Three Key Leadership Skills Emerging in the Social Work Sector

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master of Social Work |

Social workers often end up in leadership roles. Whether they are in charge of a support group, managing a community organization, or guiding an advocacy team, social workers rely heavily on their ability to communicate and motivate others. For that reason, a master of social work degree can play an instrumental part in preparing social workers for various types of leadership positions, as curriculum will typically feature a blend of broad training focused on clinical expertise, specialized concentrations for specific types of care, as well as leadership training. If you’re considering an online social work master’s degree, leadership training will likely be part of the program.

With this expectation in mind, here are three emerging leadership skill types that are gaining momentum across the social work sector.

Transformational leadership

Change is a frequent process in the social work field. Whether individuals are helping a group go through a period of personal changes or responding to societal shifts that are impacting a community, social workers frequently deal with issues surrounding change. Transformation leadership is a leadership practice focused on guiding followers through a period of change through a combination of vision casting and collaboration followed by an eventual period of implementation. According to a newsletter from the National Association of Social Workers, transformation leaders are increasingly necessary in the social work sector.

The newsletter goes on to detail some of the key tasks a transformative leader will take on, including:

  • Empowering team members: Transformative leadership is built around the idea of working with followers to drive change, not simply demanding new methodologies and expecting people to follow. Because of this core value, a transformative leader must be able to encourage team members to think independently to solve problems, motivate individuals to participate in creative thinking, and establish work environments where employees are willing to change the status quo
  • Investing in individuals: The change process is often a challenging and stressful time, and transformative leaders need to not only challenge teams, but also to nurture them. This often means taking a personal interest in colleagues to better connect with them and inspire their best work
  • Making difficult decisions: Transformation is a disruptive and challenging prospect, and the leaders who make it happen are rarely going to make everybody happy, even if the results of an initiative are good
  • Managing personal needs: A transformative leader often ends up under a microscope, and must be secure enough not to take criticism as a personal attack. Furthermore, it is vital for one to take care of oneself to avoid burnout

These key activities of a transformative leader may sound daunting, and they should. The NASW report explained that change is almost universally difficult because many people are change-resistant by nature. To be successful as a transformative leader, individuals must be extremely intentional about establishing an attractive vision within the organization and provide a confident, decisive and optimistic perspective throughout the change process. Social workers are often equipped for many of these needs because of their training in interpersonal skills, and social workers that want to lead in a period of societal uncertainty must further embrace these core skills in order to find success.

Within this conversation on transformational leadership, there is an undercurrent stirring around a traditional leadership skill—communication. A report from The Balance highlighted top skills emerging in the social work industry, and four of the top five had to do with communication.


Social workers need a wide range of skills to navigate their complex work environments, but many of the activities that dominate the sector focus on interpersonal interactions. This makes being able to communicate vital, and The Balance identified four communication skills as particularly in-demand within the social work sector.

  • Active listening: Listening is a key form of communication, as a good listener can make a speaker feel valued and cared for. The Balance pointed out that an active listener will combine both body language and appropriate responses, such as clarifying questions, within a conversation. These actions show that the listener is paying attention to the speaker and is a key part of establishing trust.
  • Written communication: Communicating via digital means, such as email, often requires clear and careful communication. Furthermore, social workers face a significant burden of recordkeeping, and must maintain notes, reports and similar forms of documentation to stay connected with other members of a care team. Recordkeeping also establishes audit trails that are particularly important should litigation arise within a case.
  • Boundary setting: The ability to clearly communicate the boundaries within a relationship is essential to the success of a social worker. Neglecting to set and communicate clear boundaries can make it difficult to prioritize tasks and may lead to burnout.
  • Verbal communication: Situational awareness is critical, as strong verbal communicators will begin by actively listening and adding to the conversation in a way that is fitting and natural for each particular setting. Being able to make strong connections in conversations is critical for any social worker.

These communications skills particularly stand out in leadership settings, as a good leader must not only be able to manage a team effectively, but understand the nuances of the work being completed by those being led. For example, an individual leading an advocacy group must be a good active listener to understand the needs of those in the group being advocated for. Furthermore, the leader must be effective at written communication to create informational materials and work with diverse stakeholders over email, social media and similar channels. From there, verbal communication is key in not only engaging with the community, but connecting with the teams that will be enacting advocacy strategies on a day-to-day basis.

Leadership hinges on communication, and in an industry that is facing rapid change and transformation, leaders can’t afford to have their messages be misconstrued.

General business and administrative skills

Social workers typically operate within a larger social services organizational setting where they are asked to interact with patients, lead small groups and engage with the community in diverse ways. In many cases, however, the leaders managing those interactions are not social workers. Research published in Advances in Social Work explained that social workers often struggle to step into leadership roles in social services settings because a variety of industry situations limit their ability to climb the organizational ladder. Dedicated skills training and development is critical in surmounting the challenges.

According to the study, turnover rates are particularly high in the social work world, with employees moving between roles and organizations frequently because a combination of small budgets and intense pressure push people to leave their positions for a change of pace instead of sticking around within an organization. This limits social workers in gaining the seniority needed to move into management positions. Because of these pressures placed upon a social worker at the beginning of their careers, gaining the skills to move into a leadership position through an advanced social work program is critical. One of the big problems here, according to the report, is that many social work competencies make for natural leaders. Preparing social workers to get beyond burnout and develop into leadership roles is essential in the social services sector.

The report also pointed to a rift in the priorities of social workers and the leaders in social services agencies as a major barrier to social workers hoping to take on leadership positions. In many cases, managers, supervisors, and other leaders who do not have a social work background will not have the expertise to evaluate nuanced care situations that social workers provide, and will prioritize processes and activities that are counter to what is best for patient care as a result. It is also fairly common to have ethical issues emerge between social workers and leaders because of the differing priorities of a lack of understanding among leadership when it comes to identifying what is appropriate for social workers.

These issues highlight a key opportunity for skills development for social workers. While the report’s claims may sound severe, they are merely observations, not accusations against social service leaders. In many cases, the divide that is present may be more about how business leaders discuss and prioritize issues relative to the language and thought processes that social workers bring to their everyday activities. Social workers who gain a greater understanding of the business side of the social services field and become expert administrators can potentially position themselves to bridge the gap between themselves and leadership roles. In this situation, the individual would have the core social work skills needed to understand the nuances of patient interactions and the business leadership competencies necessary to guide the social services organization in the right directions.

Gaining the leaderships skills needed for success

A need for innovation in how social workers are educated was highlighted frequently by the study published in Advances in Social Work. Leading social work programs are incorporating communication, leadership and similar skills into their curriculum in order to keep up with industry demands.

Leadership can be taught. An MSW degree gives learners an opportunity to engage in the kinds of discussions and learning opportunities that help them explore what makes a great leader and how their personalities can align with those attributes. With transformational leadership, communication and general administrative skills becoming so important in the social work sector, individuals seeking an MSW have an opportunity to enrich their careers. Demand for social workers is growing around the United States, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting that the number of jobs available in the industry will increase by 12 percent for the 2014 through 2024 period. That figure represents a faster than average job growth pace, and the demand for social workers creates an environment in which leadership skills could prove critical.

Recommended Readings:

Three Reasons to Pursue your MSW
Seven Traits of an Exceptional Social Worker