Leadership in Social Work

When someone mentions leadership, what comes to mind?  Do you think of a military general barking orders at his soldiers; or a supervisor assigning tasking and projects to their staff; or even the CEO of a business completing process improvements to improve the bottom line?

All of those are the standard examples of leadership, but leadership in social work is a different concept all together.  While the military general is focused on the mission, the supervisor is focused on personnel and resource management, and the CEO is focused on profits, social work leadership is focused on creating change.  It is the ability to utilize not only ones own skills but also the skills of their clients, their organization, and their community to bring others together, engage them in the decision making process, and allowing them to make decisions and have an active role in affecting their own change Defining Social Work Leadership: A Theoretical & Conceptual Review & Analysis by S. Colby Peters ).  It can be enacted differently worker to worker, but it’s main features will be the same, which includes having and working towards a goal or an idea, persuading or compelling others to act towards that goal, utilizing teamwork and collaboration to maximize efforts towards that goal, keeping a focus on problem-solving, identifying and using different perspectives to anticipate problems, and finally, creating a positive change, whether that is a change in clients, a change in a community, or even a change in the organization that worker is a part of; the key part of social work leadership is creating positive changes. ((Social Work Leadership: Identifying Core Attributes by Michael J. Holosko).

Leadership as a Student

As a social work student, developing my skills both as a social worker, but also as a leader is imperative to my success and competency in my future practice.  This does not have to mean I am leading the charge in fighting social injustice, but rather am taking this opportunity during my development and education to recognize my own shortcomings and dedicating the time and effort to address them.  In my role as a student, this means I focus on the development of my skills, abilities and knowledge that I will need to be an effective practitioner, but also my mindfulness, behaviors, and characteristics that fit both my personal style and the values and ethics of social work to also become an effective leader.

Why is Leadership Important in Social Work?

Being an effective and competent leader, or lack thereof has the capability to impact clients, coworkers, and the reputation of social work positively or negatively.  Inadequate practice of leadership may cause a client to fail to be fully engaged in the working relationship and the treatment plan.  Failing to include the client in the plan, which is both a key step in engagement but also a leadership skill, can cause the client to possibly terminate early, or the worker will not be effective at helping the client create a positive change in their life towards better functioning and quality of life.  Ineffective leadership with clients has the potential to contribute to social injustices, rather than addressing them.  Ineffectiveness can also damage the social work profession as a whole.  Social work is a profession that values the importance of human relationships, not only for clients, but also for workers both personally and professionally.  As a result, social work embraces interdisciplinary collaborations.  Collaboration can be effective in addressing client’s needs and serve an effective engine for changing social injustices.  When a social work professional fails to ensure they are competent or does not develop leadership skills within their practice with other helping services, they’ve not only injured their own credibility, but also the credibility of the social work profession.  In addition, it also damages the professional working relationship.  On the other side of the coin, an effective social worker who employs leadership can bring other professional groups, and individuals to create real and measurable change for others, solidifying the role social work plays in our world.

How Can I Become a Leader?

After discussing social work leadership, what is looks like, and why it is important, one may be concerned on how to create that for yourself.  While I am unable to speak for everyone, a concept and method that was impactful for me has been the ‘Mood Elevator’, which is a way of gauging one’s moods and how that might impact your interactions, thoughts, and overall well-being.  It’s an excellent tool for me to remind myself to check in and see if I need to take actions to improve my mood and if my self-care plan is still working.  At the early stages, the quiz was helpful to identify where I was on the elevator, but with practice and self-awareness, I’ll hopefully be able to identify and gauge where my mind is without the quiz.  Taking this information, I can ensure I am effective in my interactions with others, and can take proactive actions when I am not prepared for client or even professional interactions with others.

Check out the quiz here.

Another concept towards developing one’s leadership skills is mindfulness, which has always been a difficult concept for me to implement  but has recently became rather impactful for myself.  Mindfulness is the concept of being aware of one’s surroundings and situation, but not allowing what is occurring or what has happened to overly influence your thoughts, feelings and actions.  Mindfulness is not an unfamiliar concept for social workers, as we have learned thought processing can be a powerful influence on our actions.  Additionally, practicing mindfulness takes baby steps to achieve, beginning with meditation.  Unfortunately, meditation and thus mindfulness is difficult for me to place into practice.  I am a scatter-brained individual, which is understandable, since I was diagnosed with ADD (now known as Inattentive-ADHD) as a child, and it’s stuck with me.  As a result, I have difficult focusing at times, and am easily distracted.  Knowing this about myself, mindfulness is a concept I originally thought as one I will be struggling with the rest of my life.  However, it was recently described to me by a yoga instructor that the goal of meditation is to increase your level of focus on your body and breathing, but that it is the failures that are needed to grow that ability to be focused and practice mindfulness.  I was told I should think of the loss of focus during meditation as the brain flexing its muscles and completing a rep.   The goal isn’t to maintain my focus for an infinite amount of time, but rather to teach my brain to learn to refocus with less effort each time I lose focus.  Having meditation and mindfulness explained to me in a new way because I’ve realized  it is a concept that I can incorporate into my life and my self-care plan, and can use mindfulness to practice compassion towards others, and myself, and I can focus on what matters within that moment, allowing me to control my though processes, my reactions, and improve my ability to make decisions.  Going forward I plan on utilizing mindfulness and medication as part of my regular self-care plan, but also when approaching client practice and collaboration within my professional experiences.  Mindfulness not only improves the client relationship, but also improves a worker’s ability to be a leader, as it improves their ‘being in the moment, ensures they aren’t reactive, but rather people and problem focused.

If you want a clearer example of mindfulness and its impact, check out this video.


And here’s a good video explaining meditation for a beginner.

Emotional Intelligence

Another impact on one’s leadership abilities is emotional intelligence, which is a person’s ability to recognize their emotions, control their reactions to emotions, and how it effects their interpersonal relationships.  In terms of leadership, it is an understanding of the underlying emotions that impact an individual’s behavior, and how to interact with them to motivate them towards change (Emotionally Intelligent Leaders & Self-Actualizing Behaviors: Any Relationship? By P. Decker & J. Cangemi).  Goleman has broken down emotional intelligence into 5 components; self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.  Out of those 5, motivation is the one I struggle the most with.  I would describe myself as one who has a desire to achieve, and is motivated to receive positive feedback, accolades and even good grades, as a way to measure my achievements.  However, the day-to-day steps that are needed to maintain achievement levels and motivation can be severely decreased as I don’t receive a consistent level of achievement in my day-to-day.  Social work is a career where I can easily go months without a sense of achievement or see the results of my efforts.  When that occurs, I can find myself in the early stages of burn-out and my level of motivation is severely diminished.  I’ve struggled with this since my second year at my agency, however I have identified a few ways to help boost my motivation.  I rely on peer support to voice irritations with policy or supervisors and receive feedback and guidance, and I incorporate more outreach activities into my work date to give me small but rewarding client interactions.  Going forward, I need to identify more ways to measure achievement in the workplace, but also continue to utilize and improve my self-care plan.  The more effective my self-care, the more protected I am from the effects of burnout and prepared to be an effective leader and social worker.

What Future MSW Students Should Know

Effective leadership within social work is not something that will occur overnight.  It takes time to identify and develop the skills and behaviors that create an effective leader.  Additionally, social work leadership has a different approach that may be foreign to students.  Introducing leadership concepts and principles to students at the start of their MSW program not only provides them with beginning knowledge and the opportunity to reframe leadership into a social work context but prepares them to practice these concepts during their field experiences.  Providing them with resources and discussion to help identify their own styles and how to effectively implement leadership with their clients, cohorts, and within their organizations, MSW student will be more prepared to  be effective social workers and leaders as they move forward into their education, profession and practice.

What Should MSW Programs Be Doing?

For future courses, as there is always room for improvement, I recommend MSW programs utilize further discussion on what social work leadership looks like, and how it differs from traditional leadership.  Leadership is a term conjures up different images for different people, some may perceive management as leadership, while others may be unclear on how leadership skills relate to NASW’s values and code of ethics.  Providing further resources on leadership specifically in social work may help clear up misconceptions and provide more concrete examples of how one’s behaviors, skills and characteristics relate specifically to leadership in social work.  Discussing how to implement these skills, or further develop them will give students opportunities for development, peer feedback and the added benefit discussion within class provides to the overall educational experience.

Social work leadership is critical to the profession in facilitating positive change by utilizing the human capital available, focusing on the goals or outcomes desired, and allowing people to play an active role in decision making.  Gaining knowledge on social work leadership and discussing why it is important and how to implement it will make our future social workers effective while providing them with the skills and knowledge to effect real change in our clients, communities and organizations.


Decker, P. J., & Cangemi, J. P. (2018). Emotionally intelligent leaders and self-actualizing behaviors: Any relationship? IFE PsychologIA26(2), 27–30. Retrieved from

Holosko, M. (2009). Social work leadership: Identifying core attributes. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment19(4), 448–459.

Peters, S. C. (2018). Defining social work leadership: a theoretical and conceptual review and analysis. Journal of Social Work Practice32(1), 31–44.