Learning Leadership from Social Work

By Nancy Koury King, DM

Much of what I learned about leadership, I learned from an unexpected source-- Social Work. It's true. The principles of Social Work provide outstanding guidance for leaders of all types and backgrounds. It's been quite a while since I graduated from the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, but these principles have stayed with me. Since March is Social Work Month, I thought I would share just a few of them.

  • Start where the client is.
  • Always offer unconditional positive regard.
  • Embrace diversity and inclusion.
  • Respect self determination of others.
  • Model appropriate behavior.

Start Where the Client Is

Every social worker knows this, but it applies to leaders as well. The concept means that in order to work effectively with others, we must understand their perspective, priorities, dreams, fears and needs. This includes observing what they do, not just what they say. It also means withholding conclusions, judgement and and input until the other person's view is understood. That is no easy feat! But, when leaders are able to view things through the other's perspective, empathy can develop. It becomes easier to link goals and performance expectations to the individual's own personal goals. And let's face it, people are more receptive to listening to us if we show them the respect of listening to and understanding them.

Always show unconditional positive regard.

As a social worker, demonstrating unconditional positive regard for others is an expectation. As leaders, we too must exhibit unconditional positive regard for others, and show we honor the intrinsic value of people as people, and not based on what they do or do not produce on the job. This can be challenging, especially when being stressed by pressure or conflict. But maintaining a calm presence in these situations will show your team that you will not lash out or lose your professional presence. This will go a long way to making things "safe" for communication.

Embrace Diversity and Inclusion

This is a well established principle of the profession of social work and it is good to see that businesses, universities, nonprofit organizations are becoming intentional about being culturally competent and welcoming. Leaders who promote diversity and inclusion simultaneously promote new ideas, connections, and ways of doing things.

Respect the Self -Determination of Others

The right to individual self determination is a core principle of social work. That mean simply that people choose their own paths. The reality is that people generally do what they want even if it may not be in their best interest. Social workers re-tell this old riddle. "How many social workers does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change."

While people have the right to make their own decisions, it comes with the responsibility for being accountable for the consequences of their decisions. That's a big part of our roles as leaders. Leaders cannot "fix" people. Period. Hard stop. That said, leaders will get the best results for their organization when they recognize the importance of self determination and set the expectation of self responsibility.

Model Appropriate Behavior

This principle is an expectation of the social work, but it is an important principle for leaders as well. In fact the leadership literature is full of phrases that promote modeling appropriate behavior such as "Lead by example," "Walk the talk," and "Behavior is caught not taught." One reason is because a leader is on display. His or her actions are visible. Leaders are under far more scrutiny than others in the organization. Employees are evaluating their sincerity, integrity and competence by what they see and hear. They are also learning what behaviors are valued and expected by watching their leaders. This visibility can be an important tool for communicating the culture, norms and expectations of the organization.

But it doesn't mean that leaders have to be perfect. No one complete lives up to his or her ideals. These occasions present an opportunity as well. Apologizing for a misstep or less than elegant comment shows humility and humanity. It also shows others around you that it is "okay" to be candid about their mistakes as well.

Leadership is a journey. I hope some of these tips help you on yours.


Nancy Koury King, DM