An Analysis of Leadership within the Social Work Profession

By Rank, Michael G.; Hutchison, William S. | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

An Analysis of Leadership within the Social Work Profession


Rank, Michael G., Hutchison, William S., Journal of Social Work Education


LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IS a core concern of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE's Strategic Plan for 1998-2000 addresses leadership in the Values statement: "CSWE believes in exerting vision and leadership to maintain the highest quality and consistency of social work education in accordance with the values and ethics of the profession" ("Council on Social Work Education Strategic Plan," 1998, p. 15). Reporting the results of a survey on attitudes and perceptions of leadership among social work leaders, the authors of this article hope to contribute to efforts by CSWE, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), and social work education programs to focus on leadership development. Responses to the survey contribute to the developing body of knowledge on social work leadership by providing insight on current conditions of the profession, as well as on what kind of professional leadership will be most effective in the new millennium.

Understanding leadership in the social work profession has become increasingly important as the profession itself has changed. Social, cultural, economic, political, and demographic factors are creating changes in human service delivery systems as the social work profession has become increasingly more diverse, more market driven, more research oriented, and more complex (Austin, 1997b; Cooke, Reid, & Edwards 1997; Ginsberg & Keys, 1995; Stoesz, 1997). Globalization, managed care, computerization, the Internet, welfare reform, privatization, diversity, and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor are just some of the macro forces currently affecting social work practice. Additionally, Allen-Meares and DeRoos (1997) state that American society views the social work profession with ambivalence, and the political environment is hostile toward the profession. Austin (1995) points out that "human services executives must balance competing definitions of effectiveness that lack explicit criteria for measurement" (p. 1653). Citing Edwards (1987) and Edwards & Austin (1991), Austin notes that "the human services executive operates under conditions of ambiguity and paradox and is faced with many different definitions of effectiveness" (p. 1653). Austin (1997a) also points to the leadership role that social workers in private practice have taken to establish licensing and credentialing through an "aggressive promotion of independent career options" that conflict with traditional social work education. Perlmutter and Adams (1994) conducted a survey of executives of Family Service Agencies and noted that their leadership is practiced in a hostile environment, described as "more market driven and less mission driven" (p. 445). Austin (1997b) perhaps best sums up the complicated context of the social work profession in the new millennium:

   These and other characteristics of the immediate future--continued increase
   in ethnic/cultural population diversity in the United States; the
   increasing number and longevity of older adults; increased diversity for
   family structures; increased polarization of public attitudes along both
   gender and ethnic lines; redefinition of the primary causes of chronic and
   severe mental illness as being biological rather than psychological; a
   two-tier labor force with limited crossover from unskilled and semiskilled
   nontechnical jobs to skilled, technical, managerial, and professional
   jobs--will make the second century of social work very different from the
   present, and very different from the social work beginnings 100 years ago.
   This very complicated future includes both challenges and opportunities for
   the profession and for professional education. (p. 402)

Cooke, Reid, and Edwards (1995) outline some very specific leadership skills that are expected of social work managers as they transition agencies into the next century. These include "managing environmental relationships, such as effective agency or program representation and positioning, networking, coalition building, negotiating hostile environments, and dealing with multiple customer and stakeholder groups" (p. …

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