On Leadership – from a Follower

I read a lot about ‘leadership’. Tips on being a great leader. How to lead. Even, rather comically in my view, on the Frontline site, something about social work being a ‘leadership profession’. Most of the advice comes from other leaders – or people who claim to be leaders. I’m not a leader. I’ve not read or studied anything about ‘leadership’. I’ve not, and can’t honestly believe I ever will go on any ‘leadership’ programmes. It’s not who or what I am about. Perhaps that gives me more of a vested interest in good leadership because while I am very contented to be a follower, there’s nothing more I want than to be led well.

I’m fortunate to have generally, in my career, had good managers with a few notable exceptions. It’s above that first-level management position that I want to consider how we, as competent professionals are led and thought it might lead to some reflection on what I would like to see in a leader. There’s an ongoing contention that leadership and management are different. I’m not entirely convinced by that. Leaders have a ‘position’ and management gives that role a concrete base. Managers are told to lead but people are drawn to leaders – perhaps that’s the difference. I’m yet to be entirely convinced by people who say that leaders can lead from without a management or authority position.

So what would I like to see in a leader in order to feel that I am being ‘led’ well.

1) Expertise

I have to feel that the person who leads comes from a position of authority. Maybe that is a management perspective but I am more considering an element of expertise. They have to be able to know what they are talking about.  In health and social care, I think this is where there is a strong push for patient/service user/carer leadership can come from because the expertise is in the understanding not just the processes of services which are delivered but having experienced them and working through them. In most ways, the expertise garnered in being at the end of services is the most precious one that some ‘professionals’ find hardest to garner. That feeling of being powerless in the face of the powerful state leviathan – whether it be the hulking hierarchical health service or the unfathomable processes lurking within the local authority and being victim to its resource allocation systems. Experience isn’t the only base for expertise, although it is a uniquely precious one. Leaders could be experts in a particular way of working, communicating, understanding or interpreting. There has to be a basis of authority though based on knowledge – although that knowledge can be achieved through many different strands.

2) Competence

As well as knowing what they do, they have to be good at actually doing it. I have often reflected on the days I started working in social care, firstly as a volunteer, then as a support worker. I did ‘hands on’ care work for a  number of years before I moved to do my social work training. When I was working in residential care and in care management, I’d often say that we should never be asked to do something by someone who wasn’t prepared and able to do it themselves. ‘Hands on’ care shouldn’t be ‘above’ anyone and certainly not above any so-called leader. This worries me somewhat about people who ‘fast track’ into leaders. When I went out to review people in residential homes or to review home care packages, I knew what the constraints on time for staff were. I knew that you couldn’t provide someone with a dignified shower and breakfast in a 30 min call. Although I couldn’t always change the local authority commissioning, at least I was able to empathise (for what it was worth) with the people who were using the service and the care workers who had to carry out the tasks which often institutionalised poor practice through the lack of time. Of course, I’m not anything special but extrapolating out, in  my previous job, I knew my manager was not just a competent social worker, she was an excellent social worker and I saw her at work from time to time and remained (and still do) in awe of her competence. So I followed and took advice and strived to be as good as she was and is. My main sadness is that was rarely acknowledged from ‘above’ for her. I wasn’t as convinced that our Assistant Director was a competent social worker because I’d never seen  him in a practice environment and suspect it had been many many years since he had ever come close to face to face practice. How could I be effectively ‘led’ if I wasn’t sure of his competence, not in the management role but in the tasks the organisation was being asked to achieve. Of course, I’m not unrealistic. I wouldn’t expect every Chief Executive to be able to do all nursing tasks – especially if they aren’t nurses but I would expect a deep understanding and appreciation of the work done by everyone in the organisation, from the person cleaning to the catering staff to those out in the community.

3) Humility

This is where I think these graduate ‘leadership’ programmes slip up because I think a good leader needs humility. They need to be aware of their own power and the effect that has on people. I feel a little intimidated by power and yet, simultaneously, I can be unaware of my own power at times. In some ways that’s what I see as humility. It is an appreciation of both the power that the leader has and the effect that has on other peoples’ interactions with them. The conversations I have about work with someone in my team who I see as a peer, are very different from the ones I might have with my manager, which, in turn, are different to those I might have with a director or chief executive within the organisation I work. So likewise, an awareness of that power I think, is very important to lead as well as an understanding that learning comes from different sources and is rarely a top-down process. One of the great blessings of social media in my view is that it has reinforced my learning from different angles and has weakened my inherent respect for the assumption that learning has to come from ‘teachers’. That’s something I’d extrapolate to ‘leaders’. You who lead can and must learn from those who follow in order to lead well. Just because you have a higher paid salary with greater position and power doesn’t mean the expertise you have is broader than all those ‘below’ you. A dose of humility is needed because without it, none of us can continue to learn and grow. I see this on Twitter sometimes when you see who some of the so-called leaders follow and interact with. There are those who will not deign to converse with those whom they assume to be ‘below’ them. I imagine their learning curve is more shallow than those who are open to conversation, learning and interaction from all-comers.

4) Reflection and Empathy

I see reflection and empathy in the same bracket because I believe that critical reflection leads to empathy and the two can’t be separated. A leader who is in a position to be able to ‘make a difference’ has to be able to consider their own role in systems that sometimes work and sometimes (perhaps more often) don’t. They can’t delegate constantly but sometimes need to think through what they can do to make changes. It might be something little or something major – depending on the position or the context. Then, they have to be able to look back and consider if they acted in the way that best served those who are being led. They have to be able to accept and learn from mistakes and acknowledge them. This is a key part of growth and understanding. This is a key part of being able to retain the confidence of those who follow. This is what I want from a leader. When things are being done or have been done badly, I want honesty not fudging. Reflection is a part of that where we learn to understand our own motivations and influences in the choices we make. Empathy grows from that as they begin to learn from others and understand better how it is to see things from different angles.

5) Inspiration

Perhaps this is the most difficult to define but I think it’s a core difference between leaders and followers. This explains some of my lack of faith in ‘leadership programmes’ because I’m not convinced that inspiration can be ‘taught’. It is the ability to move people in a particular direction because they believe in you and want to work towards your vision. It’s people having faith in you and your decisions. Maybe I’m not able to define it well  but I think it is definitely an area that can be refined but it  has to be genuine and honest. You can’t read a book about how to inspire others and expect to learn from it. You have to learn it, I think, and as is very clear, I’m far from an expert, by truly believing in what you do and having a passion for it.

So there’s my very uninformed and personal plea to leaders in how to lead me. That’s what I want from you. I don’t want to be a leader, but more than anything I want to be led well and I want to feel we want the same things, you and I. We want to make things better and we want to work together for those whom we serve. I don’t want to be engaged in battling against the organisations I work in to feel that I’m serving those who use the services to my best. I will feel well-led when we move in the same direction.

I understand leadership is tough. That’s one of the reasons I don’t want to do it.  I’m lucky that I feel well-led now and there’s no better feeling as a member of staff than to have that utter confidence that we move in the same direction and have the same goals.  I  realise that’s a very good place to be.  Lead well and we will follow well and with all our hearts and you will have much more power to achieve those great outcomes with committed and focused followers behind you, supporting you all the way.

10 reasons I disagree with Frontline and fast-tracking Social Work Training

Frontline is a scheme dreamt up by the IPPR who published a report – which has since been embraced by the government and opposition – which builds on the Step Up to Social Work model of social work training and Teach First which has proved to be a popular want to pull graduates into teaching, focussing on ‘difficult’ schools.

The idea behind it, based on research done with a focus group made up of people who had been teachers on the Teach First programme saw that there was ‘something wrong with social work’. A part of me says ‘tell us something we didn’t know’. Seriously. There have been proposals to change in the way that social work is taught which have stemmed from the Social Work Taskforce and then the Social Work Reform Board.

So what is it that will make ‘Frontline’ different? The initial paper linked to above, makes reference to Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates who aren’t choosing to go into social work and seeing that as a ‘problem’ for the profession.

According to the Frontline website

The Frontline training programme will last two years. Specifically

  • An intensive five-week residential summer institute;
  • The first 12 months as intensive on-the-job training and education;
  • At the end of the first year participants will be qualified to practice and then undertake a second year as a newly qualified social worker.

Participants will be paid over these two years and will be based with the same local authority. Participant will complete a Masters over the two years of the programme.

The 12 months will be when people go to local authorities to be trained by a ‘consultant social worker’ who is basically a glorified practice educators who have their salaries augmented by ‘Frontline’ – which, incidentally, is either a charity or a social enterprise – depending on what you are reading.  The social worker trainees will be working in ‘tough’ environments.

The idea is that these people will be ‘qualified’ social workers after one year and the second year will be the AYSE year. One year (or 13 months, I believe cos these whizzy geniuses sure can count).

So who is Frontline looking for?

Frontline will look for two key features in recruits. The first is high academic ability required to be an effective social worker. Social work practice requires analytical thinking, assessment skills, critical reflection and excellent written and spoken communication, which is why applicants must have a 2:1 degree or higher.

The second feature is the attributes, skills and values to be a successful practitioner. These range from emotional resilience, respect, good judgement, inter-personal skills, and humility

I love the intense irony that humility is written right at the bottom. I’m not one to rubbish academic rigour. I’m all for it but I think it’s interesting that it is the first thing they emphasise. People develop intelligence in different ways and having a 2:1 degree from a Russell Group university is only one indication but that’s their standard so fair enough. Just interesting emphasis.

So that’s the scheme and what’s not to love? I have a number of issues that have concerned me, none of which have been addressed by Frontline PR machine. I’m concerned that while they have said they want to engage and talk to social workers about this, there has been no evidence of them speaking to anyone except on their own terms, without actually answering questions of substance. Meanwhile, the PR machine flounces around the press with the ‘they just don’t understaaaaaaaaaaaaand’ us referring to social workers who don’t ‘get’ their new model without actually addressing the very real criticisms.

So what are the criticisms?

1) It is based on an elitist model where some universities are ‘better’ than others. The initial document refers to lack of entrants to social work training from Oxbridge and Russell Group universities being evidence of its lack of appeal. I’m not sure about ‘evidence’ for this. I don’t think the university you go to defines your quality of potential for social work or your intelligence and ability to critically analyse and reflect. Sometimes it’s based on income and family circumstances. Sometimes we go to the university that is nearest home. Sometimes we go to the university that offers the best course which may not be a Russell Group. It shows an enormous amount of assumptions (which, incidentally, are very bad in social work) to take otherwise

2) Lack of involvement of social workers in developing the model. Now Josh MacAlister, the so-called ‘brains’ behind the scheme has recruited some social worker managers and academics to ‘support’ him but that doesn’t refute the lack of involvement in the initial research of social workers. Yes, spokespeople from the College of Social Work and BASW have involved themselves but they have shown no effort to engage views other than those that agree with them or work on the base of the Social Work Reform Board which particularly looked at social work education and build the new professional capability framework. This falls outside that. It also hasn’t built on the Step Up scheme which makes no sense.

3) Compressing social work education into a year, even if the practice days are similar to the amount they are now, ignores the process of learning that needs time.  There is a great post which I highly recommend which covers this far better than I can. Social Work is not analogous to teaching and somehow I think the model of Teach First doesn’t ‘fit’ as nicely as the government ministers would like to think it is. It displays a lack of understanding of social work. Teach First replaces a PGCE which is a one year course in a specialist subject (which is taught).

Social Work is a generic qualification. One does not ‘train’ as a child protection social worker or even a children and families social worker – but as a social worker who then specialises in working in a particular sector. This model doesn’t allow space and time to gain an understanding of what social work is. The fear is, it will breed process-driven staff who are able to fulfil functions within a child protection team but without a deeper understanding of social work as a profession which touches the lives of adults and children in different ways and at different stages.

Moving initial social work training – not least in an organisation which doesn’t understand social work, clearly, is, I fear a mistake. One of the figures behind Frontline told me that this was a poor argument as ‘there had always been arguments about genericism’. In my view that doesn’t mean we can’t still have the discussion. We need to have an understanding of personhood and social work as a whole profession because if we don’t it becomes two, or three professions. Does that matter? I think it does because we can’t work in isolation. Mental Health, for example, covers all areas of social work. Families don’t exist in isolation. Is one year (13 months) enough time to do this alongside placements? Personally, i don’t think so. I’m consistent in this as I also don’t  have a lot of time for the Step Up programme.

4) Evidence base – why wasn’t there a hold on developing a new scheme until there had been a few years running of the Step Up Scheme? I was a sceptic of Step Up and I’ll accept that the first evaluation of the first two cohorts was more positive than I was assuming but there were some issues raised and what we really need to understand is retention rates which will need a few more years of evaluation. I’m willing to change my mind in the face of evidence but developing a programme before we had some data seems foolhardy but entirely consistent with government policy making. The one issue which did arise from the Step Up scheme was access and success rates of people from minority ethic groups who were disadvantaged. The Frontline team looks very white and very male. I wonder how this will be addressed explicitly.

5) There is no mention at all of user voice in the development of the programme of education. This is a massive gap but I will wait for details of the programme. It’s all about developing leaders. Frontline’s website says

Since the start of 2012 we’ve undertaken extensive consultation with the profession to inform the Frontline proposal. Employers, universities and professional bodies were included in the process and much of their feedback is directly reflected in our plans.

No mention of people who use or have used social work services, children who have been or are involved with social work or their parents and carers. Nothing. That evidences a lack of understanding of social work education and ethos as, quite rightly, user involvement is crucial to all social work education programmes.

6) Leadership. There is a focus on this being about ‘leaders’ and developing leadership. I have a bit of a difficult relationship with the term and with some of the ‘leadership’ training. We all want and need to be ‘leaders’, don’t we? But who are we leading. Here are some of the statements made on the Frontline site.

Frontline is focused on transforming the life chances of vulnerable children by recruiting and developing outstanding individuals to be leaders in social work and broader society

So is this about fast-tracking people through the actual ‘frontline’ work as a stepping stone to management and management consultancy? I rather suspect it is. I want to know more about what they see as leadership? Ah, they heard me, look at their FAQs

18. WHY DO YOU CALL SOCIAL WORK A LEADERSHIP PROFESSION?

We describe social work as leadership because it needs people who are able to bring together a wide range of agencies, set out a vision for a family and convince them to act. The ability to adapt and deal with change, set clear priorities and deliver action for children under extreme pressure demands leadership qualities which we would like to see recognised more widely in society.

Note: There is no understanding or explanation of social work that happens which doesn’t involve working with children. It’s about ‘convincing’ a family to act? Really? Is that leadership or is that using statutory power to impose. There is nothing in this bumpf about power that a social worker has and the understanding of the use of power. No, they emphasis ‘leadership’ and ‘leading’ but as a statutory social worker in child protection, you have all the cards in your powerful little statutory hand and I’m not sure it takes much ‘leadership’ to ‘convince’ families. Again, it’s a complete misunderstanding of the social work role and selling an untruth to those who take on the role.  So if Frontline ‘breeding’ leaders or are we all leaders? Bit fuzzy but then this is to sell social work to people who would otherwise consider Teach First.

7) The rhetoric of those involved with the PR has been very much ‘we need excellent/better social workers’ ‘social work education is failing’ and it’s interesting how many academics have jumped on this bandwagon. Er, guys, you’re the ones doing the training?!

Seriously though, it’s not exactly going to endear you to a profession by saying that current social workers and social work students aren’t adequate. I see that they’ve backed down a bit from that but that was definitely the initial thrust behind their PR campaign – we need ‘better’ social workers. What they are creating, I fear, are people able to work through processes in particular local authorities effectively. Is that social work at all? Does doing social work tasks make one a social worker? Unfortunately I suspect the answer is yes because that’s what employers want.

8) Local authorities should take a greater responsibility for the ‘failure’ of social work training. They want ‘cookie cutter’ ready-to-practice social workers immediately from university without investing in the process of training on-the-job. In my view, and I say this as an ex-practice educator, placements are training to be a social worker but should not be used to train for a particular position. Students need space around the placements to understand processes, power and to analyse their own changing roles as they move between being students to being practitioners with power. What local authorities want, and through this scheme they get, is more akin to apprenticeships where social workers will be trained in their own systems. There’s an advantage to that. There’s also a potential disadvantage as one of the things I found most valuable in moving from being a student to a practitioners was being exposed to different systems, different organisations and different people who had different views about the same statutory function.

9) This has shifted the focus away from post-qualification training and towards pre-qualification training without any evidence about retention. It seems to me that a better focus would be to invest in training and retaining social workers who are qualified already. I say this with a little bitterness as a social worker remained in local authority/NHS practice for 12 years before moving away. I think there needs to be more thought specifically for post-qualification training in child protection with perhaps, a course akin to the AMHP training in mental  health with better pay and status  – and a need for greater experience before going into these roles.

In my opinion, one of the failings of the social work system we have is that often newly qualified social workers go into child protection work. Surely it makes more sense for there to be career progression and more experienced workers to be in this field but no one wants to stay so there is a rapid turnover. Maybe that’s something that should be addressed with the money Frontline generated instead of making the problem worse.

10) Frontline seem obsessed with social work’s ‘professional status’. They want social workers to be one of the most respected professions blah blah. By focusing on ‘leadership’ and recruiting ‘top graduates’ this will happen. Right. I’m more sceptical. I think it will only happen when social workers don’t obsess about their/own status and when we speak up for people who use social work services – without our job role and outside and show how useful we are. We don’t need validation and we don’t need to be ‘loved’. We don’t need documentaries so people ‘understand’ us. We need to do our job well and not wait for others to find the respect for us. If we tell people what we do well, if we concentrate on developing a profession where we can respect ourselves, then we will be respected and some people will always hate us because we use state powers to control behaviours. That’s life.

I hope someone from Frontline will respond to these ten points in turn. I wait with interest.