Shine a light – social work leadership in Canada

Submission to The Social Lens: A Social Work Action Blog by Elaine Spencer, Red Deer Polytechnic and Jolene Wright, University of Lethbridge.

Just before the world met the COVID-19 virus, we set out to study social work leadership in Canada. After over 40 years of neo-liberalism, new public management, outsourcing and a continuing narrow vision of leadership as white, male, straight, cis, able, Canadian born, we had some questions. Namely, who is leading social work in Canada, what is their leadership philosophy, and how do current social work leaders, um, lead? The COVID-19 pandemic directed the spotlight onto leadership during this prolonged public health crisis. As eco-social work emerges, the need for progressive, inclusive leadership seems more important than ever.

Neoliberalism, new public management and managerialism were well-entrenched in human services policy and practice long before the emergence of COVID-19. We wondered how the landscape of social work leadership was faring, given our experiences with reluctance from progressives to engage in leadership roles within a fully complicit environment. The ethics conflicts were just too much to bear for many. Barnoff et al, citing Gray et al., write:

“Working within the neoliberalism system does not mean actors must be blindly complicit with its practices: it is possible to simultaneously work for and against the institutional manifestations of neoliberalism. Human service personnel are already inventing new ways of practice that can minimize the harshest effects of neoliberal governance, including making decisions to spend more time with clients, to treat them more humanely, and to include critiques of the system in their work with the people to whom they provide services” (Barnoff et al., 2017).

S. Colby Peters, in a 2017 theoretical and conceptual analysis writes:

“Social work research employs leadership theories and models that were developed for corporate and military entities, which have decidedly different goals and processes than social work organisations (citing Lawler & Bilson, 2013). Aside from a misalignment between business-based leadership theory and social work practice, these models may be influencing the methods of social work leadership research such that study outcomes reflect corporate rather than human service processes and goals” (citing Fawcett, 1999).

Peters defines social work leadership as “a collection of organisational, relational, and individual behaviors that effect positive change in order to address client and societal challenges through emotional competence and the full acceptance, validation, and trust of all individuals as capable human beings” (Peters, 2017).

Radian discusses challenges to progressive social work administration (in Spencer, Massing & Gough, 2017) including deskilling, surveillance and technological advancement. It is no wonder then, that many progressive social workers “may not have any interest in administration, given current managerial practices” (Radian, p. 93). Conversely, organizations may not be interested in supervisors with progressive ideology. Nonetheless, Radian encourages us “not to lose hope, as every small step leads to change” (Radian, p. 100).

With approximately 60,000 registered social workers in Canada in 2020 (CIHI, 2022), we extrapolate that approximately 1 in 50 could be designated as a leader (manager/supervisor/director, etc.), so let’s say there are roughly 1,200 social worker leaders in Canada. Our study heard from nearly 100, for a participation rate of approximately 18%.


We designed an exploratory survey, with both qualitative and quantitative data, to get a snapshot of social work leaders’ experiences and perceptions. The participants self-selected, and were invited using provincial social work organizations’ communication, and some snowballing. The narrative responses were analyzed for emerging themes and reviewed for validation. The survey offered screening in and screening out questions, and participants could skip questions if they wished. The snapshot cannot be generalized of course, but the picture that emerges is worth further study.


Who completes a longish survey during COVID? Demographic data from respondents (multiple options and skips may result in percentages not adding to 100):

  • 97% female/woman identifying, 3% male, 0% identify any other offered category or other
  • 31% were 36-45 years old, 26% 26-35, 22% 56-65, 12% 46-55, 8% 65+ y.o.
  • 28% have 2-5 years of leadership experience, 23% 20+, 14% less than 1, 18% 11-15, 3% 16-20 years
  • 87% white, 6% indigenous, 1% black, 6% other (citing Metis, African, “mixture”)
  • 81% report no disabilities, 19% report one or more (citing mental health, learning, mobility)
  • 91% identify as heterosexual, 5% bisexual, 3% pansexual, and 2% other (lesbian)
  • 60% identify as manager or senior leaders, 40% front-line or supervisor
  • 42% hold an MSW, 31% BSW, 13% SW Dip., 1% PhD, 1% MBA, 13% other (citing BA, MA, MSW in progress)
  • 34% make $75-100K per annum, 30% make $100-125K, 17% make $50-75K, 10% make less than $50K, and 2% make more than $200K p.a.
  • Responsibilities varied with training being cited as the top duty, then personnel, then clinical supervision, then budget (50% report a budget of under $250K, and 50% report over $250K, up to $3M), with some having no formal leadership role
  • 40% were leaders in government (mostly provincial, then federal), 31% in non-profit, 6% for-profit, 23% other (“post-secondary” most commonly cited)
  • Wide array of services offered, in all parts of the country, with strong representation from Alberta (the home province of both researchers)

In summary, the vast majority of respondents identified as white, straight, able females. The majority of respondents were between 26-45 years old, and were managers or senior leaders. The most common education was an MSW (42%), followed by BSW (31%), and while a large portion (28%) of respondents had 2-5 years of leadership experience, a substantial portion (23%) had more than 20 years of experience. 40% of leaders worked in government roles, and nearly a third in non-profits, with nearly a quarter choosing “other” to describe their setting, most commonly citing “post-secondary.”

Our survey asked multiple questions around self-identification, social location, and the impacts on leadership, from both one’s identity and the identity of staff reporting or relating to the leader. Comments included “I’ve never thought that,” and “made me think more about how my identity may affect members of my team,” and “no impact,” to acknowledging impact such as “I am made aware regularly on how my being a woman affects my leadership” and “racialized, marginalized not represented.” Equity-deserving yet still denied groups were not well represented in this respondent pool. This finding deserves further attention and exploration. Progressive social work leadership centres equity – it does not support “add on” or tick-box diversity. Which leads us to questions about the nature of social work leadership theory, education and practice.

When asked about the theoretical foundations of their leadership, respondents echo social work practice theories, such as strengths-based 20%, client/person-centred 18%, feminist 16%, AOP 16%, trauma-informed 12%, solution-focused 12%. Specific social work leadership theories were also cited, including transformational at 16%, systems 8%, relational 8%, and servant 6%.

As numerous authors note (Schmidt & Kariuki, 2018, Webster 2016, Holosko, 2009, for example), little research has been completed on social work leadership, and leadership education has been drawn from the military and/or mainstream business models, to a large extent. The foundational goals, ethics, processes and ways of acting are identified as conflictual for social work contexts.

If progressives are struggling to find a way to lead in the ethics minefield of new public management, as we note earlier, and if human services leadership is largely based on theory drawn from the business world, is it any wonder that only 1 in 3 respondents reported using progressive theory as their basis of leadership (feminist and/or AOP)? Further, while 31% received formal leadership education in their MSW training, 15% in their BSW, and 11% in their SW Diploma, nearly 1 in 5 (18%) received no formal leadership education.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has definitely had an impact on social work leadership in Canada, with 53% of respondents agreeing/strongly agreeing with this statement. But 30% agreed/strongly agreed that there were positive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • According to the majority of survey respondents, COVID-19 has had an impact on social work leadership in Canada.
  • When asked about the negative impacts of COVID-19,
    • 53% agree/strongly agree, 22% disagree/strongly disagree, and 25% were neutral
  • When asked about the positive impacts of COVID-19,
    • 30% agree/strongly agree, 49% strongly disagree/disagree, and 21% were neutral

Thematic analysis notes the overwhelming negative impacts are firstly around connection, communication and engagement; secondly around increased work and work stress for all; and thirdly about the impact on clients. Examples from narrative responses included “many more deaths,” “client access issues,” “unmanageable workloads,” and leading while “also in the crisis” themselves.

COVID-19 brought changes to all facets of work, which has been well-documented, including allowing social workers to re-think and reflect on changes. Our respondents shared some of the positives that came from enforced changes, such as experiencing “true leadership in supporting staff in times of uncertainty,” “leaning on each other,” “resourcefulness, flexibility, adaptability and creativity.” Deeper connection to one another’s full personhood was a key theme, with narrative responses such as “we were holding each other up” and “seeing our shared humanity” first. Some comments included commitment to keep leading with greater connection, communication and engagement.

The respondents were lukewarm on the state of social work leadership (or “leadershit” as an early consultant to this process succinctly summarized), with 42% of respondents satisfied/very satisfied with social work leadership, 28% dissatisfied/very dissatisfied, while 33% were neutral.

Recommendations for improving social work leadership included (in ascending order of mention):

  1. Formal leadership education at every level of social work training;
  2. increased compensation for leadership and mentoring;
  3. more political action; and,
  4. enhancing leadership as an ethical and important role for Registered Social Workers.

We contend that progressive social work leadership needs to centre equity, diversity, Indigeneity and wholistic sustainability as core to leadership education, which will in turn further the creation and dissemination of progressive social work leadership models.

Reflecting on her experiences as a dean of social work, Rogers (2010) argued for the feminization of leadership, based on the growing realization that good leadership does not require women to fit a male model, but rather can benefit from the inclusion of a full range of gendered skills and abilities. Applying a feminist lens, she explored how the construction of leadership within the university often results in very few women taking on these roles, even in social work programs where the number of women faculty members is usually quite high (cited in Barnoff et al., 2017).

While the models of leadership identified in the research findings align heavily with business and administrative models, we are encouraged and reminded to connect to progressive social work through “radical structuralism” (Radian, p. 95). With this we are reminded to not only support clients through anti-oppressive work but dismantling the systems that create and maintain oppression, and rebuilding systems that align with progressive social work values and ethics. This can be done in leadership in acknowledging the competition for funding, creating collaborative efforts and supports in community development and working across disciplines to create awareness through the unique lens of social work practice.

As social workers we need to reclaim leadership, bringing ourselves back to social work grassroots rather than “buying in to” the business and administrative ideologies of profits and bottom lines, surveillance and discipline, individual and collective competition, and ever-expanding goals to “remain in business.”

What is the framework and the accompanying operationalized skills that will bring social work leadership forward? What does a progressive social work leadership framework look like?

Baines et al. (2014) discuss the perils of contracted-out services, previously performed by government, and Hair (2013) aptly describes the challenges of business practices negatively impacting reflective supervision (in Schmidt, 2018). What would it look to reclaim social work leadership as a progressive practice with equity, diversity and indigeneity at the core? How can we eschew incrementalism for “nothing about us without us” in action?

Building on the work of Radian, Peters, Baines, and others we suggest the following elements as key to a progressive model of social work leadership:

  • Overtly political mandates and missions, acknowledging that the political is also personal and the personal is also political
  • Social Justice at the core, leading with equity, diversity, inclusion, Indigeneity and sustainability
  • Power with, power within, power to
  • Restorative, reconciling, redistributing wealth and power
  • Client-centred decision-making kept close with those impacted
  • Normalizing
  • Empowering
  • Wholistic
  • Collectivist
  • Co-conspiratorial/co-collaborative
  • Working ourselves out of jobs, based on social justice being fully met

What would your progressive leadership model look like?

Author Bios

Elaine Spencer, (she/her), BSW, MSW, RSW, RCSW, is a cis-gendered immigrant white hetero-identified woman living on Treaty 6 land, and teaching social work at Red Deer Polytechnic. She has an outsized sense of social justice nearly matched by her sense of play. She is lead author and co-editor of “Social Work Ethics: Progressive, Practical and Relational Approaches,” along with numerous publications on ethics, technology and social work practice. Contact her at

Jolene Wright’s social work practice focused on mental health and health care administration working with gerontology, acute psychiatry and the LGBTQ2+ populations. She also has a strong background in policy work, administration and regulatory practice. She holds a BSW and MSW from the University of Calgary as well as a Masters of Human Sexuality from California Institute of Integral Studies. She is presently working on her PhD from the University of Lethbridge with a research focus looking at creating supportive environments for LGBTQ2+ people and their families, both individually and from a holistic lens. Contact her at


Barnoff, L., Moffatt, K., Todd, S. & Panitch, M. (2017). Academic Leadership in the Context of Neoliberalism: The Practice of Social Work Directors. Canadian Social Work Review / Revue canadienne de service social34(1), 5–21.

CIHI “Canadian Institute for Health Information. Canada’s Health Care Providers, 2016 to 2020 -Data Tables.” Ottawa, ON: CIHI; 2022.

Holosko, M. (2009). Social Work Leadership: Identifying Core Attributes. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment. 448–459. DOI: 10.1080/10911350902872395

Peters, C. (2017). Defining Social Work Leadership: A Theoretical and Conceptual Review and Analysis. Journal of Social Work Practice. 31-44.

Schmidt, G. & Kariuki, A. (2018): Pathways to social work supervision. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment. DOI: 10.1080/10911359.2018.1530160

Todd, S., Barnoff, L., Moffatt, K., Panitch, M., Parada, H., Mucina, M., Williams, D. (2015). Performativity Culture in Universities: Social Work Fabrications. The British Journal of Social Work. 45(2). 511–526.

Webster, M. (2016). Challenging Workplace Bullying: The Role of Social Work Leadership Integrity. Ethics and Social Welfare. 10(4). 316-332.

THE SOCIAL LENS: A SOCIAL WORK ACTION BLOG - The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the original author(s) and do not express the views of the UBC School of Social Work and/or the other contributors to the blog. The blog aims to uphold the School's values and mission.