approach (Dunn et al., 2019). Dunn et al. (2019) found that two expert groups within student affairs – managers and faculty members – agreed on the value of leadership education but disagreed as to the definition of a student leader. If the goal is to develop student leaders that self-identify into a specific role, the leadership education pathway might follow one type of model. However, if the goal is to develop all students into potential leaders, then the model might look vastly different. 

There is some discussion that colleges and universities are not doing enough to prepare students for the workforce – a so-called skills gap (Goeltz et al., 2018). The key components of student leadership development programs are essential to align with the qualifications of future employers, the expectations set by our society, and the skill set, knowledge, and capabilities of current students (Kiersch & Peters, 2017). The co-development of meaningful value for the mentees and mentors in a leadership program could reflect the impact that these integrated programs can create.

Defining servant leadership

The scholarly field of leadership includes discussion on leadership styles, leadership attributes, and the significance of leadership (Gandolfi & Stone, 2018). Servant leadership is one type of leadership discussed and “is proven to have a tremendous and broad impact” (Sawan & Nurhattati, 2020, p. 68). Robert Greenleaf (1977), a modern innovator of the concept of servant leadership, mentioned the mindset one must convey to be a true leader. Greenleaf (1977) advocated, “but to me… the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness…he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside. Leadership was bestowed upon a person who was by nature, a servant…” (p. 8). It is postulated here that servant leadership is prevalent in today’s society and is needed in 21st-century businesses.

Servant leadership introduces the idea that leaders have the ability to assist their followers to become prosperous while acting in the spirit of service. One aspect of servant leadership that makes it specifically unique is the action of turning the traditional leadership styles into a vastly different hierarchical scale, with a serve-first mindset as the fundamental equation (Northouse, 2019). In other words, servant leaders both serve and influence others, and they empower their followers (Northouse, 2019). To reiterate an important point, servant leaders focus on the follower first, not solely on themselves (Northouse, 2019). 

There are numerous definitions of servant leadership. Eva et al. (2017) discussed the problematic nature of defining servant leadership based on the plethora of literature published on the subject. There are conceptual definitions; author-generated definitions; and, while limited, there are also some definitions built from empirical evidence (Eva et al., 2017). Even so, Eva et al. (2017) proposed their definition as: 

Servant leadership is an (1) other-oriented approach to leadership (2) manifested through one-on-one prioritizing of follower individual needs and interests, (3) and outward reorienting of their concern for self towards concern for others within the organization and the larger community (p. 114)

Northouse (2019) cites Greenleaf’s (1970) definition as a commonly quoted suggestion:

[Servant leadership] begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead…The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant – first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test…is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or at least, will they not be further deprived? (p. 15).

For purposes of this review, we combine and simplify these two definitions into our own based on Eva et al.’s (2017) note that this is a common author-generated practice. This review seeks to draw meaning from a student-led program centered on the idea of servant leadership for business students. Therefore, we must define the term within the context of the review. To us, servant leadership is a form of leadership where an individual shows concern for humanity, desires to serve and acts upon these feelings to provide good works for the greater good of others.

Traits of servant leadership

Northouse (2019) described servant leadership as a behavior while recognizing that it is sometimes seen as a concept related to human traits. Several studies have been conducted that sought to describe these traits. Sawan and Nurhattati (2020) conducted a comprehensive literature review of 71 articles published between 2015-2020 and found that servant leadership was influenced by factors such as self-efficacy, willingness to serve, a non-calculative nature, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness. Eva et al., (2019) completed an even more comprehensive review of 285 articles on servant leadership published between 1998-2018. They reviewed various measurements of servant leadership and found characteristics of servant leaders might include: serving and transforming followers, being authentic, building leader-follower relationships, and acting morally (Eva et al., 2019). Northouse (2019) also listed characteristics of servant leaders. These included listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (Northouse, 2019). Gandolfi and Stone (2018) identified the core characteristics of a servant leader as having abundant strength through discipline and humility “to put their own needs after that of those they serve” (p. 353). Similarly, Van Dierendonck (2011) indicated that “servant-leaders empower and develop people; they show humility, are authentic, accept people for who they are, provide direction, and are stewards who work for the good of the whole” (p. 1232). This lends support to the idea that ethics, social responsibility, and one’s own moral character are also defining factors of a servant leader.

While servant leadership may not include force or power, it is not a weak type of leadership (Gandolfi et al., 2017). Servant leaders understand that influence and authority are positive characteristics if used in ways to help others (Hunter, 1998). Gandolfi et al. (2017) identified that servant leaders can be action-oriented by being “proactive, ambitious, and driven as any other leader, but the focus of their drive differs from that of other leaders” (p. 353). Servant leaders focus both on the mission and the people – with the people being the first and the mission being the second (Gandolfi et al., 2017). 

Eva et al. (2019) mentioned that the modern business world faces an increasing amount of challenges, and many companies are currently researching how to support servant leader traits in their organizations. Gandolfi et al. (2017) agreed and indicated that servant leadership is as relevant today as it was in the past. There are many examples of servant leaders from around the world from many systems of belief and faith (Gandolfi & Stone, 2018). While Jesus Christ may be seen as a primary example of a servant leader from the Christian tradition, there are numerous examples of non-Christian approaches to servant leadership (Gandolfi & Stone, 2018). Greenleaf (1970) is widely believed to be the first to introduce servant leadership to the corporate world as an essayist who was also a corporate executive. Interestingly, the topic of servant leadership continues to cross a range of industries. Eva et al. (2018) indicated that most of the articles published on the topic of servant leadership fall in the business and organizational psychology division; however, there are also articles in the areas of healthcare, education, and hospitality. Eva et al. (2019) listed companies such as Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, Ritz-Carlton, TDIndustries, and more as those that are implementing servant-leader practices. This wide range lends support to the idea that the traits of servant leadership and the function of a business in the corporate world may find connection. 

In practice, the concept of servant leadership is difficult to apply (Sawan & Nurhattati, 2020). Therefore, developing student leaders who are also servant leaders is an undertaking with little research to support it. Deal and Yarborough (2020) described some general best practices to help develop student leaders. They suggested first beginning with a “proven leadership model and development framework” (Deal & Yarborough, 2020, p. 4). The model that is chosen should be clear and fit the needs of the students in the program (Deal &Yarborough, 2020). However, Deal & Yarborough (2020) do not provide a model specific to developing servant leaders. 

The research study presented here seeks to find meaning from a servant leader program that was piloted in 2019 with undergraduate business students in a College of Business and Health Administration. 


This research study involved document analysis. This study reviewed a student-based program at a small, faith-based liberal arts institution in the Midwestern United States. The period of study included documents from three academic years. The study used qualitative research methods to examine secondary data in the form of documents from the Servant Leader program. The study was funded by a grant from an internal program titled the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE).

Document analysis is a type of qualitative research used to draw meaning from text-based material (Bowen, 2009). The document research can develop “major themes, categories, and case examples” to provide meaning (Bowen, 2009, p. 28). While this type of research is often used in combination with other qualitative methods, it can also be used to suggest questions for future research (Bowen, 2009). 

The coding process used a grounded theory approach. Grounded theory was a formulated method created by Glaser and Strauss (1967). This form of methodology focuses on flexible and systematic guidelines for data collecting with the ability to construct themes that consist of abstract formulations (Izvercian, Potra, & Ivascu, 2016). Bowen (2009) calls attention to the descriptive role of the investigator being, “…the primary instrument of data collection and analysis. As such, the researcher/analyst relies on skills as well as intuition and filters data through an interpretive lens” (p. 36). 


The secondary data inputs initially reviewed included: meeting minutes, administrative reports, and articles published to an internal audience. Of these documents reviewed in the planning stage, the meeting minutes were determined to provide the most comprehensive record of the servant leader program over the three-year period studied. The documents were written by a variety of stakeholders including eight (8) students and three (3) faculty members. This variety provided the researchers with diversity in the narrative while also offering an overview of activities and discussion. Two (2) faculty members involved in the program verified the list of meeting dates as a comprehensive list of meeting minutes. In total, 43 documents were included in the sample. 

Procedures & Implementation

“Content analysis is the process of organizing information into categories related to the central questions of the research” (Bowen, 2009, p. 32). Fitzgerald (2012) provided an easy-to-follow explanation of how to analyze documents for novice researchers. The steps are outlined below. 

Step one was to generate a research question (Fitzgerald, 2012). The following research question was prepared to guide the process: How has the Servant Leader Program impacted business students after the COVID-19 pandemic?

Step two was to understand the context in which the documents were generated (Fitzgerald, 2012). The documents reviewed were internal documents created by practitioners and students implementing a new program. The documents were created as the program began and commenced over the three-year period. There was no initial intention to use these documents for research. This was deemed desirable since the documents were created in an organic manner.

Step three was to read a range of relevant documents (Fitzgerald, 2012). Knowing that document research has some limitations, and in reviewing the documents for accuracy and subjectivity (Fitzgerald, 2012), the documents were narrowed, and analysis commenced using the meeting minutes. These documents were generated by students and faculty members over the past three years and were directly applicable to the activities of the program. A brief literature review was also prepared on the subject of servant leadership.

Step four was to generate the categories that would guide the collection of data (Fitzgerald, 2012). Fitzgerald (2012) suggested identifying thematic elements from the literature review. These elements, words, or themes could then be used to compare with the research documents (Fitzgerald, 2012). Thus, the literature review provided an initial set of thematic codes.

Step five was to test the categories by using them to collect and collate data (Fitzgerald, 2012). Fitzgerald (2012) provided a column table method to code document analysis data. This three-column approach was modified to a five-column Excel worksheet for the purposes of this research study. The first two columns identified the source document by location and date. The third column included a transcript of the document. The fourth column was used for coding by identifying thematic words (Fitzgerald, 2012). The final column was used for comments by the researchers. Two identical coding files were created – one for each researcher to independently code the documents. Two researchers independently coded a pilot sample of documents using the categories generated from the literature review. Then, the researchers met to compare coding and establish a method for consistency following a grounded theory approach to the coding. 

Step six was to revise the categories (Fitzgerald, 2012). This was completed through a back-and-forth process between the researchers as they checked the thematic words against the text. This process, as suggested by Fitzgerald (2012), creates a repetitive process to verify and refine the coding. During the pilot meeting to compare and discuss the results of the first round of independent coding (step five), a master set of codes were established, with preliminary case definitions. The two researchers then independently coded a second set of documents. They once again met to compare and discuss the coding. At this point, a test of inter-rater reliability (IRR) was conducted using a method provided by McAlister et al. (2017). Table 1 outlines the test. 

Table 1

Comparison table of coders
(codes that are not in agreement are shaded)

6/3/2020StudentCoder 1 onlyNo
6/3/2020Servant Coder 1 & 2Yes
6/3/2020FollowersCoder 1 & 2Yes
6/3/2020DevelopCoder 1 & 2Yes
6/3/2020ResponsibilityCoder 1 & 2Yes
6/3/2020MissionCoder 1 & 2Yes

Table 1 indicated that coder number one and coder number two did not agree on one of the codes in this particular sample. This sample was used to calculate the reliability between the two coders. “IRR was calculated as the number of agreed codes over the total number of codes in the document. This formula gives the fractional percent of codes that agree, making it easy to compare to our desired 80-90% agreement” (McAlister et al., 2017, p. 6). The IRR was favorable at 83%; however, the coders continued the process of independently coding and then meeting to compare codes, as this iterative process provided for continued conversation and agreement per the document analysis coding method suggested by Fitzgerald (2012). In total, the coding was conducted in four iterations: a) pilot meeting, b) iteration two, c) iteration three, and d) final coding. O’Connor & Joffe (2020) provided additional discussion that this iterative process between coders helps to clarify the process. 

“Many researchers value [intercoder reliability] ICR not as a measure of “objectivity” but as a means of reflexively improving the analysis by provoking dialogue between researchers. If one aim of performing an ICR check is to identify areas needing clarification, some discussion between coders is necessary to identify how and why interpretations conflict. In such cases, a first round of independent coding could be followed by a meeting where differences are discussed, the coding frame is revised, and a second round of independent coding commences” (Campbell et al., 2013; Hruschka et al., 2004 as cited in O’Connor & Joffe, 2020).

The analysis of the coding process involved identifying frequencies based on academic years. The analysis also reviewed frequencies by pre-pandemic vs. post-pandemic timeframes. 


Table 2 lists the documents chosen for analysis. The meeting locations were noted as: 

(a) in person: a meeting occurring in a room at a physical location

(b) in person/virtual: a meeting occurring in a room at a physical location with a simultaneous virtual (via option

(c) email: a meeting occurring in asynchronous written format via email exchange. The date noted is the date of the original email

(d) virtual: a meeting occurring with a virtual connection (via 

Table 2

Documents complied for document analysis (location and dates)

in person8/21/19virtual6/3/20in person/virtual8/30/21
in person8/26/19virtual7/8/20in person/virtual9/13/21
in person10/25/19in person/virtual8/26/20in person/virtual10/11/21
in person11/1/19in person/virtual9/9/20in person/virtual10/25/21
in person11/8/19in person/virtual9/24/20email11/2/21
in person11/15/19in person/virtual10/8/20in person/virtual11/8/21
in person12/6/19in person/virtual10/22/20in person/virtual11/22/21
in person1/17/20in person/virtual11/5/20in person/virtual12/6/21
in person1/31/20in person/virtual11/19/20in person/virtual1/4/22
in person2/28/20in person/virtual1/28/21in person/virtual1/19/22
email3/17/20in person/virtual2/11/21email2/3/22
email3/26/20in person/virtual2/25/21in person/virtual2/23/22
virtual4/3/20in person/virtual3/11/21in person/virtual2/28/22
  email3/24/21in person/virtual3/16/22
  in person/virtual4/8/21in person/virtual3/30/22

Table 2 demonstrates that the frequency of meetings in each Academic Year (AY) was relatively consistent with 13 meetings in AY 19; 15 meetings in AY 20; and 15 meetings in AY 21. 

The meetings from 8/21/19 – 2/28/20 were determined to be pre-pandemic based on the University’s closing date of 3/13/20 following the end of spring break. The meetings from 3/17/20-3/30/22 were defined as post-pandemic. 

As described in the methodology, the documents were coded into initial codes based on themes found in the literature review. The researchers then met to refine these codes and create code definitions during the iterative process of coding. The codes were grouped into categories based on similar themes. In general, direct definitions were quoted or paraphrased from Merriam-Webster (n.d.) unless otherwise noted. Table 3 outlines the definitions of thematic category codes and subcodes.

Table 3

Definition of codes*

Category: Human – consisting of or involving humans

Followerone that follows the opinions or teachings of another
Leadera person who leads
Mentora trusted counselor or guide
Servantone that serves others
Studentone who studies: an attentive and systematic observer

Category: Growth – the process of growing

Careerpursuit of progressive achievement (public, professional, business life)
Developto work out the possibilities of such as to “develop an idea”
Reflectiona thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation
Vocationa summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action

Category: Belief – a state or mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing

Faithallegiance to duty
Franciscanof or related to the values of a Franciscan institution (research study definition)
Missiona pre-established and often self-imposed objective or purpose or “calling”
Religioncommitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
Servicecontribution to the welfare of others

Category: Leadership Traits – a distinguishing quality (as of personal character)

Actiona thing done: deed
Appreciationa feeling or expression of admiration, approval, or gratitude
Compassionsympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it
Ethicsa consciousness of moral importance
Humilityfreedom from pride or arrogance: the quality or state of being humble
Influencethe power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways
Respecthigh or special regard
Responsibilitythe quality or state of being responsible: such as…reliability, trustworthiness
Willingnessinclined or favorably disposed in mind: ready

*(Merriam-Webster, n.d.) unless noted as a research study definition

Table 4 provides the frequencies of coded responses reviewed by academic year. The academic year is defined as the beginning of the fall semester, the spring semester, and the end of the summer semester (as applicable). 

Table 4

Frequency of coded responses by academic year 

Category: Human

Category: Growth67
Category: Belief99
Category: Leadership Traits119

Table 4 provides the following data points:

In the category of “human,” the highest frequency of coding was in the student area, and the lowest frequency of coding was in the mentor area.

In the category of “growth,” the highest frequency of coding was in the career area, and the lowest frequency of coding was in the vocation area.

In the category of “belief,” the highest frequency of coding was in the service area, and the lowest frequency of coding was in the Franciscan area.

In the category of “leadership traits,” the highest frequency of coding was in the action area, and the lowest frequency of coding was in the compassion, ethics, influence, and willingness areas.

Overall, the highest subcodes in each category were: student, career, service, and action with the highest frequency for action. 

Table 5 provides summary percentages by academic year to interpret the coded responses.

Table 5

Summary of frequency of coded responses by academic year 

Human 2624%3728%2519%8823.6%
Growth 1917%2217%2620%6718.0%
Belief 3330%3526%3124%9926.5%
Leadership Traits3229%3929%4837%11931.9%

Table 5 provides the following data points:

The category of “human” initially increased across the first two academic years, but then it dropped nine percentage points from AY20 to AY21.

The category of “growth” remained relatively stable across the three years.

The category of “belief” dropped six percentage points between AY19-AY21.

The category of “leadership traits” increased eight percentage points between AY19-AY21.

Table 6 provides the frequencies of coded responses reviewed by pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. As noted above, the meetings from 8/21/19 – 2/28/20 were determined to be pre-pandemic based on the University’s closing date of 3/13/20 following the end of spring break. The meetings from 3/17/20-3/30/22 were defined as during and/or post-pandemic. 

Table 6

Frequency of coded responses pre-and post-pandemic

before 3/13/20
on/after 3/13/20
Category: Human88
Category: Growth67
Category: Belief
Category: Leadership Traits119

The totals in Table 6 in each category mimic those from Table 4. However, here we examine the data by the timeframe of pre- and post-pandemic. Table 6 indicates the number of codes in the post-pandemic area is higher in nearly all areas. This is due to the volume of documents being higher during that period. The volume of documents is higher because the period of time is greater.

Table 7 provides summary percentages from pre- and post-pandemic to interpret the coded responses.

Table 7

Summary of frequency of coded responses pre-and post-pandemic

before 3/13/20
on/after 3/13/20
before 3/13/20
on/after 3/13/20
Human 1421%7424%8823.6%
Growth 1320%5418%6718.0%
Belief 2335%7625%9926.5%
Leadership Traits 1624%10334%11931.9%

Table 7 provides the following data points:

The category of “human” and “growth” remained relatively the same over the pre-and post-pandemic time.

The category of “belief” was 35% pre-pandemic and decreased ten percentage points to 25% post-pandemic.

The category of “leadership traits” was 24% pre-pandemic and increased ten percentage points to 34% post-pandemic. 


One early finding in this study was the relative similarity of the frequency of meetings over the three academic years. While this point was not germane to the research study and was not represented by a research question, it was interesting to note that even though a specific number of meetings was not prescribed, and a global pandemic occurred toward the end of the first academic year of the program, the number of meetings remained nearly the same. This may be due to the nature of the academic calendar, perhaps the frequency of meetings that students are used to setting for their activities, or some combination of factors related to student and faculty schedules. Nonetheless, it was interesting that the students continued their frequency even after the pandemic began. Of course, the location of the meetings changed significantly from all in-person to some combination of virtual, in-person, and email meetings following the start of the pandemic. It is unknown if the virtual or hybrid meetings were preferred by students. In fact, with students’ busy schedules of academics and co-curricular activities, the pandemic may have facilitated the ability to meet more often in a virtual manner versus coordinating in-person meetings. It would be interesting to review the next few academic years to see if the trend of virtual meetings continued, even after the pandemic need for social distancing no longer existed. 

In reviewing Table 3, definition of codes, it appears that the documents from the program indicate discussion on areas related to humans (follower, leader, mentor, servant, student); growth (career, develop, reflection, vocation); belief (faith, Franciscan, mission, religion, service); and leadership traits (action, appreciation, compassion, ethics, humility, influence, respect, responsibility, willingness). Given the nature of the documents (meeting minutes), these results are in line with the purpose of the program: to educate and prepare the College of Business & Health Administration students to lead purposeful lives while encompassing the University’s Franciscan values of respect, integrity, service, and compassion. The coding does not indicate whether or not the discussion on these areas is positive, negative, or neutral. The coding simply states that these themes were present in the documents. However, the impact could be stated as the program fulfilling the purpose of generating discussion in the intended areas of human leadership, belief, and growth. 

In reviewing Table 4, it is not surprising that the areas of student (in the “human” category), career (in the “growth” category), “service” (in the “belief” category), and “action” (in the “leadership traits” category) were the highest frequencies. This would be in line with the program’s focus on business students who choose to serve. Overall, “action” was the highest subcode, again related to the idea of business students being asked to do action. However, the lower areas of mentor (in the “human” category), vocation (in the “growth” category), and Franciscan (in the “belief” category) are somewhat surprising since these areas also match with the overall goals of the program but are not highlighted in the data from the documents. This may be the result of the student-led focus of the program and perhaps these areas are not as relevant to the students. Here again, the frequency of coding does not indicate whether or not the discussion on these areas is positive, negative, or neutral. The frequency of coding simply states that these themes were present or not present in the documents. However, the impact could be stated as the program is fulfilling the purpose of generating discussion in the areas of student, career, and service and perhaps the belief (faith, Franciscan, mission, religion, service) areas could be strengthened. 

In reviewing Table 4, in the category of “leadership traits,” it is interesting to note that the lowest frequency of coding areas were in compassion, ethics, influence, and willingness. These areas were initially identified from the literature review. However, they were not found in the documents at a high frequency. 

In reviewing Table 5, the category of “human” initially increased across the first two academic years, but then it dropped nine percentage points. If the human aspects of follower, leader, mentor, and servant are important to the program, they may want to consider how to increase discussion around these areas. 

Table 5 shows that the category of “growth” remained relatively stable across the three years. This is encouraging to see for a student development program in a university setting as growth in terms of career, development, reflection, and vocation are integrated into the mission. 

Finally, Table 5 also shows that the category of “leadership traits” increased. Again, this is encouraging since a goal of the program is to promote leadership.

In an effort to dig deeper into the data, a component of the research question addressed the timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic: How has the Servant Leader Program impacted business students after the COVID-19 pandemic? In reviewing Table 7, the most surprising findings indicate a drop in the category of “belief” and a rise in the category of “leadership traits” when comparing pre- and post-pandemic data. 

In reference to “belief,” it is possible that due to the uncertain circumstances of the pandemic, students in the program had less connection to items of belief. There is no indication, from this analysis, whether or not the increase or decrease in “belief” is attributed to a lack of belief. The analysis only indicates that the documents did not include as many references to these areas. If this is something the program aims to promote, then it might be something for the program to consider being more intentional about in the future. 

In terms of the increase in discussion on “leadership traits,” it is possible that leadership traits increased because the students were talking about and exhibiting leadership characteristics. Recall that the leadership trait category includes traits that could be contributed to leaders such as influence (Hunter, 1998; Northouse, 2019), responsibility for putting followers first (Northouse, 2019), and action (Gandolfi et al., 2017). This category also includes servant leader traits such as humility (Gandolfi & Stone, 2018; Van Dierendonck, 2011), willingness (Sawan & Nurhattati, 2020), ethics (Northouse, 2019), appreciation, compassion, and respect for others in the form of the serve-first approach (Eva et al., 2017; Greenleaf, 1970; Northouse, 2019). Now, recall that this research study’s definition of servant leadership was: a form of leadership where an individual shows concern for humanity, desires to serve, and acts upon these feelings to provide good works for the greater good of others. The documents show an increase in discussion around leadership trait categories post-pandemic that mirror well with this definition. The impact of the crisis may have contributed to the students’ discussions around leadership traits. It is important to note, once again, that these data do not demonstrate whether or not there was a lack of these traits or an increase in these traits. 


Document analysis as a research method has some limitations. Documents are not always accurate and can be subjective (Fitzgerald, 2012). In this study, we reviewed the frequency of themes and categories; we did not review the context of these themes and categories. Therefore, we cannot conjecture value as positive or negative. We can only conclude that the documents included themes related to the purpose of the program. 

As Bowen (2009) suggested, document analysis research can be used to suggest questions for future research. Future studies might look at how these categorical themes are viewed by participants and non-participants in the program. This might include a survey or interview-related research to measure the impact of these themes on individuals. Future studies might ask the questions: What are the challenges students face when participating in a student leadership program? Are students satisfied with the outcomes of a student leadership program? What types of leadership traits or qualities have students gained from participating in a student leadership program? What are the desired outcomes of a student leadership program for business students? How do business students apply skills learned in a student leadership program to their future vocation of work? 

This research study was conducted at one university and analyzed one program. It does not necessarily transmit data that would match with other similar programs. However, it is the hope that other programs might view these data with interest and find reason to establish programs at other universities that might benefit from this type of activity. 

Conclusions and Implications to Practice

Student leadership development programs are plentiful on college campuses as institutions seek to develop students’ ability to enter the world of work while also contributing positive value to people and organizations. This research study sought to investigate the value of one such program and the potential impact that a time of crisis may or may not have had on the program while in its infancy. The results of this study found that the leadership program is fulfilling the purpose of generating discussion in the areas of human leadership, belief, and growth. The leadership program is generating discussion in the areas of students, careers, service, and action. The program may need to increase its discussion in the area of belief (faith, Franciscan, mission, religion, service) which are relevant to this particular institution and the theme of this particular student leader program.  

While the thematic results are interesting to review, another outcome of this research study may be the description of the process of document analysis for qualitative researchers. Document analysis is a lesser-known research technique to many novice researchers. The methodology and process described herein, based on the model provided by Fitzgerald (2012), provides a depth of description that may be relevant to future researchers seeking to find meaning from a similar program or other set of documents. 

The results provide some insight into how a student leadership program endured through a time of crisis. The results demonstrate that these students continued to engage, with relatively similar frequency, in hosting meetings – albeit in new virtual or hybrid settings. In addition, post-pandemic, the program increased its use of discussion in the area of leadership traits. The pandemic provided a unique environment for students to practice leadership in an unknown situation. In some ways, it seems to meet the mission of a student “leadership” program to continue to foster discussion around the topic of leadership during a time of crisis. 


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