Why do Social Workers make outstanding leaders?

Upon completion of my midterm supervision meeting a few weeks ago, I have been thinking about the skills that all social workers have, that make us great leaders. I have reflected on the skill set that social workers are trained to have and it is clear that they would enhance your ability to be an effective leader.

As I reflect on this aspect of leadership, I am still trying to define what my role as a leader looks like, and what theory best reflects my style of leadership. As I am very early in my career, I feel I am still struggling to own the label – “leader”, and I am still deciding what it will take for me to be comfortable with this label.

Below are five skills that social workers all obtain throughout their education and experience and they are also all essential for effective leadership.

  • Active Listening

I think active listening is one of the first skills you are taught when you enter into social work education. This is instructed through mock interviews and counselling sessions and you are often given feedback on your hands on skills when interacting with others. The skill of active listening is essential as a leader when working with your staff, other leaders in the community, and other key players involved in your organization. With active listening, a leader will leave those they work with feeling heard and valued using skills such as paraphrasing.

  • Setting Boundaries

Due to the nature of social work, setting boundaries is a critical skill that is taught early in social work education. Social workers are taught to set firm boundaries, and are given guidelines for working through ethical dilemmas. These skills are directly transferable to the work that you will do with those that you lead – whether it is staff, or others in the community. Boundaries will be essential for maintaining positive workplace relationships.

  • Self-Awareness

Social workers are encouraged to strive to develop further understanding of their use of self, and how this impacts the work they do with individuals, families, communities and coworkers. I think self-awareness goes hand in hand with self-care and reflection. When working on a micro level in social work, it is easy to gain reflection through regular supervision, journaling, debriefing, and other activities. However, in leadership, I have found that it takes more planning and it is important to find a method that works for you to develop self-awareness. For me, starting this blog has been a very effective method for me to develop further self-awareness, to critically reflect, and to integrate learnings to practice. All of which, should improve my work as a leader.

  • Advocacy

Just as social workers are trained to advocate for their clients and to help support them to advocate for themselves, they would also have the ability to use this skill with their staff and others that they lead. Social workers that are skilled in advocacy can encourage their staff to be advocates for themselves and become an advocate for them when necessary.  Knowing that your supervisor or manager is “in your corner” creates a positive and safe workplace – which can promote creativity and innovation.

  • Critical Thinking

I am not entirely sure that critical thinking is something that can be “taught”, but it is certainly discussed in social work education. Social workers are faced with challenging situations on a daily basis and are required to thinking critically and make rational decisions. As leaders, social workers will have the critical thinking skills to make challenging program, or organizational decisions.


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