Leadership. That noble call to tell others what they should be doing because one is placed in a position of power or influence where you are able to. Apparently, according to the training schemes, social work is a ‘leadership’ profession. Leadership.
To me, we need to challenge this. As a social worker, the centre of my professional practice – now, as much as it was when I was in a more traditional social work role – is not about inspiring people to change and has never been about ‘leading’. It has been about ensuring that the interface between law, rights and dignity in the face of legal obligations of the state are met with as much sensitivity as possible.
I wandered into the homes of those who came into the cross-hairs of our statutory services and sat down, while having cups of tea from ‘best china’ with people who had spent hours cleaning up before I arrived to tell me “oh, excuse the mess” before I explained to them what the State (of which I was a representative) would provide or deny them.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Sometimes there was the extreme distress and sometimes there was anger. Sometimes I knew I was the last person they wanted in their house. Sometimes they had begged for years for support and I, or at least, the state support or input which I represented was late by days/weeks/years/decades.
What was always present and is always present is power though. I didn’t walk into that room to ‘lead’ or to ‘inspire’. I did then, as I do now, walk into the room to listen and hear.
This is where I think the ‘social work as a leadership profession’ is potentially dangerous. We need leaders within the profession, of course we do, but if I were to stumble across a characteristic we need to learn, understand and develop which will add value to our professional input, it is humility. Social work needs to be a profession infused with humility rather than ‘leadership’.
I understand the need for pride in the profession. We can have an enormous impact on the lives of others and when we can help make life less painful or make improvements in that interface between the state and the citizen, that is something to take pride in. But at the heart, in all we do, we need to – at the core – remember that we are followers not leaders because our direction needs to come from best serving those who need our professional skills to be strongly adhered to.
Humility is not often flagged sufficiently as being at the core of our profession and professional practice but, for me, it is humility that permits reflection. We need to examine our own practice critically if we are ever to improve it. We need to be open to learning and growing and can only do that by understanding that we are not ‘right’ and that ‘right’ decisions change on the basis of individuals – it is only by listening and understanding about individual need that we can practice ethically.
Humility enables change. It enables value-driven change by understanding that learning and growing professionally does not exist in models which are driven by hierarchy. My manager tells me something and therefore I know it. It doesn’t work like that.
My time as a practice educator helped me to learn so much more about my practice and my profession from students coming in and it presented me with new challenges to drive me to learn and understand more. Those whom I worked with as their social worker, taught me, with enormous generosity about different cultures, communities and family situations. I learnt about society with such searing depth that no academic sociologist could have as valued teachers as the voices of those whom I met at the point they needed social work intervention.
But it’s not about me and my learning, although I hope each conversation, each visit – made it easier for those who come and came later. It should never have been about me. It was me seeing myself playing a role presented by the state. The china sets and the special biscuits – the conversations about the most intimate and painful details of the life of another person – they aren’t about me. They are presented due to the inherent power I represent through the name badge I wear around my neck. It is never about me.
If we need to find narratives to change perceptions of social work (and I’m not convinced we do – because I’m not terribly interested in what ‘the media’ think as long as I know I’m doing my job as best I can), the voices of those who are subject to social work interventions – both negative and positive – need to be the ones to carry it.
Social work isn’t a profession that needs to shine in the sunlight. It doesn’t need to ‘lead’. It needs to be a profession which listens, grows and allows others to thrive and take their place in the sun.
If we drive the key attribute of good social work as humility and the desire to serve rather than lead, we instil the profession with the solid values-driven base which is the only thing that makes it possible in a world and society that is not always willing to listen and give voice to those with less social capital.
Social work is a privilege. It needs power in order to operate. We can’t – and mustn’t deny that we have power. It’s how we use it that makes a different and it can be done with humility to learn, grow and change.