Leadership in Social Work: Time for a rethink.

Davidson (2016) explores whether the culture of modern day palliative social care leaves room for leadership, considering the extent to which the profession embraces and enables leadership, the associated challenges and risks, and presents a call for Specialist Palliative Care Social Workers (SPCSWs) to actively engage with the concept and application of leadership in practice. Whilst focused on palliative care, the research raises important questions about perceived tensions between social work values and the conception of leadership; and in doing so offers relevant insights and reflections for the wider-profession. This blog reviews this research and argues that whilst adding to available literature, the necessity of radical, political leadership in the current social work climate is understated. Further, the blog will contend that not only is leadership a necessary component of the profession, but that leadership and social work values are indistinguishable and inseparable.


Davidson presents a key challenge facing palliative care (and by extension, the profession as a whole). How to provide high quality care to a growing population (where complexity is amplified in marginalised groups)? Several well evidenced assumptions are made, specifically that end of life care (EoLC) needs improving, efforts are being made to so, social work has an important role to play, and that there is a risk that SPCSWs may be excluded from this process. To explore the extent to which the culture of palliative care social work impacts on the opportunity for SPCSWs to serve as leaders, from the perspective of social workers, Davidson undertook a qualitative interpretivist study in which 6 identified leaders within the profession engaged in semi-structured reflective interviews. Responses were thematically analysed to provide a 4-dimensional framework (leadership, cultural, historical and political influences) for a literature review and discussion points. The findings and conclusions provide insight into the state of leadership in palliative care and highlight a number of issues represented across the profession:



Social work as a profession may be reticent to embrace leadership, with SWs being excluded (and self-excluding) from leadership roles – roles which are especially limited at macro level.


Social work values can create conflict. Person-centeredness and leadership are seen as incompatible, with an uncomfortableness with a systemic approach at the detriment of the individual – despite social work knowledge and skills being conducive to systemic approaches. A lack of leadership role models and development opportunities exacerbates this divide, which is further entrenched by residual statutory and organisational preference for the voice of the medical profession.


Perception that political activism is no longer central to social work, despite a rich history of research, lobbying and political activism shaping Social Policy.


Evidencing merit and worth of palliative care interventions and processes is challenging in a managerial environment which favours positivist outcome measurements and instruments. Positivist approach to evidence is a challenge to the broad movement away from medical model hegemony towards a more social model of death and dying.


Davidson concludes that a lack of presence at a strategic level creates risk to the profession, with the space likely to be filled by others – social work leadership is needed to avoid this.

lead pic


The research is not without its limitations – small sample size; findings open to interpretation; minimal reference to other sources of information; researcher bias implicit in Davidson’s ongoing role as a SPCSW and; a circularity to the argument (leadership is missing – respondents confirm assumption – therefore leadership is missing).


However, methodological contentions aside, the research offers a rich vein of exploration for social workers especially when considering the role values play in the identified leadership vacuum, and in catalysing reflection on the nature and professional conception of leadership. The tension identified, between person-centred approaches and systemic leadership are worthy of specific consideration, especially given the current economic and political climate in which the profession serves.

Leadership is an integral aspect of professional guidelines and expectations, but the research suggests a conception of leadership within the profession which conflicts with person-centred values of empowerment and enablement, in which the client is in charge and SWs are a tool to support self-determination and direction. Furthermore, that systemic approaches inhibit a practitioner’s ability to support the individual. Both conceptions are contentious and fail to recognise the mutually inclusive nature of leadership and social work values. Indeed, the political aspect of leadership – and a full recognition and acceptance of the inherently political nature of social work – are largely absent from contemporary constructions of leadership. But leadership is not directing people. Nor does managerial leadership equate to leadership (i.e. the predominant pursuit of organisational goals). Leadership is inherently relationship-based, focused on people, and considerate of both micro and macro level perceptions. Consider:


‘Leadership is and must be socially critical, it does not reside in an individual but in the relationship between individuals, and it is orientated towards social vision and change, not simply, or only, organisational goals.’ (Foster, 1989)


Replace ‘leadership’ with ‘social work’ and a workable definition of the profession, which reflects values and expectations can be found. This concurrence is furthered when we consider the radical traditions of active policy shaping which have cumulatively contributed towards the ongoing pursuit of social justice. Social workers have been leaders in changing government policy to defend human rights and to tackle oppression and discrimination. Ensuring that such statements can be made in the present tense is both explicit and implicit in our profession’s values. Given Davidson started the research from the challenge of providing high quality care in an increasingly complex environment, it can be said that the conclusions presented do not go far enough. Rather than an opportunity for SPCSWs to participate in strategic leadership, it is a duty of our profession to do so. Using our voice politically to lobby for changes to social policy, using our breadth and depth of knowledge and skills (both systemically and individually) has never been of more pressing concern. As the population of those needing palliative care continues to increase, and complexity of intersecting factors from gender to ethnicity to escalating incidents of poor mental health continue to multiple, social workers – across the profession – must take account of growing social inequalities and the impact of political decision making. If we can’t use our voice to be leaders now, what does the future hold? Rather than asking whether the culture of social work leaves room for leadership, we must take it upon ourselves as individual agents, and a collective force, to make room. It is time to rethink leadership in social work.



Reference List


Davidson, J. (2016) ‘Does the culture of modern day palliative care social work leave room for leadership?’ [Online], Journal of Social Work Practice, 30:2, 203-218. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/02650533.2016.1168385?needAccess=true(Accessed 18 February 2019)

APCSW (2018) The role of social workers in palliative, end of life and bereavement care[Online], BASW. Available at: http://www.apcsw.org.uk/resources/social-work-role-eol.pdf(Accessed 2 March 2019)

National Audit Office (2018) Adult social care at a glance [Online], Department of Health. Available at: https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Adult-social-care-at-a-glance.pdf(Accessed 1 March 2019)

Ambrose-Miller, W., & Ashcroft, R. (2016) ‘Challenges faced by social workers as members of interprofessional collaborative health care team’ [Online], Health & Social Work, 41(2): 101-109. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/hsw/article/41/2/101/2356236(Accessed 4 March 2019)

BASW (2018) Professional Capabilities Framework [Online], BASW. Available at: https://www.basw.co.uk/system/files/resources/Detailed%20level%20descriptors%20for%20all%20domains%20wi%20digital%20aug8.pdf(Accessed 1 March 2019)

Carr, S. (2014) Social care for marginalised communities: Balancing self-organisation, micro-provision and mainstream support[Online], Economic & Social Research Council. Available at: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-social-sciences/social-policy/HSMC/publications/PolicyPapers/policy-paper-18-sarah-carr.pdf(Accessed 1 March 2019)

Cullen, A. F. (2013) ‘Leaders in our own life: Suggested indicators for social work leadership from a study of social work practice in a palliative care setting’ [Online], British Journal of Social Work, 43(8): 1527-1544. Available at: https://academic-oup-com.ezproxy.lancs.ac.uk/bjsw/article/43/8/1527/1696401(Accessed 5 March 2019)

Dearnley, C. (2005) ‘A reflection on the use of semi-structured interviews’ [Online], Nurse Researcher, 13(1): 19-28. Available at: http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lancs.ac.uk/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=ed512eb9-697b-481d-936f-54b5eef3f50b%40pdc-v-sessmgr03&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=ccm&AN=106542640(Accessed 5 March 2019)

Dion, L. (1968) ‘The concept of political leadership: An analysis’ [Online], Canadian Journal of Political Science, 1(1): 2-17. Available at: https://www-cambridge-org.ezproxy.lancs.ac.uk/core/journals/canadian-journal-of-political-science-revue-canadienne-de-science-politique/article/concept-of-political-leadership-an-analysis/204C220D597867C47EDD0461978E0C53(Accessed 7 March 2019)

Edirisingha, P. (2012) ‘Interpretivism and positivism (ontological and epistemological perspectives) [Online] Available at: https://prabash78.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/interpretivism-and-postivism-ontological-and-epistemological-perspectives/(Accessed 6 March 2019)

Elliot, H. (2011) ‘Moving beyond the medical model’ [Online], Journal of Holistic Healthcare, 8:27-30. Available at: https://www.lwdwtraining.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Moving-Beyond-the-Medical-Model.pdf(Accessed 7 March 2019)

Fronek, P., Fowler, J., & Clarke, J. (2011) ‘Reflecting on reflection, leadership and social work: Social work students as developing leaders’ [Online], Griffith University. Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9b27/6f91820e3a7092466a2561550e9a35cbe24e.pdf(Accessed 5 March 2019)

Goldberg, J. (2015) ‘Why social workers make the best leaders’ [Online], Available at: https://socialworklicensemap.com/why-the-best-social-workers-make-the-best-leaders/(Accessed 5 March 2019)

Graeme, S. (2018) ‘Policy and politics matters: The shaping of contemporary social work in times of neoliberalism’ [Online]. Available at: https://wlv.openrepository.com/handle/2436/621126(Accessed 6 March 2019)

Lin, A.C. (1998) ‘Bridging positivist and interpretivist approaches to qualitative methods’ [Online], Policy Studies Journal, 26:1 (162-180). Available at: https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lancs.ac.uk/docview/210560612/fulltextPDF/FA44E7E043C14661PQ/1?accountid=11979(Accessed 3 March 2019)

Mental Health Foundation (2016) ‘Fundamental facts about mental health’ [Online], Mental Health Foundation, London. Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/fundamental-facts-about-mental-health-2016.pdf(Accessed 8 March 2019)

National Palliative & End of Life Care Partnership (2015) Ambitions for palliative and end of life care: A national framework for local action 2015-2020[Online] Available at: http://endoflifecareambitions.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Ambitions-for-Palliative-and-End-of-Life-Care.pdf(Accessed 2 March 2019)

National Council for Palliative Care (2015) Time for action[Online], NCPC. Available at: http://www.ncpc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Time%20for%20Action%20FINAL_0.pdf(Accessed 2 March 2019)

National Council for Palliative Care (2016) Staff prepared to care? [Online], NCPC. Available at: http://www.ncpc.org.uk/sites/default/files/workforce_report_May_2016.pdf(Accessed 2 March 2019)

NHS England (2019) Improving palliative care: The conversation project[Online] Available at: https://www.england.nhs.uk/atlas_case_study/improving-palliative-care-the-conversation-project/(Accessed 2 March 2019)

NICE (2017) End of life care for adults: Quality standards[Online] Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/qs13(Accessed 3 March 2019)

Open Democracy (2015) ‘Works of love: Cicely Saunders and the hospice movement’ [Online] Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/works-of-love-cicely-saunders-and-hospice-movement/(Accessed 2 March 2019)

Smith, J., & Noble, H. (2014) ‘Bias in research’ [Online], Evidence-based Nursing, 17:100-101. Available at: https://ebn.bmj.com/content/17/4/100(Accessed 5 March 2019)

The King’s Fund (2018) Key challenges facing the adult social care sector in England [Online] Available at: https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-12/Key-challenges-facing-the-adult-social-care-sector-in-England.pdf(Accessed 5 March)

University of Southern California (2018) ‘Engaging social workers in activism: Where to start’ [Online] Available at: https://msw.usc.edu/mswusc-blog/social-work-activism-advocacy/(Accessed 5 March 2019)




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‘In a world ravaged by women’s suffrage, our only solace is some guy’: Dark Feminist Humour.

This won a round of Cards Against Humanity on Boxing-Day.

Despite being effectively a matriarchal family, both aware of and affected by sexism, we were royally pissing ourselves at this seemingly sexist joke. As a family, the humour is found not in the inequality insinuated (or highlighted), but in the recognition and tacit rejection of its implications and in the ridiculousness of the sentiment (which exists in stark contrast to family experience). I.e. what a load of bollocks!


Cards Against



It got me thinking.


Our experiences of family (of whatever variety and to whatever extent) shape our perspectives and inform our values (or humour!). Do these experiences and values affect our actions regarding sex and gender, and can they be beneficial?


For my family, mixed or nonconventional gender roles was normal. Lone parenting meant mum as carer, provider, protector and champion. These roles were also expected of us as siblings (6) for one another, regardless of sex. Gender was understood as aside from sex. Be and present how you are and want to (though know not everyone will be receptive). Though physical difference exists, how people feel and present goes far beyond the male/female dichotomy. We all display a range of traits or attitudes socially attributed to either masculinity or femininity. We were shown that woman can do anything, including defying gender expectations or constructs (as can men). Sisters in the military, Mum as the hardest Dad in the playground, and me in pink bunny slippers playing hairdresser attested to that…


Mum also equipped us with an understanding of the inequality, discrimination and oppression so entwined with society and a recognition of the privileges bestowed upon the sexes (with a heavy male weighting). Seeing mum and sisters experiencing a range of sexual discrimination and oppression – from being ignored, cat-called or underestimated to suffering physical and sexual abuse – reinforced this dark truth. I was taught it is never acceptable to exploit my male privilege or biology (i.e. don’t talk over or hit people. But particularly not girls – society does plenty of that as it is).


Nor is it acceptable, whether male, female, fluid or other, to be blind or passive in the face of discrimination or oppression – of any kind. Recognising sexism is one thing, acting against it another. These experiences and values, combined with an open and inclusive perspective on sexuality, coalesced into a familial construction of ‘man’ to be one who (amongst other things) uses their biological difference and social privilege to raise women and girls up, not force them down. These values have translated into my actions as a man in a sexist society, seeking to hear women’s voices (as far too often they are silenced or disregarded) rather than speaking over them; valuing the ideas, contributions or abilities of women rather than undermining them; not using physicality to intimidate, threaten, violate or exploit.




It struck me that whilst we found it funny through subtext and ridiculousness, others would not. But regardless of whether it’s considered funny or not, the facts it represents and the truth to which it speaks, are not.


Women are more likely than men to be killed by an intimate partner, abused, raped or to face physical violence. They are more likely to be a married as a child and to be exploited for sexual slavery. They earn less, work more and are disproportionally affected by environmental and economic changes. They are underrepresented (and misrepresented) in politics, history, civic discourse and have restricted access to civic rights and resources. These instances of structural sexism, whereby the very functions of society contribute to ongoing punishment and subjugation of women, are real and insidious.


‘Everyday’ sexism (the name says a lot…) and structural sexism go hand in hand. Whilst their relationship and effects are complex, they ultimately still happen through the actions (and/or inactions) of people and reside in the minds thereof (as with feminism). Recognising sexism for the dynamic, powerful, dark and pervasive social phenomena that it is, so embroiled and embraced by power, privilege and abuse, seems harder said than done for some; others lest acted upon or challenged.



Social constructs of gender and western notions of ‘man’ and ‘women’ are too infrequently considered, nor questioned. This lack of reflexivity acts as fuel for sexism and oppression. Difficulty is compounded further when intersectional layers of oppression and discrimination, regarding religion, race, sexuality, etc., are considered.

Values learnt in the family environment can influence our actions, and the extent to which we conform to, or defy, sexist society (values are not impermeable to sexism however). As values translate into action, they can act as levees against the tide of individual sexism/discrimination. Although this arguably fails to address structural sexism, familial values must be further utilised in the fight for sexual equality and against oppression.


So, it should be clear that the world is not ravaged by women’s suffrage. Nor is social solace to be found in ‘some guy’.


But statistically, in our sexist society, any legislation or policy to tackle (or perpetuate) sexual discrimination and oppression, is likely to be signed off by… yup, some guy.


And that, is dark comedy in the face of sexism.


By Phil Gurney