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Social Workers as Leaders
By Karen S. Haynes, PhD, MSW

As social workers, we pride ourselves on our ability to effectively help those we serve. This is our competence, one of the six core values we commit to when we undertake our role, along with committing to values of service, social justice, a person’s dignity and worth, the importance of human relationships, and integrity.

These values, by definition, not only require leadership on our part but also define leadership. They are what make social workers excellent natural leaders.

We are all social workers because of the pioneers who sought to correct injustices and find ways to care for the poor and disenfranchised. As we studied social work leaders and pioneers, we may have thought that these men and women were exceptional, that they were unusual and somehow gifted. In truth, what they had was a strong commitment to those same values that we embody today. Each of us has the opportunity to honor those values and to be leaders.

As social workers, we understand that good leadership means the daily application of these values. So, whether or not we think about it, when we committed to social work as a profession, we were committing to being leaders.

While I am profoundly moved by the important, meaningful work that social workers do every day, I nonetheless am distressed when I hear some say, “There is no room for me to be a leader” or “I am just a social worker, not the team leader.”

Some of us are called to lead from the front, and some from a quiet place as one of many on a team. But neither form of leadership is less important than the other; they are just different.
Both honor the values of social work and the principles of good leadership.

As social workers and leaders, we intervene in crises, mediate conflict, advocate on behalf of clients, and identify resources. We help during some of the most vulnerable times and often help clients and their families find meaning in the face of adversity. Doing this well means that we are every day leaders.

What does leadership look like in our profession? The following are some performance standards that distinguish strong, professional social work leaders:

• Be future focused. As social workers, to be successful, we must look beyond the moment to chart client care.

• Develop our own blueprint for our careers, for both working in and leading teams. Clearly, every situation will be different, so we must set guidelines and benchmarks that can be adjusted to help us reach desired outcomes. We also must be assertive about what we need from others to help hone our skills and expand our portfolios.

• Lead but be part of a team. Unequivocally, we need to know that our social work skills have enabled us to mediate when needed, foster collaboration when competition rears its head, assert that we must remain open and honest in our communication even when we don’t want to hear or give “bad news,” and remain vigilant in our commitment to constituents’ voices being heard.

• Look for the strengths and weaknesses of those around us to build an effective and balanced team, one that looks beyond quick fixes and works through challenges. The goal is for us, as the leaders, to get the team past “We can’t do it; it’s never been done” to the point of “Yes we can.”

Great leadership doesn’t happen overnight, but I believe that great leaders add value to the profession. They know how to articulate goals, motivate teams, and look to the future. They cannot be just visionaries; they must be influencers, and they must know how to execute plans. They also know that success is what matters, not who achieves it.

That said, there’s a tendency for social workers to downplay the important work that we do, to give credit elsewhere. Learn from that. We must make sure that we are the ones defining social work practice, and that we are constantly looking for ways to establish and demonstrate our value, raising the bar for social work intervention, collaboration, and leadership.

You most likely had specific reasons for choosing social work, but a common thread binds us all. The fact is that social work probably was more of a calling, a way for you to effect change on a real level for a client, a community, an organization, or our nation. We deeply believe in helping others, and to do that effectively, we must be leaders and stronger advocates.

We are natural leaders. Think about the power we have in knowledge and compassion, our systems perspective. Think about the power that comes with knowing that social work is both an avocation and a vocation. Think about the power that comes from understanding that service on behalf of others is the purpose of life. Think about the power that comes with knowing that we do not offer quick fixes but human dignity, inclusiveness, equality, and social justice.

We are the experts in understanding problems—problems that have become more complex and multidimensional as the world undergoes tremendous change. And we bring to situations our unique and valuable expertise that comes from a sound professional education and informed practice.

If we, as social workers, do not step into the fullness of our potential as leaders, others will take the place we have chosen to forfeit, and the gifts that each of us bring to the role of leader in our work, team, community, and society will be sorely missed.

There always will be challenges that force us to not only envision but to help create a better world. So we celebrate not that these challenges will continue, but that there are people like us who become professional social workers to create hope, alleviate suffering, and identify paths. I celebrate that we are dedicated to service for the welfare of humanity and palliative care in particular.

I celebrate that we will be—have to be—leaders. We must step up to the opportunities of leadership, each in our own way and in our own time. My hope is that in the near future, we will inspire other social workers to step into the fullness of their potential as leaders.

Karen S. Haynes, PhD, MSW, is president of California State University, San Marcos.