Transformative social work leadership

Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSW

Today, social work leaders must be visionaries, forward thinkers and innovators. They must adapt to change and cater to new innovations while respecting traditional methods. Above all, they must thrive in uncertainty.

As such, if they want to succeed, social work leaders must evolve and constantly rethink their approaches.

Demands on social work leaders have never been greater. Those in health and human services struggle to survive in a world of shrinking budgets, increasing needs, and lack of resources.

Indeed, these leaders operate in increasingly unpredictable, uncertain, and complex environments; yet performance expectations are higher than ever.

Given an environment of intensified competitive pressures, increased regulation, and greater media scrutiny, the need for transformative social work leadership is greater than ever.

Transformative leadership is a style of leadership where the leader works with followers to identify the needed change, create an inspirational vision to guide the change, and implement the change in partnership with committed group members.

In its authentic form, transformative leadership enhances the motivation, morale and performance of followers through a variety of mechanisms.

Transformative social work leaders exemplify the value of working toward the benefit of the team, the organization and the community. The leader transforms and motivates team members through idealized influence, inspirational motivation, individual consideration and intellectual stimulation.

In addition, transformative social work leaders encourage team members to come up with new and unique ways to challenge the status quo and to alter the environment to support being successful.

The leader influences by instilling pride, gaining respect and serving as a role model of high ethical behavior — in essence by “walking the talk.”

The leader challenges followers with high standards, communicating optimism about future goals, and providing purpose and meaning for the task at hand. The visionary aspects of leadership are supported by communication skills that make the vision understandable, precise, powerful and engaging.

Transformative social work leaders demonstrate genuine concern for the needs and feelings of team members, giving empathy and support. This personal attention is a key element in bringing out the very best efforts. This encompasses the need for respect and celebrates the individual contribution of each group member.

The leader nurtures and challenges followers to think deeply, take risks, approach unexpected situations as learning opportunities, and to be innovative.

Thirty years of research and a number of meta-analyses have shown that the transformative leadership style is correlated with successful organizational outcomes.

Evidence clearly shows that groups led by transformative leaders have higher levels of performance and satisfaction than groups led by other types of leaders.

Over the course of the last 25 years of transforming large delivery systems, I have learned that change management is incredibly hard and not for the faint of heart. I’ve learned that you don’t win the popularity contest, not even after you’ve achieved the desired changes.

I’ve learned that attending to self-care and not personalizing attacks from critics serves one well when tough decisions need to be made. I’ve learned when the status quo is challenged, those who benefit from it will exhaust every opportunity to demean and vilify those who dare to lead or support the change effort.

Transformative change is hard and at times can be downright daunting; at the core, we are all change-resistant. When the “change management times” get tough, a focus on the desired outcome and a laser-focus on strengthening the organizational commitment to the transformative vision is required.

In order to be successful, transformative social work leaders must develop a challenging and attractive vision for change in partnership with the group members; align the vision to a strategy for its achievement; translate the vision into actions; express confidence, decisiveness and optimism about the vision and its implementation; and realize the vision through small planned steps and small successes along the critical path to full implementation.

Given their focus on and care about team members and their personal needs and development, transformative social work leaders inspire, empower and stimulate followers to exceed normal levels of performance.

As social work leaders continue to lead during times of greater uncertainty, their transformative leadership abilities will become increasingly more important.

Contact Angelo McClain at