Deborah J. Sanderlin-Nykamp, PhD, LMSW, ACSW

An exploratory study of executive leadership in social work

The major goal of this exploratory project is to examine the process of leadership development in master’s-degreed social workers who are currently leading nonprofit human service agencies. How did they learn to lead, and what were the stages in their journey to become the CEO of an agency? These questions have resulted in an exploratory qualitative research project, relying on open-ended personal interviews to collect the information. Eighteen MSWs currently employed as chief executive officers of nonprofits within the state of Michigan were selected for the interviewing process and their personal stories were documented, highlighting the ways in which these leaders learned and developed their leadership skills.

My basic premises are that leadership skills can be acquired and that they are measureable, learnable, and teachable. The major findings for this project indicate that leadership development evolves over a lifetime, often starting in childhood. Analysis of the data showed that each one related childhood and young adulthood experiences that seemed to be significant and together set the stage for leadership development.

Mentors, religion, ethics, politics, and family are all important variables that have helped to form the leadership abilities of these subjects. Early leadership development seems to have included mentoring support as well as ongoing training through supervision and clinical work. Based on their reports, ethics remain important and continue to develop throughout this period. Frequently the subjects’ actual MSW training, which they described as valuable, occurred during this time frame. The subjects also seem to have developed a personal drive to lead during this critical period. All of these factors have combined to effect the maturing of their leadership.

A style of leadership seems to emerge as skills continue to develop and mentoring merges with peer networking to form a support system that is both developed and sought out by the leader. Many consider themselves lifelong learners and report their role has become more comfortable and natural over time. They also report having developed the abilities to multitask, fundraise, utilize ethics in decision making, and develop and support staff to reinforce agency mission through mentoring and coaching.

Indeed, the reports of these subjects seem to exemplify that leadership develops over a lifetime. By carefully recording and analyzing these personal histories, I have garnered information that may inform the field of social work on educational concepts and methods of teaching and developing leadership potential in future social work students.