In his book Leadership in War, Andrew Roberts studied the strategies of great leaders including Churchill and Napoleon and shares the qualities and traits that made them great leaders.  Roberts learned that great leaders:

  • have stamina and do hard work
  • have commitment
  • have moral conviction
  • don’t always win, but always come back
  • can have the ability to speak from the soul
  • have foresight
  • can be created by stressful situations

These qualities found in great leaders, also apply to social workers. However, achievements in social work have been more of a collective effort than an individual one, but the same strategies have developed over time.

Decades ago the mention of a social worker, made people envision a woman in nursing shoes going door-to-door offering services to the poor. This image is based on the early roots of social work. In the late 1800s, a system emerged as a method for providing aid for social ills. As one of the most influential early professionals in social work, Jane Addams was founder of the U.S. Settlement House Movement. Settlement houses were established in poor urban areas for volunteer middle-class social workers to alleviate the poverty of their low-income neighbors. By 1913, there were 413 settlements in 32 states with the mission of improving the lives of the poor. The work done by Jane Addams and others required stamina and commitment.

The professionalization of social work began with casework. The American Association of Hospital Social Workers was established in 1918 to boost formal education opportunities in social work.

By 1955, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) was formed to promote professional development, advance social policies, enhance educational opportunities in the field, and maintain professional standards of practice. By the 1970s, state legislatures were beginning to recognize the profession of social work and this recognition gave rise to state licensing laws. In 1979, the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) was incorporated. By the1980s social work licensing laws had spread across the country! Social workers were demonstrating a moral and ethical conviction in their practice.

Today social workers continue to lead the way toward social justice by developing private and charitable organizations to serve individuals and communities in need. Challenges such as funding programs often exist, but through creativity, ingenuity, and collaborations, social workers repeatedly find ways to overcome roadblocks to service delivery. We don’t always win the fight, but we keep coming back! The efforts made to fight for our clients is our way of speaking from the soul. We call it advocacy.

The landscape of social work looks much different today than it did in the days of Jane Addams. Social workers are called upon to address the needs of the changing times. Issues such as abuse, addictions, poverty, mental wellness, inequities in school discipline, law enforcement, gender preferences and the impact of social media, reflect the rapid societal progression. This progression adds foresight to the list of social work leadership skills.

Social workers are emerging as leaders in special interests as the results of community needs and stressful situations. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina a Category 5 hurricane hit Florida and Louisiana, particularly the city of New Orleans, creating catastrophic damage and over 1,200 deaths. Social work agencies as far north as North Carolina were taking in displaced survivors. Social workers, particularly those specializing in trauma, assisted from various states.

Great social work practitioners exemplify the skills of great leaders of war. Our charge—meeting the demands of an ever-changing society—requires that of us!