By Simon Haworth, Professor Robin Miller and Dr Jason Schaub
School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham
We often hear of social work’s mistakes, crises and failings. It is therefore easy to forget its strengths and examples of good, even great, practice. Leadership, or certainly lack of it, can be at the heart of the crises, but effective leadership can also be at the heart of high quality, compassionate and innovative practice. This is why we are researching leadership and developing tailored social work leadership programmes at the University of Birmingham.
We contend that social work has historically not sufficiently embraced leadership. This is reflected in a lack of a developed evidence base, disinclination from practitioners to embrace leadership in their roles and positions, and the absence of leadership as a topic in social work academic programmes. These issues can then be amplified by other elements of social work practice, such as the lack of opportunities for professional advancement without shifting to management roles and difficulties in using practice expertise to improve standards. There are, however, examples of positive leadership and innovative practice, including the Principal Social Worker role and Practice Leaders Development Programme.
In other sections, such as health and education, leadership has become more established in other sectors, but we suggest that the social work profession would be improved by using elements of this related knowledge. For example, we can learn that developing effective leadership at all levels takes a combination of time, investment and clear pathways for leadership throughout practitioners’ careers. Further, to improve practice standards, it is critical to value and nurture leadership based on professional skills, knowledge and expertise. Social work is able to add to leadership knowledge that leadership can and should be a co-produced activity with people and communities, and good leadership is based on clear values and principles of collaboration.
We have developed a working definition of social work leadership that embraces these elements:
‘Social work leadership: the use of professional credibility, competence and connections to positively influence others in response to the interests and aspirations of people and families. Achieved through coproduction with communities, collaboration with other professionals, and constructive conflict of injustice and inequality, it can be demonstrated through formal roles and informal encouragement of colleagues.’
Our leadership project at the University of Birmingham has a number of interlinked strands; research, teaching and scholarship, and conceptual and theory work. Our research will inform the ways leadership is thought about and put into practice, but we are also developing CPD and qualification programmes specifically aimed at nurturing social work leadership at all levels from pre-qualifying onwards.
We argue that leadership has a vital role in the future of social work in all settings through strengthening professional practice and shaping the cultures of its teams and services. Social work leadership must therefore be embraced by the profession, by its organisations, by its regulators and by its academics. A consistent definition, models of practice, and development opportunities throughout professional careers are building blocks for success.
As part of the work to improve leadership knowledge in the social work profession we are hosting an interactive leadership event in central Birmingham on World Social Work Day, 17th March 2020. This event is titled ‘Social Work Leadership – New Decade, New Agenda’. Presenters will include both of the Chief Social Workers (Children and Families and Adults) as well as the Chief Executive of the British Association of Social Workers.
Please find further information about the event here: UoB World Social Work Day Event 17.3.20.
Through our events, research and discussions with a range of leaders, practitioners and academics, we have discovered a consensus that the need is pressing and the time is right to develop confident, effective and evidence-based leadership at all levels to sustain and promote our profession into its future. So join our journey, come along to our World Social Work Day event or make contact with us through the channels below: