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date: 08 August 2020

Foundations and Future Directions for Social Work Leadership

Abstract and Keywords

The concept of leadership has evolved from focusing on innate abilities, to learned skills, to understanding that leadership is composed of both skills and abilities. Recently, theorists and practitioners have identified elements of effective leadership within social work organizations. These areas of knowledge, skills, and values encourage social work leaders to recognize their organizations as living systems within an interdependent world and aid them in connecting humanistic intentions with effects. Both acknowledgment and enactment of these leadership competencies are essential for all organizational members to engage in effective dialogue and action. Social workers, regardless of their organizational titles, can learn and hone these qualities in social work training programs and continuing professional development opportunities, as well as through practical field experiences for effective leadership in the field.

Keywords: leader, leadership, leadership competencies, leadership skills, leadership theory, spirituality, social work managers

Leadership: Historical Background

Early Leadership Theories

Although the question, “what makes a leader?” has been asked at different iterations since ancient Greece, formal leadership theory did not develop until the early part of the 20th century. Since that time, a number of paradigms have been proposed. The first was the trait approach, which corresponded with the scientific management school of organizational thought (Holland, 1959, 1962, 1966; Taylor, 1911). Members of this school sought to discover and describe the elemental characteristics of leaders and believed that leadership was an inherent ability, rather than something that could be learned and honed. Relatedly, leaders led through styles of command and control, a bureaucratic approach in which authoritative leaders communicated in a top-down manner. Only adherence to being of one voice—univocality—was expected and rewarded in the organization. Research in the 1940s and 1950s by Stogdill (1948) and Mann (1959) indicated inconsistencies in the trait approach, although more recent investigation has demonstrated a link between personality and leadership, creating renewed interest in traits (Arvey, Rotundo, Johnson, Zhang, & McGue, 2006; Bargal, 2000). The emergence of the human relations school of management in the 1930s and 1940s provided the basis for a study by Bowers and Seashore (1966) that revealed two basic leadership patterns: consideration, or concern for understanding employees as individuals, and initiating structure, or clear delineation of and monitoring of tasks.

Mid-to-Late 20th Century Theories

In the 1960s, MacGregor (1960) delineated two contrasting theories of management, which he titled “Theory X” and “Theory Y.” These theories were based on very different assumptions about human nature and human behavior and therefore greatly impacted the leader’s approach. Theory X was very similar to the style command and control, while Theory Y encouraged leaders to balance autonomy with mutual objective setting in their organizations. As broad-spectrum theories broke down in the 1960s across all fields, however, the contingency leadership approach emerged, which acknowledged that the best leadership approach is primarily dependent upon the various contexts and situations in which an individual finds her/himself (Fielder, 1967).

In the 1970s, others joined the conversation, building on the past and adding new perspectives on effective leadership. Paradigms that were experienced as radical quickly evoked a following, especially in corporate boardrooms across the United States. “The Path-Goal Theory” of Robert House (1971; House & Mitchell, 1974) looked at the leader’s style as well as the situational factors, which included the subordinates, personality, and environmental characteristics. Best remembered form this period is the concept of servant leadership, as coined and developed by Robert K. Greenleaf (1977). Grounded in the dimensions of moral authority or conscience, Greenleaf proposed that the most effective leader—and all who desire to live a “full life” (Greenleaf, 1977, p. 12)—is embodied in one who understands her/himself as a servant first and then chooses to lead. Servant leaders envision effective organizations as those wherein the personal growth of clients and employees is among the highest priority.

This values-based style of leadership was expanded upon and modified in the mid-1980s and 1990s. Central to this discourse was the interactional nature of leadership. Bass (1990) proposed that transactional and transformational leadership styles were two ends of a behavioral continuum and should not be seen as either/or types. Transactional leadership involves an exchange relationship between leaders and followers; adherence to rules and standards; actions exerted solely to correct problems; and a laissez-faire leadership approach. In contrast, transformational leadership emphasizes the relationship between leaders and followers; using power to serve others; learning from criticism; open dialogue; shared recognition; and encouragement of free thinking. Transformational leadership builds a sense of vision, pride, respect, and trust; clearly communicates high expectations; encourages problem solving; and explicitly values each individual employee.

Consistent with social trends, feminist and ethnic leadership theories also emerged during this time, challenging the white, masculine culture upon which most organizations had been constructed. Feminist theory argued that women tended to lead with a more cooperative, collaborative, and empathetic style, and that women leaders often used intuition, in addition to rational thought, to solve problems (Loden, 1985). Some scholars suggested that the feminist leadership approach was not exclusive to women, but rather could be used by men as a complementary approach to the traditional, masculine model (Kanter, 1993). Afrocentric theory, which strongly valued interpersonal relationships and spirituality, conceptualized the leader as one who strives to encourage and nourish these relationships and the wellbeing of people in society. Although a potential weakness of this approach was the risk of reducing efficiency (Hasenfeld, 1983), Afrocentric leadership also valued transparency, approachability, and clear communication (McFarlin, Coster, & Mogale-Pretorius, 1999), which encouraged organizational productivity.

Other leadership scholars incorporated and then expanded the feminist and ethnic approaches to offer an ecological view of leadership (Wheatley, 1994). Inspired by quantum physics, this holistic conception of leadership valued interconnected networks and fluid information channels, recognizing that both the organization and the world beyond consisted of emerging, self-organizing structures and interdependent relationships among individuals from multiple cultures. Instead of exerting command and control, leaders were encouraged to make meaning in the midst of chaos, honor the reality of interdependence, and trust that organizations would evolve healthfully and freely if guided by an appreciation of what was working and what was determined as valued by the organization.

Earlier seen as soft (as opposed to the hard abilities of planning and budgeting, for example), relationship-focused areas of knowledge and skills were embraced and reflected in mainstream literature. Leadership competencies such as self-awareness, self-regulation, authenticity, humility, empathy, and other social skills were found in “appreciative inquiry” (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987), “emotional intelligence” (Goleman, 1995; Salovey & Mayer, 1990), and what was referred to as a “spiritual approach to leadership” (Bailey, 1997; Heifetz, 1994; Owen, 1999). In this context, spirit is distinguished from religious doctrine, and understood as connecting all throughout life (Palmer, 1998). This approach also attended to the health of the organization and the people within it. Leaders with “spirit” recognized and cultivated these “softer” process skills and attributes in their organizations, breathing into them an awareness of potential, vibrancy, and inspiration.

Twenty-First Century Theories

Leaders have persisted to establish authentic and sustainable connections between and among individuals, families, organizations, and neighborhoods. Softer process skills and values—ironically akin to those found since the beginning of the social work profession—are now recognized as “power skills” (Anders, 2017, p. 43). Critical in their own right, these areas of skills, knowledge, and values are now known to be essential for the most effective leaders in our organizations and their communities for today and tomorrow.

Social Work and Leadership: Context and Development

While social work as a practice probably dates back before the beginning of recorded time, by the 4th century, the newly legitimized Christian Church established ways to care for the needy, including orphaned children, the homeless, the aged, and the poor. With the introduction of industrialization, organized social welfare services started to replace those offered by the Church and individual families. Alms houses, the Charity Organization Society, and the Settlement movements, first in London and later in Chicago, were well known physical embodiments of these more formalized services. The names of Helen Bosanquet, Octavia Hill, Mary Richmond, Canon Barnett, Arnold Toynbee, Jane Addams, Ellen Starr, and Mary Parker Follett, to list a few, are associated with these areas of our professional history. Follett contributed directly to the development of leadership theory in both social work and organizational behavior. Additionally, her accomplishments in the establishment of community centers and introduction of now familiar terms, such as power with as opposed to power over, and win-win, merit her recognition as a well-known early leader. (For a wonderful overview and many citations of Mary Parker Follett’s prescient work, please see Nelson, 2017.)

Most historians agree with Lymbery (2001) that over the centuries of responding to societal needs, three strands of social work practice surfaced. Lymbery referred to them as individual casework, social action, and social administration. According to Lymbery, the social administration strand of social work was officially born from the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This Act asked that relieving officer administrators explicitly look to find people to be ineligible for services. The social administration strand of social work emerged at this time, officially humanizing the administration of social services (Lymbery, 2001, p. 26). Over the subsequent years, Lymbery’s three strands of social work have become known as clinical/micro-practice, community development and organizing, and administration/management.

Fast forward to the 20th century, it is in this last strand where the study and practice of leadership has been placed. While the field itself continued to focus on developing social work administration/management, some scholars believed that this is different from social work leadership. This difference has resulted in a dearth of professional literature on leadership grounded in social work methodologies (Brilliant, as cited in Patti, 2003; Rank & Hutchinson, 2000; Sullivan, 2016).

As the Civil Rights movement developed in the 1960s, the leadership of social work began to challenge biased service patterns and actively forge new conceptions and processes in their organizations (Austin, 2000). In 1969, Whitney Young became the first African American president of the National Association of Social Workers. Although social work organizations were some of the earliest to address institutionalized prejudices, this activity alone did not ultimately result in a new definition of social work leadership; rather, the competing-values framework described by organizational behaviorist Quinn (1988) moved the definition forward. This framework provided guiding principles for social work leaders, which included maintaining internal stability, developing human resources, adapting to opportunities and threats in the environment, and productively and effectively reaching the organization’s goals. Additionally, social work leaders began to utilize Total Quality Management during this time, which emphasized organizational success through customer satisfaction (Abrahamson, 1996; Boettecher, 1998; Gummer & McCallion, 1995; Reeves & Bednar, 1994).

In short, while also importing theories from other fields, it was during this time that leadership education and social work started to take shape. Individuals in these positions were encouraged to be visionary, proactive, and responsible for the development of their organizations. Unfortunately, only a few social work schools and programs actually taught students leadership skills.

Conceptualizing Social Work Leadership in the 21st Century

In the early 21st century, as the field of social work continued to evolve, it became more diverse, market driven, and research oriented. Concurrently, social workers began to serve in the US Congress and in local and state legislations. Nonetheless, social work as a profession continued to receive little positive acknowledgment, and as a result, many social workers expressed the need to increase the profession’s status and access to power. Additionally, practitioners and educators alike urged social work leaders to consider how they enable their organizations to reach performance goals in all areas of function to improve social work service (Patti, 2000). Strengthening leadership education became seen as an important pathway to improve social work services.

Some scholars recommended that the human services field develop a unique theoretical perspective on leadership that can be introduced into mainstream management theory and education, rather than retaining the practice of adopting models from other fields (Drucker, 1993; Patti, 2003). Others have continued to suggest that social workers need not hesitate to follow successful leadership training models from other fields, such as business and public administration (Peters, 2018; Rank & Hutchison, 2000). However, most scholars agree that while progress has been made, leadership is still not a core component of social work education. This reality often results in leaders of social work organizations crossing over from other disciplines (Patti, 2000), or social workers lacking formal leadership training being promoted into these positions without adequate preparation (Bliss, Pecukonis, & Snyder-Vogel, 2014).

Determining Social Work Leadership Competencies

In 2000, Rank and Hutchinson conducted a survey of 75 deans and directors for 460 social work programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and 75 executive directors and presidents of 56 chapters of the National Association of Social Workers. Their findings indicated that leaders in the social work profession distinguished their leadership from that of other professions by five common elements: (a) committing to the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics; (b) maintaining a systemic perspective; (c) employing a participatory leadership style; (d) advocating altruism; and (e) focusing on the public image of the profession. This group of leaders also identified nine leadership skills specifically necessary for social workers in the 21st century, including:

  1. 1. Community development, or the “efforts made by professional and community residents to enhance the social bonds among members of the community, motivate the citizens for self-help, develop responsible local leadership, and create or revitalize local institutions” (Barker, as cited in Rank & Hutchison, 2000, pp. 495–496).

  2. 2. Communication or interpersonal skills, including the ability to work with others to accomplish specific objectives through clear speaking and writing, proper allocation of time and resources, and consideration of diverse stakeholder perspectives.

  3. 3. Analytic skills, or the ability to think systematically.

  4. 4. Technological skills, or the ability to apply knowledge and engage with computers and related technology (Meenaghan, Gibbons, & McNutt, 2005). In the field of social work, relevant technologies may include electronic medical records, computer-assisted therapy for clients who experience physical barriers to treatment, and social networking for marketing and donation solicitations.

  5. 5. Political skills, including lobbying for relevant issues, mobilizing voter turn-out, fundraising, and running for elective office, in addition to understanding the connection between local practice and the global context (Mary, 1997).

  6. 6. Visioning skills, or the ability to conceptualize objectives for a cohort, institution, constituency, community, employees, and clients, as well as expressing this vision through verbal and written communication (Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 2001).

  7. 7. Risk-taking skills, or the attributes that enable a leader to demonstrate courage when faced with confrontation so as to improve the human condition for a cohort, institution, constituency, community, employees, and clients (Kets De Vries, Vringnaud, & Florent-Treacy, 2004). Social-work leaders may need to take calculated risks to keep their agency relevant in changing times or in envisioning long-term organizational change processes.

  8. 8. Ethical reasoning, or the faithful reference to the values outlined by the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics during decision making, including integrity, trust, credibility, and accountability.

  9. 9. Cultural competency or diversity, or “the set of academic and interpersonal skills that allow individuals to increase their understanding and appreciation of cultural differences and similarities, within, among, and between groups to reflect the needs of all (i.e., not just the majority cultural group) . . . with all systems” (Bailey & Aronoff, 2004, p. 136). For example, social work leaders should consider whether an agency’s staffing, communication processes, and setting (both exterior location and interior décor) reflect multicultural values.

Perlmutter’s (2006) interviews of chief executive officers and executive directors of social services agencies revealed that many of these individuals expressed a need for highly developed analytic skills, commitment to outcome-based practice, data-driven decision-making, and effective oral and written communication abilities. These leaders noted that such skills are more often found among MBAs, MPAs, and urban planners, rather than social work graduates. Additionally, they suggested that social work leaders engage in preparation that extends beyond the clinical approach and addresses social needs.

Certainly, all of these abilities—among other general skills, such as strategic planning, budgeting, and collaboration—are necessary for leaders in any field. They remain critical for leaders within the social work profession (Mizrahi & Berger, 2005; Mizrahi & Rosenthal, 2001). However, to most effectively develop, use, and sustain all of these competencies, as well as ourselves as leaders, we must remember to recognize and draw upon softer skills. Often defined as process skills, these are competencies of “heart and head” that are implicit to our profession.

To most effectively address the numerous complex challenges facing the organizations of the 21st century necessitates that these traits and skills now be made explicit and publicly reclaimed (Bailey, 1997, 2006; Bolman & Deal, 1995). Able to be taught and learned, this set of core competencies—authenticity, humility, empathy, courage and compassion, faith, patience, and love—composes the essence of life, or “spirit” (Bailey, 2006). Although only recently discussed in the literature, these elements offer a framework to address the central and increasingly complex leadership demands while greatly benefiting our organizations. In fact, recent studies have shown that organizations that seek to recognize the spirit—and even attempt to align their goals with the spirit—outperform those that do not (e.g., Mitroff & Denton, as cited in Pink, 2006).

These seven components of spirit, described as follows, encourage social work leaders to understand their organizations as living systems within an interconnected world (Mulroy, 2004), rather than as independent entities, and “aid them in collectively creating systems designed to enhance the human condition and co-construct cultures of inclusion” (Bailey, 2006, p. 299).

  1. 1. Authenticity: As noted earlier, the demands on leaders are increasing in amount and complexity, and in order to meet them, leaders must take the time to become fully aware of themselves, continuously assessing their abilities, values, and areas needing development. All leaders are different, and consequently, when leading authentically and consistently according to their character, all leaders practice slightly different styles (George, 2003). Through authentic self-knowledge, leaders develop the strength to use their abilities to the full potential and with integrity, living what they believe at all times and through all choices (Bailey, 1997).

  2. 2. Humility: A derivative of the word humus, or earth, “humility is the understanding of what one believes in; it is transcending ego to resist the lure of the trappings of authority” (Bailey, 2006, p. 299). Leadership requires one to be grounded and centered to comprehend that individuals’ inherent value extends beyond social title and place. Humble leaders acknowledge that criticism and praise are part of the holistic quest for understanding, and they recognize the unique nature of each person and acknowledge the necessity of everyone in the organization as an important part of an interconnected web (Freire, 1981). Humble leaders foster collaboration and co-creation because they understand their own limits and seek out people who bring complementary skills and perspectives.

  3. 3. Empathy: Empathy is “the self-knowledge that comes from being able to ‘hold’ the perceptions and the emotions of another” (Bailey, 2006, p. 300). Being empathetic requires a mindfulness unfolding and moment-to-moment awareness when leaders remain grounded and true to themselves, continuously growing personally and professionally, and at the same time, opening their minds and hearts to learn and know others more deeply (Kabat-Zinn, 2005). Social neuroscience has demonstrated that human beings possess mirror neurons, which recreate in one person’s brain the neural activity that is occurring in another’s brain during focused social exchanges (Goleman, 2006). These neurons actually help to establish an empathic rapport between people that strengthens interactions and relationships.

  4. 4. Courage and Compassion: Although these states of emotion and action are usually thought of as separate, the values of courage and compassion complement and strengthen each other. With both courage and compassion, leaders can make purposeful, definite, and strategic decisions while at the same time respecting the joys and struggles of others. Furthermore, courage and compassion embolden leaders to embrace the more challenging paradoxes of life, and together, they enable leaders to contemplate creative possibilities through opposition and appreciate the bigger picture, the realities of the larger context in which both strengths and challenges coexist. For example, when a leader faces the need to downsize her organization, the balance of these two attributes can help guide her decision-making. Courage alone would not allow her to take into account the full implications of eliminating positions for her employees; on the other hand, compassion alone would not necessarily suffice to maintain the organization’s financial stability. The balance of these two skills, however, would allow her to approach these difficult conversations with empathy, bravery, and integrity.

  5. 5. Faith: As described by Bailey (2006), “the faith of leadership is about living with uncertainty and trusting that all that happens serves a higher good; that there is a lesson to be learned in every pleasure and every pain” (p. 300). Dispelling popular mistaken connotations of the word, faith is not about religion; it is not contrary to reason; it does not ignore people and situations that are dishonest or dangerous; and it does not inhibit human beings from asking questions and developing new knowledge. Faith can serve as the origin of inspiration as well as the energy for continuing efforts. It encourages leaders to think beyond the known into the realm of opportunities not yet conceived. Often, the source of organizations’ most effective vision statements is faith, as visions extend beyond the present into future possibilities. Although most organizations develop and tout vision statements rather easily, faith is one of the most difficult competencies to maintain because fear often replaces it, especially with constant changes and ambiguity in the world. Although elements of fear will always be present, leaders must embrace faith and extend it to the others in their organizations as they move forward in the complexities of life (Morris, 2007). Faith is particularly crucial during processes of organizational change, as it is during times of upheaval and transformation when employees turn to the agency leadership for guidance, support, and insight. A leader who demonstrates faith models how to live in times of turbulence and helps create a culture of trust and hope.

  6. 6. Patience: The patience of leadership applies to both self and to others. It is the willingness to attend to the needs and growth of all by partaking in deep listening, acknowledging the context and circumstances of each situation, and cultivating the capacity to “restore . . . and counter the destructive efforts of power stress” (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005, p. 72). Patience allows leaders to know how and when to conserve and to prune, both in their organizations and in their individual lives, trusting in the process.

  7. 7. Love: In the realm of leadership, the love that one must nurture and share is best defined as agape. Agape goes beyond romantic and familial love; it is a love for all simply because they exist, regardless of their identities, actions, or associations (Bailey, 2006). Indeed, agape is the form of love that engenders freedom (Freire, 1981), as demonstrated through the lives of people that many consider heroes. As McKee (2017) says, “Love and a sense of belonging at work are as necessary as the air we breathe” (p. 4). Agape love is the culmination of all of the core competencies of leaders; it requires that leaders have invested themselves in the process to live lives as authentic, humble, empathic, courageous, compassionate, faithful, and patient beings.

Implications for Social Work Education Moving Forward

Sullivan (2016) compares effectiveness of various leadership models and considers leadership styles in social work and organizational outcomes. Central to this study was the contestation to determine definitively what degree, if any, are management and leadership analogous. Sullivan's conclusions suggest some leadership skills are elemental of management; however, effective leaders are more than managers of people—they are engines of creativity, sources of motivation, problem solvers, strategists, and central to productive teams and healthy organizations (p. 557). The long-term goal and benefit of advocating preparation for new social worker leaders while in training is to better ensure future leaders in social work practice are well-versed on “the goals, values, and ethics undergirding the profession” (p. 554).

Additionally, studies suggest that an emphasis on leadership in social work education positively influences retention rates of both BSW- and MSW-prepared social workers in the workplace (Elpers & Westhuis, 2008). However, it appears that undergraduate programs in particular have the most significant lack of leadership education, making this especially problematic for the future of our professional practice (Bliss, Pecukonis, & Snyder-Vogel, 2014). Accordingly, Bliss calls for a “leadership development academy,” a component expected to guide the imagining and eventual institutionalization of a comprehensive, flexible, and adaptable curriculum for BSW students.

As has been the goal of social work education since its beginnings, schools and programs must remain committed to ensuring that all graduates are best prepared to provide the leadership necessary for individuals and families, and their organizations and communities, Moving beyond espousing to enacting both “tried and true” and innovative approaches is essential for leadership curricula.

Wolf (2015), in collaboration with Faith Spotted Eagle, offers one such approach. The “Spirit Smart” leadership training model describes five attributes of “exceptional Native leaders:” sharing power; understanding that time and space are nonlinear; employing emotional intelligence; recognizing that “servant leadership” is part of their DNA; and being visionaries. By extracting even these five qualities from the multigenerational legacy of Native leaders, “Spirit Smart” introduces and affirms important elements of leadership education for everyone. The work of Iachini, Cross, and Freedman (2015) on contemporary trends of American social work graduate programs and leadership course offerings provides another tool. Implementing an ethnographic study utilizing the “Social Change Model (SCM) of Leadership,” these colleagues seek to anticipate the political climate and generational shifts that influence how social work leadership changes across time and across occupations, organizations, and services, and communities.

Leadership education in social work also remains integral to the development and expansion of advancements in addressing issues of diversity and inclusion within our organizations. Wangari et al. (2017) identifies the role leadership plays in the organization, particularly in regard to supporting diversity at the upper echelons of organizational leadership, as critical to the overall functioning and success of programming missions.

Moreover, social media has both distanced and brought together a multitude of people and information. Globalization has had a significant influence upon what social work leadership means and how it is practiced around the world, as human rights and related politics vary across nation and fluctuate over time. A global context that includes increasing and protracted wars; genocide; displaced refugee populations; human trafficking; mass shootings in our schools, streets, and places of worship; re-articulations of racialized violence; and civil rights violations of “sexual minorities” and indigenous people around the world requires social work principles, governance, and ethics to be integral parts of the responses of our organizations’ leadership in this country and abroad (Bozer, Kuna, & Santora, 2015; Hawkins & Knox, 2014; Teasley et al., 2018).

It is imperative that social work leaders are as intentionally educated and prepared for the careers that our complex global context demands. Social work leadership education can remain as a strong example of multidisciplinary attention to relationships—between and among organizations, communities, policies, and individual people. Yet it is critical that there also be an expansion of the focus on policy in our programs to ensure a fuller understanding of political, economic, and social justice as core components of practice.

Our social work schools and programs must continue to enhance and incorporate leadership education as it develops macro theories and practices that will educate and support leaders for today and tomorrow. Movements like the “Special Commission to Advance Macro Practice in Social Work,” as conceived by members of ACOSA following the Rothman Report (Rothman, 2013), are essential. In partnership with the major national social work associations and groups, this Commission has two primary goals for our educational institutions: “20% by 2020,” wherein at least 20% of the students enrolled in our schools and programs by 2020 are macro-educated, meaning this percentage or higher of all social work students are concentrating their learning experiences on robust macro-informed clinical/micro and generalist curricula. Attending to leadership education is not a luxury for social work. Rather, focused and intentional attention to bolstering and securing leadership education is our responsibility to ensure the viability of our professional practice of service for centuries to come.


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