Date of Award


Degree Name

PhD Leadership Studies

Dissertation Committee

Cheryl A. Getz, EdD (Chair); Steven A. Gelb, PhD; Noriyuki Inoue, PhD; Susan Komives, EdD


college students, concepts, demographic variables, environmental variables, higher education, Leadership studies, mixed methods study, MultiInstitutional Study of Leadership


Colleges and universities increasingly have embraced the goal of developing students' leadership capacity. Diverse curricular and co-curricular leadership programs currently exist and continue to be developed to address leadership development outcomes. There is, however, limited understanding of how college students think about and define leadership. This study sought to fill this gap in the research by examining the ways in which college students understand the concept of leadership. In this mixed methods study the researcher analyzed data from the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership (MSL) project, a national research study on college student leadership and the college experience. Data for the MSL were collected through an online survey with over 91,000 undergraduate college student respondents from 101 diverse U.S. colleges and universities. For this dissertation, participants were selected through random criterion sampling from the national dataset in order to have a sample that reflected a substantial number of men and women from different racial backgrounds. The online survey generated data about a variety of demographic and environmental variables and an open-ended response prompt, which asked participants to provide their definition of leadership. The data were analyzed qualitatively and then quantitatively. The qualitative analysis entailed thematic content analysis procedures to identify different themes of leadership definitions. The different definitional themes then served as the dependent variables in loglinear analysis and logistic regression to determine demographic and environmental variables associated with the definitions. The study resulted in 10 leadership themes. Four of the themes reflected leader and follower/group relationships, three reflected leader characteristics and behaviors, and three reflected outcomes of leadership. Overall, students' themes tended to be more hierarchical and leader-centric understandings of leadership. Significant differences emerged in students' leadership themes by gender, race, and age. Additionally, a number of environmental variables emerged as significant predictors for the themes. Implications from this study suggest that administrators and faculty should clearly identify the values of leadership they wish to develop in their students and purposefully examine the leadership programs and opportunities available to students with particular attention to how leadership is presented, promoted, and modeled.

Document Type

Dissertation: Open Access


Leadership Studies