In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Work Leadership

  • Introduction
  • Overarching Approaches to Theory and Leadership Practice
  • Case Studies and Stories of Leadership
  • Leadership, Emotional Intelligence, and Mindfulness
  • Leadership Development and Change Leadership

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Social Work Social Work Leadership
Jennifer Magnabosco
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0269


Since the turn of the 21st century, leadership as a topic of empirical research and debate has gained momentum in the human services and in multiple non-human service fields. While attention to leadership in social work has increased, a robust evidence base that specifically supports the achievement of effective leadership in social work is still developing. Consequently, like many fields, social work continues to rely on mainstream leadership theories, research, and strategies to help advance the study, development, execution, and evaluation of leadership across its areas of practice and settings. As such, this review includes a combination of cross-disciplinary resources on leadership and those that have a specific focus on social work and leadership. Social work professionals at any level can draw upon these resources to enhance leadership development, improve leadership effectiveness, conduct research and evaluation on leadership, and better link the practice of leadership to an array of outcomes that effect clients, providers, management, organizations, communities, policies, advocacy, and professional development.

Overarching Approaches to Theory and Leadership Practice

In this section readers will find some of the most widely used resources that describe the array of leadership theories and practices used in any field, including the human services and social work. Northouse 2016 provides the most complete discussion of theories, practices, characteristics, and competencies of leadership in one text. The Harvard Business Review 2011 and Kelly 2014 complement this collection by highlighting timely issues relevant to the conceptualization, development, and execution of leadership. Packard and Beinecke 2011, Rath and Conchie 2008, Lencioni 2005, and Lencioni 2002 provide additional expert information on leading effective organizations and teams, respectively—leading outcomes-driven organizational cultures, identifying and using leadership strengths for individual and team success, and leading the diagnosis and resolution of team dysfunctions. While the main focus is on leadership here, discussion of its relationship to management and strategic planning is covered by Brody and Nair 2014; Bryson 2011; and Bryson, et al. 2011.

  • Brody, Ralph, and Murali Nair. 2014. Effectively managing and leading human service organizations. 4th ed. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    One of the few comprehensive texts on managing and leading human services organizations, this source provides an integrated approach for human service professionals to become more knowledgeable about the types of skills and styles that are associated with being an effective manager and leader. Throughout the text, special emphasis is placed on “humanizing” management and leadership, a major theme tied to achieving organizational effectiveness and success.

  • Bryson, John M. 2011. Strategic planning for public and nonprofit organizations: A guide to strengthening and sustaining organizational achievement. 4th ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    This updated text is the most comprehensive on strategic planning for public and nonprofit organizations. It includes thorough content on strategic planning dynamics, twelve steps involved in the strategic planning process (including leadership), techniques (e.g., “action-oriented strategy mapping”), resources and case examples to enhance specificity and value at any stage. This timeless reference can be used for short-term and/or longer-term strategic planning endeavors.

  • Bryson, John M., Sharon R. Anderson, and Farnum K. Alston. 2011. Implementing and sustaining your strategic plan: A workbook for public and nonprofit organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    This workbook was designed to be used with Bryson’s fourth edition of his Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations text. Over fifty worksheets help users successfully master the twelve-step strategic planning process. The workbook is a useful tool for internal and external staff, as well as consultants. Worksheets can be used to target specific aspects of the strategic-planning process or in total for a more comprehensive approach.

  • Harvard Business Review. 2011. On leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School.

    This source is a compilation of articles “on leadership” that are written by some of the most well respected and sought after experts in the field of leadership. Topics covered include the age-old question about what makes a leader, doing the “work” of leadership, dimensions of leadership that cannot be ignored (e.g., humility), and issues faced in the developmental process of both becoming a leader and striving to maintain effectiveness.

  • Kelly, Simon. 2014. Towards a negative ontology of leadership. Human Relations 67.8: 905–922.

    DOI: 10.1177/0018726713503177

    Challenges us to consider that typical ways we understand, perceive, and define leadership (i.e., our positive ontological perceptions) may be fostering untruths or only partial truths about how leadership is actually developed and executed. Kelly posits that leadership is an “empty signifier” because we often “treat” it as a “discrete object of analysis.” What may be more valid is a “negative ontological” perspective on leadership—what is “absent.”

  • Lencioni, Patrick. 2002. The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    In order for any team to be successful, leaders and team members are empowered to regularly attend to what Lencioni denotes as the “five dysfunctions of team” (p. 187), a pyramid model that includes “inattention of results, avoidance of accountability, lack of commitment, fear of conflict” (p. 189), and “absence of trust” (p. 188). A team assessment tool is included to determine types and degree of dysfunctions, as well as suggestions for overcoming “dysfunctions” to maximize team leadership and outcomes.

  • Lencioni, Patrick. 2005. Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    This field guide workbook has been designed to be used in conjunction with the Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable text. The tools and exercises outline steps for learning how to address the “five dysfunctions of a team” and in addition, how to create a “team-building road map” during a twenty-six-week process.

  • Northouse, Peter. 2016. Leadership: Theory and practice. 7th ed. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    This updated text provides a comprehensive description of fifteen theories of leadership, real- life examples, case studies, and self-administered questionnaires for each leadership theory. New information in this seventh edition includes updated research and other information for each leadership theory, new case studies, and additional chapters on gender and leadership, as well as culture and leadership. Access to complementary coursework and an interactive eBook is also offered.

  • Packard, Thomas, and Richard H. Beinecke. 2011. Leadership in the human services: Models for outcomes-driven organizational cultures. In Outcomes measurement in the human services: Cross-cutting issues and methods in the era of health reform. 2d ed. Edited by Jennifer L. Magnabosco and Ronald W. Manderscheid, 89–112. Washington, DC: NASW Press.

    Discusses the relationship between leadership and organizational outcomes and why it is so important for leaders in the human services to create the organizational change necessary to build outcomes driven cultures. Main leadership theories, models, and skillsets that are pertinent for achieving this goal are discussed. The chapter underscores the importance of investing more into human service leaders’ development, especially in “change leaders.”

  • Rath, Tom, and Barry Conchie. 2008. Strengths based leadership: Great leaders, teams and why people follow. New York: Gallup Press.

    Strengths Based Leadership (SBL) is one of the most popular sources for learning and developing individual leadership strengths and how to use SBL assessments to lead and form teams that can “maximize” success. The four domains of SBL—executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking (and the thirty-four strength themes) are discussed. Book purchasers receive a personalized code to access the StrengthsFinder 2.0 self-administered assessment online and receive a report for strength building.

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