‘Hit the Ground Running’ 

2010 Social work Congress: reaffirm, revisit, & reimagine the professionApproximately 44 percent of U.S. workers, or 66 million people, are of the baby boomer generation — those born between 1946 and 1964, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. On Jan. 1, the first baby boomers turned 65 (traditionally considered to be retirement age), earning the so-called “golden boomer” status.

The coming wave of retiring baby boomers undoubtedly will include many leaders in the field of social work, considering that most members on the boards of NASW and other social work organizations are over 50.

Faced with this reality, participants of the 2010 Social Work Congress approved the following imperative: Integrate leadership training in social work curricula at all levels.

Participants of the virtual 2010 Student Social Work Congress concurred. “Social workers should be able to take a leadership role to advocate for individuals and communities at all levels,” said one student whose feedback was included in the final report from the congress.

NASW President James J. Kelly believes social work students need to be taught leadership skills; such skills, he said, are critical for social workers to advocate on behalf of individual clients, an entire community or the social workers themselves.

“[Leadership] gives you a seat at the table,” Kelly told NASW News. “Leadership allows you to present your case and agenda to the powers that be. It allows you to operationalize your values to have a humane workforce, promote egalitarianism, treat everyone equally and prevent discrimination against women and persons of color. It enables you to be a voice for the disenfranchised.”

Many aspects of leadership can be taught, and several schools of social work are training the leaders of tomorrow.

Gary Bailey, an associate clinical professor at Simmons College Graduate School of Social Work and president of the International Federation of Social Workers, finds that opportunities for leadership present themselves every day. In an interview with NASW News, he said he talks to his students about being a leader with a “small ‘L’ and a big ‘L.’”

“Students often think, ‘Oh, I’ll never do that,’” Bailey continued. “But, we take on leadership roles every day in our organizations, in our communities or on our clients’ behalf. And, quite honestly, I’ve seen so many people who’ve ended up in leadership positions who wished they’d had at least some rudimentary training in management principles. You never know when you are going to be called upon to step into the moment.”

At Simmons College Graduate School of Social Work, Bailey and his colleagues are training students to be ready for that call. Simmons offers a master of social work degree in urban leadership, where coursework emphasizes public speaking, fundraising, program development, social policy and working with diverse constituencies, among other topics.

“It’s amazing how many of our students say they are nervous about getting up and speaking in front of others, but that is a skill a leader must possess,” Bailey said, adding that knowing what goes into a budget also is very important. “You can’t advocate when you don’t know what’s on the table.”

Andrew Safyer, dean of Adelphi University’s School of Social Work in New York, believes it’s important for students to learn these skills while still in school because graduating students are increasingly being asked to “hit the ground running.”

Adelphi’s social work school houses the Long Island Center for Nonprofit Leadership. The center not only offers programs and services for cultivating new and emerging leaders, it also provides support for established nonprofit executive directors and boards and helps organizations with leadership transitions.

Safyer said the next generation of leaders will need to be brave during uncertain times.

“With the new economic reality, demand for services is increasing while funding is decreasing,” he said, stressing that tomorrow’s leaders will need to be adept at pooling resources by collaborating across organizations and working on common objectives.

“We also have to be open to new models of leadership, more inclusive decision-making models, the use of teams and participatory approaches,” Safyer said.

NASW offers a variety of leadership training resources: