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Social Work Skills that Underpin Effective Leadership
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Social Work Skills That Underpin Effective Leadership

Nancy Wackstein, MSW; Executive Director, United Neighborhood Houses of New York

April 2010


As I ponder the question I was asked to address by NASW—How has my social work training contributed to my ability to lead and manage nonprofit organizations?—I think first about the skills and traits I believe underpin effective leadership, whether in a nonprofit, governmental, or corporate setting. Most prominently, these include: active listening; respect; relationship-building with a variety of stakeholders; appreciation of difference and diversity; commitment and passion about organizational mission; integrity; consensus-building; perseverance; and advocacy.

This may be a surprising list to some. While most people rightly would associate these skills and attributes with social workers, I would guess they would be thinking about the skills needed to work directly with clients. I, however, believe this list applies equally to organizational leadership. Having been the Executive Director of two nonprofit organizations for the last l8 years, I completely understand that the ability to interpret a balance sheet, prepare a budget, and negotiate health insurance premiums and government contracts are key to running a modern nonprofit organization. But I would argue that credible and respected leaders must have more than managerial skills and knowledge. They must embody values and ethics as well, and it is in this area that social work education excels. Far more than in most professional schools, social work stresses not only the importance of achieving results, but how those results are achieved. As I think we’ve learned from the most recent reports about the financial service industry’s role in creating the current economic downturn, approaching the work through an ethical lens does matter.

Leading organizations means leading people, whether it is your staff, your Board of Directors, or in my case at United Neighborhood Houses, groups of stakeholders at 38 different organizations. Modeling ethical behavior, treating employees with respect and fairness, making decisions through consensual rather than authoritarian mean these approaches reflect both good management and important statements about values. For example, one of the most challenging experiences in speaking so that others will listen and in leading so others will follow is when there is a difference in class, education, and status. Indeed, most organizations and companies are comprised of people from hugely different backgrounds, more so perhaps, in New York City than anywhere else in the world. Respect for difference is one of the key values I was taught in social work school and I would argue that the ability to translate that value in the workplace contributes directly to leadership effectiveness.

I emphatically believe it is possible to be both an ethical leader and a good manager. In fact, I think the best leaders bring a sense of morality and integrity to the job. Whether you like it or not, when you are leading an organization you become a role model. People notice what you do and how you do it. Much discussed in social work schools is the “use of self” when interacting with clients. In much the same way, a leader must apply that sensibility in the organizational context.

Barnes & Noble has endless shelves filled with books on effective leadership, usually focused on the corporate world. As far as I can tell, the common theme that seems to distinguish successful leaders is the ability to understand and motivate their people. Isn’t that pretty much what every effective social worker does?

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