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Developing Leadership in Social Work – Opinion piece by: Nick Berbiers

‘I don’t know what leadership is. You can’t touch it. You can’t feel it. It’s not tangible. But I do know this: you recognize it when you see it.’ So said US politician Bob Ehrlich, and I think he has it about right. Precisely what leadership – specifically good leadership – is – what the dynamics and mechanics of it actually are – has been challenging theoreticians and commentators for many a year.

Fortunately, some definitional assistance is afforded simply via the passage of time: history, as ever, grants us a perspective not available in the present. Who was a good leader seems considerably easier to identify than who is or who will be.

Retrospective analysis would suggest that successful leaders are possessed of a variety of traits. Vision, passion, focus, courage, commitment, drive, the ability to persuade, high level communication skills, boundless amounts of energy, excellent timing, and a signal capacity to chime with what matters to others, are all usually present and correct. However, just to confound would-be Schools of Leadership, one cannot deny that there may well be additional sprinklings of metaphysical magic in good leaders that they were either born with, or which developed by dint of life events, or which simply arrived upon them unbidden.

Deconstructing leadership is not a simple business!

Returning to the main title, we must now square up to the next layer of complexity: the ‘in social work’ aspect.

So what do we mean by ‘social work’?  Do we mean – via the broadest of definitions – people who essentially undertake a ‘helping’ role within society, or are we just talking about the professional activity of social work? Are we referring to that which requires and demands theoretical knowledge and a specified set of learnt and developed skills, or are there forms of social work which do not necessarily require those components? Is a nurse or a teacher or a local politician or a religious leader or a community volunteer also a social worker, or is only a social worker a social worker?

And where do social work clients and service users sit within the definition of ‘social work’? Are they a constituent part of social work? Are they recipients or are they partners? Is social work an activity that does to or with? Or is it a mixture of both depending upon the setting?

Deconstructing social work is not simple either!

So who precisely is the leadership of social work? There too, more questions.

Is social work leadership political? Is it Secretary of State (various departments) or even Prime Ministerial level? Is it a local government elected lead member level?

Or is it the directorate level represented by organisations like the ADCS and ADASS in England, and other country equivalents thereof.

Is it the senior executive of third sector organisations? Or is it the spokespeople of representational organisations like BASW and the College of Social Work?

Is it academics?

Is it students?

Is it user led organisations?

Is it developmental organisations like CWDC or SWRB?

Will it be the Chief Social Worker (for England)?

Is it individual practitioners, managers, partners, or service users from (or receiving services from) the statutory, independent or third sectors who have an issue that motivates them and have decided to lead: sometimes localised, sometimes on a big canvas?

Is social work leadership actually and/or potentially in all those locations – and all the ones I have forgotten to mention?

It will not be at all surprising if questions of that sort arise in the next SWSCmedia live social work Twitter debate, ‘Developing Leadership in Social Work’.

What struck me from the inaugural Twitter debate on social workers’ roles and responsibilities was a sense that participants were voicing the concern that social work is a profession whose role and values have become far more diffuse than they would wish. It is solely my interpretation, but a sense came through to me that the direction of travel for social work has became somewhat unclear, and that participants were not particularly happy about that.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that social work leadership is spread between many people and locations. And perhaps that is inevitable. Perhaps that speaks to the very nature of something as multi-faceted as ‘social work’. But the downside may well be that creates the very diffuseness – the very multiple directions of travel – that concerned debaters. If I am right in that summation, one of the big challenges for social work leaders will be how to take all those stakeholder threads and weave a pattern that says something clear and meaningful about our future role as social workers.

I do not know who the future leaders of social work will be, but perhaps they will present at the next Twitter debate. The future is an undiscovered country. It could well be you.

Nick Berbiers (@NickBerbiers) is a Social Care Interim Manager and Consultant at Neist Point Limited.

Also read Nick Berbiers’ great article in Community Care: Which debate tells us more about social work today; NCAS of Twitter?




4 thoughts on “Developing Leadership in Social Work – Opinion piece by: Nick Berbiers

  1. Good piece. It’s got me thinking – indeed, it inspired me to write a post about it myself. I think that there are a lot of ‘self-defined’ leaders who seem to have moved away from practice too far. Whatever it is that makes a leader, it certainly isn’t just calling yourself a leader!

    Posted by ermintrude2 | October 31, 2011, 6:39 am
  2. Thank you, and good point Ermintrude2. Historically, self-proclamation does seem not a very a succesful route to good leadership – though a few bad leaders have certainly tried it! Leadership tends more to be conferred I think, sometimes electively, sometimes through support/accclaim.

    The other issue you raise about the ‘closeness’ of the leader to the subject is really interesting. For instance, the hope that the Chief Social Worker will be able to stay in-touch with practice, as not be so strategic they are distanced form real world day to day social work issues.

    Posted by Nick Berbiers | October 31, 2011, 12:18 pm


  1. Pingback: Developing Leadership in Social Work and Social Care « Social Work/Social Care & Media - October 30, 2011

  2. Pingback: Developing Leadership in Social Work and Social Care – Opinion piece by Ermitrude2 « Social Work/Social Care & Media - October 31, 2011

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