Social workers provide guidance and support in hospital rooms, classrooms, boardrooms and courtrooms, making a difference in the lives of individuals, families and organizations. It is often this type of micro social work that informs public perception of the field. But you can also find social workers in positions of leadership in government, education, health care and corporations, using the skills they’ve built in their social work careers to help make important decisions and manage institutions.
Training in social work can be valuable for leaders of all kinds and in all fields because the core values of a social worker are often the same qualities that make a good leader. So what, exactly, are these values?
According to the National Associaiton of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, there are six important values that every social worker must hold dear. The focus areas of an effective social worker are service, social justice, dignity and worth of a person,the importance of human relationships, integrity and competence. It’s easy to imagine how a person who faithfully upholds all of these values would also make a stellar leader.
In addition to these fundamental values, the skills social workers develop through their education and training — the ability to understand how organizations are run, an aptitude for communicating clearly and sensitively, and expertise in advocating for change — are essential to effective leadership.
As any social worker will tell you, at the very foundation of social work is the knowledge of how organizations work at their most basic levels. In order to make change within a system, you need to know how that system works. This means possessing institutional knowledge and understanding both professional and community organizations and resources, as well as having the interpersonal skills necessary to work with a variety of people.
To be a good social work leader, you’ve also got to be able to say what you mean — and vice versa. According to Social Justice Solutions, social workers are trained “to assess the needs of systems and individuals and create [a] holistic approach to address these needs.” This means strong communication skills are key, especially when you’re constantly working with other people and maintaining relationships with trust and respect. Good social workers and good leaders use verbal and nonverbal communication skills to establish and maintain relationships of mutual respect, acceptance and trust.
At the same time, a good social work leader is sensitive to other people, showing respect to age, class, disability, ethnicity, family structure, gender, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation. Recognizing forms and mechanisms of discrimination and knowing how to take appropriate measures to prevent or mitigate them are at the core of a social worker’s mission. Essentially, a good social work leader possesses the cultural competence to work with people whose backgrounds may be different than their own.
So once you’ve got the foundation, what’s next? For a social worker, the main goal is to continually improve the status quo. A dedication to social justice in all its forms means that fair leadership is vitally important to social workers. Through this leadership, social workers are able to provide one of the most important services of the profession: addressing unmet needs. From providing quality housing to organizing community support to ensuring that the needs of children are met, social workers become leaders by taking the initiative to make positive change. Most important, a good social work leader possesses the moral courage to employ strategies that both empower clients and lead others to adopt the promotion of social justice.
Social work leadership has been defined as “the capacity to work creatively, constructively and effectively with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities to promote social justice, catalyze social change, and address individual and social problems.” The qualities that make an effective social worker — comprehensive organizational knowledge, excellent communication skills and unfaltering commitment to effecting positive change — are the same qualities that the best leaders in the world possess
While there are social workers in positions of leadership in many fields, there is room for more social workers to have a seat at the table, to bring their knowledge, skills and compassion to leadership roles in their communities.