If a leadership position is your destiny, a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree can help you reach it. Because the social work profession is oriented towards improving the lives of others and promoting societal change, social workers can have a big impact on complex societal issues. When a catalyst for change is needed, MSWs often lead the charge.

Whether they are engaging with new methods of service delivery, influencing policy, advocating for a cause, providing on-the-ground help in vulnerable communities, or identifying gaps in support for specific populations, social workers assume leadership positions in many areas, and at the local, state and national levels.

By design, social workers are trained to support, empower and organize. The signature educational component of the Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is the two back-to-back field experiences. These give MSW students ample opportunities to learn practical leadership skills that will inform their future practices. In addition, as part of their standardized curriculum, MSW students learn how to frame issues and think about problems from a range of perspectives — from emotional, to behavioral, to social, to religious, to socio-economic, to geographic. This wide lens allows MSWs to engage both micro and macro organizational issues, and craft a vision leading to positive change.

The Nuts and Bolts of Social Worker Leadership

So what makes a good leader? Pundits, experts, and gurus alike have exhorted many theories and approaches. Search "books about leadership" on your favorite online retailer, and you are sure to see hundreds, even thousands, of results. This is an especially popular topic in the business world and the for-profit sector. But in reality, there are many different types and models of effective leadership.

For leaders in the world of social work, change is a driving factor. As such, social workers operate within a model known as transformational leadership. As the name suggests, this kind of leadership requires identifying the change that is needed, developing a vision, and then implementing a plan. Social workers are particularly adept at performing needs assessments. This is because of their strong clinical skills and their knowledge about human behavior. They are equally skilled at developing and following through on plans of action, because intervention and treatment go hand-in-hand with the assessments they perform as professionals.

Practical Social Work Leadership Skills

As an MSW student, you will receive training in many foundational areas of leadership. These will include:

  • Problem identification

  • Needs assessments of individuals and systems

  • Knowledge of human behavior, pulling from the fields of psychology and sociology

  • Value driven and ethical practices

  • Diversity

  • Motivation and Empowerment

  • Advocacy and Intervention

  • Framing micro and macro solutions

  • Understanding the role of environment on behavior and culture

  • Building consensus

  • Motivating Teams

  • For-profit and not-for-profit organizations

  • Federal and state programs

  • Utilizing the right resources to lead change

Becoming a Leader with an MSW

The experience and training provided in an MSW degree promotes knowledgeable and competent leadership. Few other degrees produce professionals with such well-developed and well-honed skill sets. So whether you plan on leading in a public setting, or want to practice quiet, everyday leadership on a more private scale, the MSW will prepare you to take a stand against problems, develop a plan of attack, and lead the charge to effect real change.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.