Social Work Needs More Leaders Now

Angelo McClainFrom the CEO

— Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSW

Recently, I’ve found myself thinking about social work leadership and its importance in building a more humane, just and peaceful society.

I’ve wondered about what motivates some social workers to fully embrace leadership and others (many others) to consciously decide to leave leadership alone.

I know many social workers tend to shy away from talking about themselves and prefer a quiet, effective exercise of leadership without flash or ostentation. They prefer to employ a solid and more humble and collaborative approach rather than embodying vociferous or extroverted charismatic forms of leadership.

Regardless of individual approach, society needs more social workers in leadership roles. Today’s rapidly changing demographic, social and economic factors — and accelerated advances in technology and knowledge — have led to tremendous growth in the rate and amount of societal change and correspondingly within helping organizations.

Increasingly, the transformations needed in health and human service delivery systems require transformative leadership — change leadership that social workers are more than equipped to provide. Leadership within social work begins with a belief that leadership is the communication of vision, guided by the NASW Code of Ethics.

Social work leadership is defined as the capacity to work creatively, constructively and effectively with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities to promote social justice, catalyze transformative social change, and address individual and societal problems.

Social work leadership models, like transformational leadership, foster value-based frameworks that promote consideration of context, relations and collaboration. Typically, these models value the collective wisdom of members within an organization and define leadership as a process.

These models focus not only on the characteristics of the leader but also recognize the role followers and context play in shaping change.

For many social workers, the transformational leadership model with its focus on the development of positive change in followers, breakthrough improvements in infrastructure processes, and significant increases in performance and outcomes is compatible with their vision and values for leading change.

It resonates with them that leaders within this values-based framework are motivated toward the greater good versus their own self-interests, and focused on enhancing motivation, morale and performance. The model involves five critical leadership factors:

  • Charisma
  • Idealized influence
  • Inspirational motivation
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Individualized consideration

The transformational leader, through strategic planning processes, slowly builds trust, flattens the hierarchy, rewards open criticism and suggestions, cultivates strategic versus tactical approaches, and routinely celebrates accomplishments both big and small.

These leaders stimulate organizational learning practices and nurture a sense of enlightened self-interest among all stakeholders.

Servant leadership, a similar model, looks at leadership as an act of service, whereby the leader seeks to serve, rather than being served; asking, “What can be done to make things easier for others?”

Some critics have misunderstood servant leadership and mischaracterized it as a soft form of leadership. It is not a passive or soft leadership approach, rather it is a viable form of leadership that engenders remarkable results. Proponents argue it may in fact require more “fortitude” than other types of leadership.

Many social workers have not pursued leadership opportunities, assuming there is not a place at the leadership table for them. In fact, there are numerous leadership opportunities for social workers at multiple levels across government, private nonprofit, and private for-profit sectors.

The growing need for service improvement, innovation and integration in health and human services underscores the need for social workers to lead change at the systems, program and clinical levels.

From my perspective, our desire, as social workers, to change the world and stand for social justice must rest on a voracious desire to lead change.

Otherwise, we leave the critical tasks of setting direction, creating alignment and gaining commitment to others with different capabilities for creating shifts in thinking, forging new partnerships and reframing ineffective paradigms.

I hope my perspectives on leading change inspire serious consideration by more social workers to aspire to all forms of leadership in academic, government, private, political and entrepreneurial arenas.

From my experience, leadership can be taught and learned. Generally, it entails sustaining, improving or changing strategic directions.

Fortunately, the skills critical for social work leadership are essential parts of our core social work competences. They include elements such as self-knowledge, critical and creative thinking, effective communication, respect and inclusion, moral courage, teamwork and collaboration, and focus on purpose.

Perhaps now more than ever, social work leadership is needed to envision the future, to relocate resources, to monitor progress, and to improve the delivery and outcomes of services.

Social workers are uniquely equipped to take on leadership responsibility and shape the possibilities for a better future.

Ultimately, having more leaders within social work enhances our collective capacity for building a more humane, just and peaceful society.


Contact Angelo McClain at