Content | Navigation |

Loberg, Kristi Kay; Ph.D.
Program of Education
College of Human Development and Education; North Dakota State University
February 2008

An Exploratory Study of Leadership in Social Work Based on the Highlander Approach to Social Leadership       

Major Professor: Dr. Thomas E. Hall


This study responds to concerns about the lack of focus on leadership and leadership development specific to the field of social work.  In particular, this study was interested in leadership to advance social and economic change that is consistent with the social justice mission of social work (Brilliant, 1986; Hopps, 1986; Karger & Hernandez, 2004; Lawler, 2005; Morrison & Alcorn, 1997; Rank & Hutchinson, 2000; Sheafor, 2005; Specht & Courtney, 1994; Spicuzza, 2003).  In 1986, Brilliant identified social work leadership as the “missing ingredient” and called for social work education to address the concept of leadership for theory and practice.  Almost 20 years later, Spicuzza (2003) argued that social work education too easily assumes that students automatically develop leadership capacity as they move through the social work curriculum.  He concluded that this is an inaccurate assumption and called for social work education to find ways to reach and model professional leadership to enhance social work’s vital practice commitment to social activism.


The purpose of this qualitative study was to address these concerns and explore social leadership among social work professionals in order to develop a theoretical model to inform curriculum for teaching social leadership concepts and skills for social workers.  The definition of social leadership and the theoretical framework for the study was derived from the Highlander research and Education Center (Tennessee, USA).  Alvord, Brown, and Letts (2004) identified Highlander as one of 7 cases worldwide to successfully provide leadership for fundamental transformations in political, economic, and social systems for poor and marginalized groups.  The central question of this study was as follows:  how do social work professionals perceive and experience leadership that affects changes in the social, political, and economic contexts for the poor and marginalized?


A qualitative, grounded theory research methodology using semi-structured, in-depth, individual interviews was followed to develop a theoretical model of social leadership among social work professionals.  Maximum variation sampling was used to vary participants on the select characteristics of age, race, gender, years of experience, geography, organizational type (size and sector), and area of practice to ensure a diverse pool of respondents.  Participants were from two states in the north-central region of the United States.  All participants held a Master of Social Work degree from an accredited school of social work and had experience as a practicing social worker ranging from 9 to 35 years.  Theoretical saturation was reached after six interviews.


Each interview was audio recorded and transcribed.  Over 68,000 words comprising 5,400 lines of text were coded and analyzed using procedures outlined by Strauss and Corbin (1998) to identify themes, patterns, and relationships in the data.  The Nvivo7 qualitative software program was used to support data analysis.  The main result of this study was a theoretical model of social leadership for social work that consisted of four main categories and 13 subcategories.  The four main categories were (a) four core processes of social leadership, (b) three pre-conditions influencing social workers’ readiness for social leadership, (c) three contributing factors necessary for social leadership, and (d) three inhibiting factors of social leadership.  This study described these categories, discussed findings in relation to the literature and the Highlander framework, and identified implications for social work education and future research. 

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.

Follow NDSU
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • RSS
  • Google Maps

Site Manager:
Published by North Dakota State University

Last Updated: Monday, November 21, 2011 11:51:15 AM