Becoming A Social Work Leader

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When Grace Longwell Coyle developed the idea of the organized group as a complementary and compatible component of social work and social reform, she introduced a concept that would later be credited for helping individuals interact with their peers.

As a leader in the field of social work and an acclaimed Case Western Reserve University professor, Coyle’s concepts in 1930 shaped the focus of modern social work by developing a scientific approach to organized group work. Groups that include the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Boy Scouts of America were built from the idea of like-minded people coming together for a cause.

Coyle, who died in 1962, is just one of scores of social workers who have led transformational changes in society, on both the local and national level. Being a social worker means ensuring abused children are placed in safe homes, poor families have their basic needs met, and the mentally ill get much-needed treatment. It also means being a change leader to reduce social injustice and encourage diversity.

“When social work pioneer Grace Longwell Coyle joined the [Case Western Reserve University] faculty in 1934, she was a vocal advocate for using groups to promote social goals and community change—the social work perspective of the person and the environment—tenets that remain at the core of macro social work today,” according to an article in Action, the university’s magazine.

Coyle’s legacy lives on in Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA, equivalent to an MSW) degree program, where students learn through in-class and fieldwork about how social work encourages leadership roles. The program, through the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, provides students with a solid foundation in advanced social work education allowing graduates to take on a variety of leadership roles, correct injustices, and influence change.

Social Workers As Leaders Of Change

By definition, leadership is the capacity to work with groups or individuals, inspire actions, and create change for the best outcomes. Experts from around the world see social workers as natural leaders because of their commitment to assisting the disenfranchised, mediating crises, and influencing change.

Rose Starr, former president of the New York City chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), said all social workers display leadership every day because they “make life and death decisions with little drama and recognition.”

“The typical social worker often demonstrates uncommon acts of courage and commitment just by doing their job well. Many front-line clinicians and community workers meet tests of leadership every day when they help empower people to reshape their lives, battle for scarce resources or use knowledge and ingenuity to address obstacles to change,” she said.

Indeed, the feeling about social workers as leaders is echoed in the United Kingdom, where the Frontline charity recruits and trains social workers. Josh MacAlister, Frontline’s Chief Executive, said social work in Great Britain requires people with a mix of skills and attributes to develop successful outcomes. The same can be said for social work in the United States.

“It’s important that we start to conceive of social work practice as leadership. Both amongst potential applicants and the wider public, appreciation for the work social workers do is too low,” he said.

A vital component to social work leadership is the type that is being used. Increasingly, experts are finding the adaptive style fits the need for social workers.

Social Workers Using Adaptive Leadership

A cornerstone of social work leadership is a focus on an adaptive style, which embraces change and encourages challenges.

Adaptive leadership seeks to identify the root cause of an issue, review a diverse landscape of options and correct the problem by identifying technical and adaptive challenges. The leadership style, pioneer by Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership founder Ron Heifetz, works in contrast to the authoritarian leadership style.

“Adaptive challenges are problems for which there are no known solutions; they require brainstorming and innovating new ways of accomplishing care and often require a change in attitudes, values or beliefs,” Kirsten Corazzini, Ph.D., wrote in the study, “When a situation is ‘not black or white’: Using adaptive leadership to address complex challenges in nursing home care.”

In the context of social work, adaptive leadership has been found to help social service organizations be more productive and focused.

“The practice of adaptive leadership offers an analytical approach to exercising new skills, identifying solutions differently, and strengthening adaptive capacity to face challenges,” said Pat Maloney of the New York City-based Children’s Village, which recently implemented adaptive leadership into its staff.

In addition to utilizing adaptive leadership skills, experts say social workers should focus on taking advantage of other opportunities for growth.

Social Work Education Beyond The Classroom

Social workers should also look beyond the four walls of a classroom for educational opportunities that could translate into leadership skills. Proven leaders can help inspire vision, promote critical thinking, and foster effective communication. These connections can happen through the following avenues:

  • Professional mentors — Linking future leaders with a knowledgeable and respected social worker allows for professional development and growth, said Kyndyll Lackey, a youth employment program coordinator at the Nashville Career Advancement Center in Tennessee.
  • Leadership training – Educational institutions must look beyond field training for opportunities to develop social work leadership skills. Practical leadership training should be incorporated into classroom learning, said Kevin V. Lotz, the director and founder of Trinity Place Shelter for Homeless LGBTQ Youth in New York City.
  • Professional Organizations – Students should be encouraged to join professional social work organizations, such as NASW, prior to graduation to establish connections with leaders in the field, said Jenny E. Roberts Claxon, a program specialist for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Overall becoming a leader in social work means putting theory into practice in the real world. The best social work leaders utilize skills learned in the leading social work programs, including Case Western Reserve University’s online Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA, equivalent to an MSW).

About Case Western Reserve University’s Online MSSA Program

Case Western Reserve University’s online MSSA program prepares students for leadership roles in social work through the university’s prestigious Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences. The program incorporates online learning and field education in concentrations that include Community Practice for Social Change, Direct Practice (Children Youth and Families), and Direct Practice (Mental Health with Adults). The program is fully accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). U.S. News and World Report ranks the university’s MSSA program 9th in the nation.

Grace Coyle –
Macro Matters –
National Social Workers Association –
Frontline –
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