This qualitative study used in-depth interviews with 18 human services leaders to examine how they define the construct of leadership development within the context of social work practice. A stakeholder approach was utilized to identify non-profit executive directors, social service agency directors, and social work faculty administrators who had MSW level training. These social worker leaders reflected on life experiences, including challenges, discrimination, personal failures, supports, and perceived strengths. Each was able to affirm their identity as leaders through the transformative processes of education, reframing life experiences, and resolving ethical dilemmas. Misconceptions of leadership and problematic issues in social work leadership are noted.
There is a notable gap between calls for leadership within the social work profession and the absence of leadership in the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) competencies and practice behaviors. Analysis of the data revealed that social work leadership is a widely defined, gendered, and culturally dependent construct. Social workers tend to identify leaders in the historical sense, while remaining ambivalent in some cases about self-identifying as a leader. Leadership development may be seen as part of a process of social construction and transformation of oneself and, following, of one’s environment. Advocacy and action is needed to redefine social work education to include leadership theory and practice as essential components of social work curricula.
A framework for social work leadership development demonstrating the tensions of competing values is proposed by the study. This model is empirically grounded and integrates leadership values, skills, and competencies around four main areas: control, collaborate, compete, and create.