Stepping Up: Profession Trains Social Workers to Become Leaders

By Alison Laurio

graphic of waves with little footsteps

Suze Orman, Jared Bernstein, Wendy Sherman, Josephine (Jody) K. Olsen, Marylou Sudders, Karen Haynes and Darrell P. Wheeler all have one thing in common: They are social workers who stepped into leadership roles while doing the work they were most interested in doing.

NASW is among the organizations, groups and social work schools encouraging more social workers to seek and take positions as leaders. As schools infuse more leadership training into their curriculum, social workers—from professors to CEOs—are talking about social work leaders who are succeeding in education, nonprofit organizations, business, health care and government.

Recognizing Leaders

“One of the ways we encourage social workers to view themselves as leaders is highlight the leadership of prominent social workers, like Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Suze Orman,” said NASW CEO Angelo McClain.

Orman is a financial adviser, personal finance expert, author and TV host who McClain said has given a lot of financial advice over the years that, in part, comes from her social work background.

Bernstein, who was chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden in the Obama administration, is senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And Olsen, who began her career in the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Tunisia in 1966, was sworn in as its director in March.

Social work leaders need to self-identify as social workers to help elevate the profession, said Elizabeth J. “Betsy” Clark, who in addition to her social work degrees has a master’s degree in medical sociology. She was NASW's CEO from 2001 to 2013 and now runs her own business.

“I do think there's a need for more social work leaders, but I think we need to identify (leaders) as social workers,” said Clark, president and co-founder of Start Smart Career Center. She said more social workers should step into leadership roles “because they bring a perspective to leadership that not everybody else brings.” 

“I think we train social workers in leadership but we don't always name those skills as essential to leadership,” Clark said. “The whole curriculum is developed toward problem identification and strategy for change. I don't think students understand that they're going out with clinical skills, but those skills are important to leadership.”

Wendy Sherman is “an incredible leader,” she said.

Sherman was U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs—the fourth-ranking official in the U.S. Department of State—from September 2011 to October 2015. During the Clinton administration, she served as counselor of the State Department. She was instrumental in negotiations related to North Korea's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs, and was also the lead negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal.

Sherman will join the Harvard Kennedy School in January as professor of the practice in public leadership and director of the school’s Center for Public Leadership. She will teach courses and advise students about public service and their leadership development, Harvard announced in August.

McClain said when Sherman was negotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran, she relied on what she had learned as a social worker.

“She said when she was doing all that work, she was using her social work skills to successfully negotiate that agreement,” he said. “Social work and leadership; it's just a natural fit.”

And there are many, many less famous social workers who have become successful leaders, McClain said, including Sudders, health and human services secretary for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who received the NASW Foundation Knee/Wittman Outstanding Achievement Award in 2004 for her work to protect children; Wheeler, provost of Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and former NASW president; and Karen Haynes, president of California State University at San Marcos. Haynes also is the first woman to become senior president of the 23 campuses in the CSU system.

“At one point, we had five social workers who were presidents of universities,” said McClain, who before leading NASW was commissioner of the Department of Children and Families in the Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services.

NASW Initiatives

NASW's efforts to help encourage leadership include its Supervisory Leaders in Aging (SLA) program and the NASW Foundation and Council on Social Work Education initiative Social Work Healthcare Education and Leadership Scholars (HEALS).

The New York Community Trust in April renewed a grant with the NASW Foundation and CSWE to continue the HEALS program for another two years of its full five years.

“The HEALS initiative allows the NASW Foundation, CSWE and 10 partner schools to provide educational support and enhancements and leadership opportunities so more social workers are ready to become a key part in the U.S. healthcare delivery system and provide better services to clients,” NASW states. “To date, 160 scholarships and fellowships have been awarded through the HEALS grant to support education and training of healthcare social workers at the bachelor's, master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral levels.”

SLA, with funding from The John A. Hartford Foundation, is “designed to improve the delivery of health care and social services to older adults by strengthening the supervision of staff providing direct social services to older adults and their families,” NASW states on its website.

Applicants “must be MSWs working either as supervisors or as managers providing supervision to staff members who provide direct social services to older adults,” it states. The program was implemented as a continuing education offering in New York in 2015.

Teaching Leadership

Barry Rosenberg is professor of practice at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches and chairs MSW Management Specialization.

He also teaches Management and Leadership of Organizations, a required course for MSW management specialization; Brown Consulting; Executive Education for existing nonprofit executives; and Leadership at Brown, a new course that is part of the larger leadership program that began this fall.

“We're a school that has a very strong macro perspective,” Rosenberg said. “We've been building our program around leadership for a number of years. This is an evolution of that. This is the next step.”

“We think we have to help students think about leadership and think about it differently than they historically have. It's more conducive to the social work aspect rather than the type of training done in a business school. For the last four years, all MSW students have had to take leadership content. Now, all will have to take Leadership at Brown as part of their requirement.”

The program is now a required part of the curriculum for all students studying social work, public health and social policy. Incoming students were given a monograph about leadership to read before they arrived to register this fall, he said.

Also required is a Leadership at Brown course during the second year, and there will be other co-curricular activities “to develop their skills and leadership,” Rosenberg said.

Those include monthly brown-bag seminars, additional training, embedding and the introduction of leadership language and ideas being infused into other courses.

“It's designed to be a cultural leadership perspective for our school,” Rosenberg said. “We believe our students need to be helped to understand how to be leaders around their work, their vision and their values.”

He said key leadership skills taught at the school include problem definition, framing and analysis,analysis of power dynamics, informal leadership influence techniques like coalition building, message mapping and team/group facilitation.

“In our larger Management Specialization we teach a wide range of managerial and leadership skills,” he said. Those include human resources management, supervision, finances, strategy, performance management, quality improvement, volunteer management and fundraising.

He said it can be difficult for those with social work training to acquire top jobs in social work.

“Unfortunately, social workers are not viewed favorably in business as leaders,” Rosenberg said. “The profession has not been adequately focused on developing strong leadership skills and strong macro skills.”

He said the Council on Social Work Education has moved to increase macro education. CSWE notes on its website an April 2014 meeting—held at the NASW national office—with leaders from several groups “to engage in discussion around the challenges facing macro social work practice and education and to find ways all of the major social work organizations can work together to ensure that the future of macro social work remains strong.”

Rosenberg said although the goals for all graduates are different, all MSW graduates with a management specialty have some management-leadership role within two to three years of graduating.

“We do see some students go into management right out of school,” he said.

Areas of Need

Clark said the profession has gotten away from a macro perspective and more toward a clinical aspect over the last 10 to 15 years. What macro social work means is people like Wendy Sherman, she said.

“I think we're not highlighting our skills like that,”Clark said. “I think we've lost a lot of leadership in health care. We used to have departments of social work in hospitals. Now there are 'case management' offices with nurses. Oncological social workers have less than 1,500 members. Nursing has 50,000. We're the patient navigators in health care, and we need to regain lost ground.”

Clark said she also would like to see more social workers in politics, and mentioned Harry Lloyd Hopkins, a Social Work Pioneer who NASW said “played a crucial role in focusing President Franklin Roosevelt's attention on the needy.” He led the Works Progress Administration and helped pass the Social Security Act of 1935. Later,he worked in the Truman administration and supported the founding of the United Nations. Truman awarded Hopkins the Distinguished Service Medal.

McClain said social workers in the field who find themselves in positions as supervisors, managers or directors may need some management training. He said the Network for Social Work Management has 2,000 to 3,000 members and offers training courses for those in management roles or those seeking these positions.

NASW provides volunteer leadership opportunities within its 11 Specialty Practice Sections, which offer information and involvement specific to those areas, McClain said. “One of the 11 is supervision and administration. It offers education and encouragement around leadership.”

“We're also encouraging social workers to become entrepreneurs, whether it's starting their own mental health clinic or developing a piece of technology that in today's world can be used widely,” McClain said. And he suggests social workers with bachelor’s degrees consider obtaining an MSW.

“Once you've got that MSW degree, you're trained to do a lot of different things — macro things,” McClain said. “Eighty percent of MSWs go on to get clinical licenses. We've found people who earn a MSW within two years get a promotion. Some want to stay in clinical, and that's OK.”

“We say you can become a leader,” he said. “When you think about the social health of countries, communities and families, social workers have been playing a key leadership role in their health. Whether it's treatment or advocacy, leadership is as common to social workers as anything we do.”

Clark said in her mind, you are always a social worker once you have a social work degree—and should always identify as such.

“Everything I do is colored by social work,” she said.“I think it creates an ethical and compassionate frame for everything you do for the rest of your professional life.”

Brené Brown

Brené Brown is one of those social workers who proudly identifies herself as one. She has not only risen to the top of the profession as a researcher and author, but also is making a name for herself as a leadership consultant—working with organizations like Pixar, IBM, the Seattle Seahawks,and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Brown is the author of several best-sellers, including “The Gifts of Imperfection,” “Daring Greatly, Rising Strong,” and “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging.” Her latest book, “Dare to Lead,” discusses how to put some of the ideas from her previous books—like courage and vulnerability—into practice to help people step up and lead.

“Brené taught me that leadership requires admitting what you don't know instead of pretending to know everything,” Melinda Gates wrote in an email, according to an article about Brown in Inc. magazine. “I love her message that vulnerability is the key to building trust.”

Brown has appeared on “Oprah,” and recently has been interviewed by various mainstream media outlets, like NPR and TIME magazine. She also is on the cover of the October 2018 Inc. magazine.

Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington Foundation—Brené Brown Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past 16 years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Brown's TED Talk, "The Power of Vulnerability," is one of the top five most viewed TED Talks in the world with more than 30 million views.

The Right Stuff

Management skills and leadership, Rosenberg said, “may be applied in varied settings—nonprofit, for-profit, government, social activism.”

He believes those trained as managers in disciplines other than social work, like business or public administration, may be effective leaders and managers. However, “within human service settings, I think social workers bring several things that are special and are likely to make them more effective and successful,” he said.

“For one, they have subject-matter expertise—deep knowledge and understanding of the needs and issues clients face, as well as the programs and services that meet those needs,” Rosenberg said. “Second, they have a deep understanding of the organizational, legislative, regulatory and cultural context in which human service organizations are embedded. In other words, they understand the territory.”

“And third, he said, “they have been trained extensively and commit to a set of social justice values and ethics that respect and give dignity to clients, employees and community stakeholders; advance equity and social justice; and build strong and vibrant communities.”

Rosenberg said it is important to train students to function in leadership positions or those positions will go to others.

“I think what we all know is people who are in top positions of organizations have the most influence on policies, values and cultures of the organizations,” Rosenberg said. “If we want human service organizationsto reflect social work values and ethics, it's easier if wehave social workers in leadership positions.”

“Others can do good jobs,” he said. “But I believe social workers bring something that others will not.”


Network for Social Work Management

Wendy Sherman and the Iran nuclear deal

Council on Social Work Education Leadership Institute 

Start Smart Career Center

Brené Brown's website

Brown's TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability