Social Work

The Change You Want To See: Becoming A Social Work Leader

The Change You Want To See: Becoming A Social Work Leader
Social work leaders must be compassionate and fearless, with top-notch problem-solving and leadership skills to make their mark in this discipline. Image from Unsplash
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland February 9, 2023

Social work leaders oversee organizations and work in advocacy roles to enforce and improve government and institutional policy. These advanced roles often require a master's in social work.

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Social work is a versatile profession that impacts various populations at the micro, mezzo, and macro intervention levels. At the micro and mezzo levels, social workers help individuals, groups, and communities navigate challenging situations and institutional barriers. Clinical social work provides one-on-one counseling, group therapy sessions, school social work, and other mental health services. Case workers connect clients to community resources and social services that include housing, food assistance, medical care, and education assistance.

Social workers have lots of direct interaction with clients at the micro and mezzo levels, but they may not be as effective as they would like in leading institutional improvements and policy changes. For those seeking this broader impact, transitioning into a leadership career path in social work can be a perfect fit. Macro level social work leadership affects large populations. For example, social work leaders advocate for vulnerable or underrepresented populations, fighting for social justice and equitable resources at the government and institutional levels. They also heighten awareness and shape policies to address other inequalities.

Social work leaders must be compassionate and fearless, with top-notch problem-solving and leadership skills to make their mark in this discipline. Are you ready to take on a role in leadership in social work? This article examines the skills and qualifications you’ll need and discusses the types of work you’ll do. It covers the following:

  • Why does social work need leaders?
  • Social work leadership skills
  • Social work leadership roles
  • Social work leadership qualifications
  • Is a leadership role in social work right for me?

Why does social work need leaders?

All organizations need strong leaders; social work institutions are no exception. Social work practice provides essential services to highly vulnerable populations. School social workers, case managers, licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), substance abuse and mental health counselors all work with clients to redress social injustices and offset challenges. These types of social workers commonly practice at the micro level, establishing a one-on-one relationship with their clients.

Social work leaders at the macro level typically don’t work directly with clients. Some manage the institutions that enable micro level social workers to deliver services to clients. Others engage in advocacy to lead change at the institutional level. Their impact is great because their work can affect so many people.

An article in Social Work Today describes four performance standards for social work leaders:

  • Be future-focused and look beyond the moment
  • Set realistic benchmarks to reach desired outcomes
  • Be a leader who is assertive but also works collaboratively
  • Build upon the strengths and weaknesses of your team


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Social work leadership sklls

Social work leaders need a combination of fundamental and transformational leadership skills. Fundamental skills enable leaders in management roles to keep systems running smoothly and effectively. They include procedural competencies focused on project management, personnel supervision, and other technical skills. Transformational skills allow leaders to drive change. These skills include compassion, self-awareness, persuasiveness, insight, and collaboration. A blend of the two skill sets can contribute to effective leadership. Here are just a few skills aspiring social work leaders should have in their toolbelt:

  • Knowledge of human behavior: Utilizing social work theories such as psychosocial theory and psychodynamic theory
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving: Using your best judgment drawing from ethics, logic, and reasoning
  • Collaboration and teamwork: Leading from within and fostering an environment that welcomes innovation and diverse thinking
  • Empowerment of staff: Motivating and helping others excel in their careers by delegating responsibilities or providing continuing education opportunities that contribute to confidence and professional development
  • Organizational skills: Juggling multiple tasks at once, both work-related and staff management-related
  • Managing change: Being open to change by adapting and remaining flexible

In addition, there are nine core competencies for macro social work, including:

  • Advancing human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice
  • Engaging in practice-informed research and research-informed practice
  • Engaging in policy practice

All are essential for social work leaders.

Social work leadership roles

Not all social workers desire a career in clinical practice social work. If you’re seeking a well-paying behind-the-scenes role that has a systemic impact, the following leadership roles may be of interest:

  • Social work administrator: Social work administrators can work in various sectors, including government agencies, nonprofit organizations, healthcare agencies, hospitals, and mental health facilities. These administrators apply forward-looking approach to helping populations at the system level and handle functions related to budgeting. They identify areas that lack support and design policies that will aid people in the future.
  • Social work public policy: Social workers in public policy advocate and shape programs for vulnerable, underrepresented, and underserved groups. They work to improve laws and regulations to enhance behavioral health resources, develop affordable housing and fight rent increases, and speak out against laws that disenfranchise an already marginalized population. This role blends macro- and mezzo-level social work by engaging with communities to gauge their needs and then bring awareness to those issues and shape policies on their behalf.
  • Social and community service manager: Social and community service managers work on behalf of various demographics ranging from children, the homeless, veterans, and the elderly. Their responsibilities include working with community members and other stakeholders to identify programs and social services, analyzing data to determine the effectiveness of these programs, and making adjustments as needed. They also plan and manage outreach activities and write proposals to increase funding for social services.
  • Social work planner: While many social workers at the micro level deliver services or direct people to services, social work planners are the leaders and administrators behind the scenes who design or redesign those social services programs. In addition, they explore ways to meet the needs of more communities or populations through existing programs and lobby for policies to keep these programs from dissolving.
  • Public health or disaster relief social worker: Social and public health work hand-in-hand; there’s no better evidence of this blended discipline than the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health social workers function across all intervention levels. However, at the macro level, some of their duties include advocating for equitable health policies and bringing awareness to healthcare disparities. They also help communities rebuild through city resilience planning and disaster relief efforts.

Social work leadership qualifications

Social work leadership roles require high-level credentials and deep professional experience, especially at the administrative and management levels.


Social worker roles at the macro practice level often require or strongly prefer that candidates hold a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited program. This distinction demonstrates advanced education and competencies to perform at a high level. An MSW is a graduate degree that combines classroom instruction and field education. MSW programs traditionally take two years of full-time study to complete. Candidates who hold a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) typically qualify for advanced standing, reducing the amount of time required to earn the degree to one year. Some MSW programs offer flexible part-time, full-time, online, and on-campus options to accommodate working professionals.

MSW programs offer electives through which you can develop leadership skills focused on community organization, policy advocacy, social justice, and other specialties. In addition, some programs offer dual degrees. Alternatively, you can pair your MSW with a certificate, like the Certificate in Nonprofit Management offered at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Suppose you’re looking for even more opportunities to gain certifications or credentials to showcase your commitment to lifelong learning in the social work practice. In that case, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Speciality Certification program offers several options to advance your knowledge and help fine-tune your leadership skills.


Although there is the saying that some people are “natural-born leaders,” becoming an effective social work leader requires on-the-ground experience as a social worker and managerial expertise to supervise and mentor others. In addition, with increased caseloads that contribute to burnout and attrition, social work leaders with firsthand knowledge at the micro or mezzo-level social have an advantage. When dealing with an overwhelmed team member, such leaders can pull from relatable experiences and incorporate valuable leadership skills. The result of that approach may help reduce staff turnover and improve staff well-being.

You can build or enhance your social work experience through the field education requirement within MSW programs. Fieldwork takes the instructional component from the program and applies it in real time through a hands-on, supervised experience. Also, these fieldwork opportunities help students find their niche in the many specialties within the social work practice to help determine the direction of their work.

Is a leadership role in social work right for me?

Plain and simple, a career as a social work leader isn’t for everyone. It takes compassion, critical thinking, active listening, effective leadership chops, and much more to handle the day-to-day functions of this profession. In addition, macro-level social work leaders carry a heavy load since they impact large populations by engaging in activism, public policy, and advocacy to drive social change on their behalf.

Nevertheless, if you thrive in a fast-paced, rewarding environment with its fair share of challenges, yet you’re willing to put in the time to gain the essential education and experience to excel, a leadership role in social work may be the perfect match.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: Social WorkSocial Work & Counseling & Psychology