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Social Work Leadership - Extraordinary and Within All of Us
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Social Work Leadership – Extraordinary and Within All of Us
Message From The President

Rose Starr

February/March 2008


This issue of Currents provides highlights of the Chapter’s first event celebrating Emerging Social Work Leaders and presents to you, our members, the eight honorees selected to receive this professional recognition. I hope that in reading their bios and considering their accomplishments as relative “youngsters” in years, if not in years of service or level of responsibility, you will be heartened as I was by the exquisite endeavors and personal qualities these leaders exhibit.

As you know, we have reason to be concerned about an acute leadership crisis resulting from the avalanche of “baby boomer” retirements expected over the next decade. In this regard, these honorees should provide some reassurance that our profession has the capacity to compete for and win the executive leadership positions of the future and thus retain social work’s crucial role in providing human service organizations with competent direction while infusing humanistic values. We hope that this event and their selection also heighten awareness of the ongoing problem of leadership succession across our field and the need to plan now to identify and support emerging leaders in every service sector.

I am proud that NASW-NYC, with the strong support and leadership of our Board of Directors, has engaged the issue of executive leadership and plans to annualize the selection of leaders as we encourage everyone’s commitment to invest in the future of our unique professional community. Clearly, the issue of leadership is one that resonates with our members and the field at large. The event was “sold out,” confirming our belief that the leadership building enterprise is one that all social workers can enthusiastically support.
As we proceed to honor many more exemplary leaders of the future, let us challenge ourselves to broaden and deepen the effort. Specifically, let us consider explicitly incorporating leadership development into the education of all social work students and new professionals. Let us also seek resources to develop a strong base and nourishing environment for budding social workers from high school and college through graduate school, licensure and beyond. Perhaps most importantly, let us understand that leadership is not a quality reserved for the few, but can be part of every social worker’s DNA .

The Common Social Worker is not a Common Person

Discussing this column with our Executive Director, Bob Schachter, Bob said something quite memorable – “the common social worker is not a common person.” By this, I believe he meant that leadership should not be viewed as something that sets us apart, or that only a few can attain. 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. Facing complex ethical dilemmas, entrenched systems and bureaucracies as they stand up for others, social workers make life and death decisions with little drama and recognition. As the NASW-NYC Currents series on the contributions of social workers to clients’ survival across diverse services and populations attests (see our website, social workers often provide help and hope even when they have barely an office or desk of their own, may be covering more than their own position, or working in virtual professional isolation. Clearly, these unheralded qualities and expressions of leadership must be acknowledged and better supported with workplace enhancements if our professional community and the communities we serve are to survive and prosper.

Educating and Supporting Social Workers for Leadership

Building on this foundation of existing leadership, what I hope we can generate is the conscious commitment of professional schools and employing agencies to cultivate the leadership abilities of emerging professionals. As a community organization teacher for many years, I don’t recall emphasizing with students the development of their leadership potential. Rather, the focus was on their developing the leadership capacities of the individuals, groups or communities with whom they worked. In fact, in much of the literature and practice of community organizing, being the leader was not considered the organizer’s role. In that context, the client and community were the focus of the effort, not the professional. Thus, the exercise of leadership was viewed as potentially diminishing the clients’ decision-making role, or, conversely, overemphasizing the power of the worker in the helping relationship.

But, as we know, there are many contexts a social worker - clinical or community - must navigate that have impact on clients and services, such as agencies’ fiscal, resource, regulatory and policy environments, as well as the multiple disciplines, service sectors, communities and social needs within which agencies or organizations function. The workplace and voluntary associations are important arenas for the teaching, learning and exercise of professional leadership for all social workers as well as for those aspiring to executive positions.

Strategies to Support Leadership Development

As the disincentives to professional practice, standards and values mount, increasing numbers of new or mid-career social workers may burn out and leave the profession, frustrated by their inability to help others or to influence their conditions of work.

To assure that we have leaders at all levels of the profession in the future, several strategies are essential in my view: 1) leadership development program for social work students integrated into practice or other courses that builds knowledge and skills for leadership in the human services, and connects social work leadership to clients’ survival and, by extension, their own as competent, ethical practitioners; 2) a workforce development program in which talented and socially-concerned young people are exposed to social work as a career in high school and college, and assisted with scholarships, mentoring and other enrichments to obtain professional education, degrees, licensure, and advancement; 3) a working conditions improvement program that assists agencies and organizations to improve the work environment and their commitment to social work retention and development. This is, at minimum, a three-legged stool for which some solid foundation and direction exist. The Latino social work development program, with a comprehensive agenda to recruit and retain Latino students for careers in social work, has a proven track record of accomplishment. Their example in engaging schools, agencies and leaders, providing mentoring, and obtaining scholarships and political support is ready-made for others to adapt or join.

I encourage all of us associated with voluntary and professional associations to actively reach out to involve young professionals. So doing can help strengthen our organizations and further build the leadership that the future of social work requires.


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