Robert Greenleaf is celebrated for his essay defining the concept of servant leadership. In it, Greenleaf describes it as an approach to leadership that assigns highest priority to meeting the needs of others and promoting their growth beyond the moment. This same selfless approach is easily attributed to school leaders, exemplified by their creation of conditions that not only facilitate the achievements of students (in addition to the success of families, educators, and entire communities), but cultivate a sense of leadership in students as well.

NASSP serves as the parent organization of a variety of student programs: National Honor Society, National Junior Honor Society, National Student Council (formerly known as National Association of Student Councils), and, in partnership with the National Association of Elementary School Principals Foundation, the National Elementary Honor Society. NASSP’s student programs maintain a focus on student leadership development, which includes elements of the aforementioned concept of servant leadership. In support of this mission, the association launched the NASSP’s Student Leadership Initiative: Global Citizenship during the fall of 2016.

Part and parcel of this two-year initiative was a call to action for all active chapters and councils of NASSP’s student programs. The vision for the initiative is best captured with the following statement posed by Beverly J. Hutton, deputy executive director of NASSP programs and services: Imagine the potential impact of students connected to NASSP student programs if over 33,000 chapters and councils came together around one cause, one shared vision, and committed to advancing a common mission … how powerful.

With the guidance of the Student Leadership Advisory Committee (a committee of the NASSP Board of Directors), global citizenship was selected and defined as “a demonstrated awareness of, concern for, and involvement in the well-being and success of others beyond one’s immediate community, and extending into the nation and the world.” The committee offered five strands and essential questions to further guide student leaders in their efforts to advance the initiative:

  • Equity—How can I work to support access for the resources/experiences that will ensure positive outcomes for all?
  • Civic engagement—In what ways can I educate and involve members of the community in efforts to promote participation and actions?
  • Positive social change—How can I use my voice and leadership to create positive change for all?
  • Empathetic action—In what ways might I demonstrate care and compassion for others?
  • Awareness/perspectives—What are the causes or issues that impact my school community? What do I need to know to make a difference?

Insights and Reflections

The NASSP Student Leadership Initiative: Global Citizenship is now in its second academic year, and many insights, reflections, and points of engagement from the first year have been shared in the report “Creating Conditions for Success: Supporting Students Making a World of Difference.” This report is like a case study, with various types of data telling the story of the impact of the initiative thus far. For example, as a starting point last fall, we asked principals and advisers for their definition of global citizenship. Four themes emerged from principals’ definitions of global citizenship: common purpose, identity, awareness, and outcomes. Each of these themes—which the report provides greater discussion on—further illustrates a commitment to the cultivation of servant leadership through the lens of global citizenship.

With regard to common purpose, principals shared that “students should situate their experiences relative to others in the world and develop an understanding of how their contributions impact others.” Several responses included the idea of a shared responsibility and cultivation of a legacy that would ensure the success and well-being of future generations.

The second theme, identity, homed in on students seeing themselves as “‘citizens of the world’ by first considering the needs of communities and nations, prior to self.” In this theme, there was a consistent message of students belonging to a larger whole and demonstrating a mindset that acknowledges the interconnectivity of cultures and communities.

The third theme of awareness captured a wide range of responses, but it centered on the following idea: “Students should have a general understanding of global issues and, through learning, should be moved to action.”

The report shares that, “At the macro level, awareness can be understood as consumption—students have a passive awareness of global citizenship that comes from beliefs, dispositions, responsibilities, and structures that could be inherited or instructed.”

At a micro level, it continues, “Awareness is much more about creation—here, students have an active awareness that includes the receipt of new knowledge that results in forms of action.”

Lastly, principals defined global citizenship through desired outcomes: “Students should not only see their impact in their communities, but should experience personal development. … A focus on outcomes is not just about how many people were helped, but also includes an appreciation of the critical-thinking skills and the informed and investigative approaches necessary for learners and future leaders.”

Exemplary Students

The report also features exemplary student projects aligned to the five strands of the global citizenship initiative, as well as a discussion of the impact of these efforts. From awareness campaigns addressing social and wellness issues to donation drives for blood, supplies, and other items; mission trips; and educational programs, councils and chapters sought to create programs that would engage entire school communities to advance a commitment to serving others.

The vignettes describing exemplars are complemented by data from annual service reports, including service efforts, achievements, and the impact of NASSP’s student programs. The data presented captures what council and chapter advisers describe as the possibilities of the initiative and the impact students might have on the world. As the report closes, the authors highlight next steps and potential points of engagement for interested stakeholders and organizations.

There could not be a more appropriate time to support student leadership development, especially with a focus on global citizenship. A recent report from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions,” underscored depth and intentionality through “meaningful contributions to others, community service, and engagement with the public good.” This report offers guidance to college admission professionals as they seek to inspire and inform secondary students on the value of ethical engagement and service to the greater good in college admission consideration. The recommendations articulate, with great clarity, what is expected of college applicants as they seek to contribute to the world around them, thereby fortifying critical outcomes of the secondary school experience.

School leaders have a significant impact on how students enter and navigate the world. The lens of global citizenship, as defined by the NASSP student leadership initiative, illustrates great potential impact on communities, both local and global, when students are equipped, prepared, and supported in their efforts to make a difference. Our current chapter and council members are our future servant leaders. This initiative encourages these leaders to advance efforts in communities—both local and global—that demonstrate a selfless commitment to the success of others. Be sure to direct your student leaders to for ways to get involved and share their impact.

Jonathan D. Mathis, PhD, serves as the director of National Honor Societies at NASSP. Bernadette M. Gailliard, PhD, is an assistant professor of communication in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.