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:
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:
There are a couple of significant practical considerations:
- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification
Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:
- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. ( )
A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. ( )
- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees
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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:
In addition, there are nine core competencies for macro social work, including:
All are essential for social work leaders.
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 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.
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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