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The concept and practice of leadership in social work

Cullen, Anne Felicia


Anne Felicia Cullen


Margaret Holloway

Elizabeth (Senior lecturer in social work) Price

Lucy Michael


The starting point for this research was a series of calls for leadership ‘at all levels’, addressed to the social work profession due to evidence of poor performance, low morale and high attrition. The aim of the research was to find out whether there were characteristic features of leadership that were shared by people who were qualified social workers operating within roles of frontline practice, organisational management and identified leadership, that could provide guidance in developing leadership capacity within the profession.

The research took the form of a qualitative study, comprising individual and group interviews with a purposive sample of 24 qualified social workers, in roles ranging from frontline practice to national leadership, and 12 other professionals. It identified three characteristic traits of social work leadership, ‘ethically inspired’, ‘empirically informed’, and ‘strategic’ and two characteristic leadership behaviours, ‘collaborating’ and ‘challenging’. It showed that these were combined to produce four characteristic features of social work leadership, which were demonstrated, to a greater or lesser degree, and in varying forms, by participants at different levels.

An innovative framework and model of ‘ethical-adaptive’ leadership was developed on the basis of the findings of this research that is distinctive to the social work profession and is applicable to both practitioners and those at different levels of organisational management and identified leadership. As such it has the potential to fulfil the intended purpose of the research and may also be of value to other human service professions.


Cullen, A. F. (2019). The concept and practice of leadership in social work. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date May 13, 2019
Publicly Available Date Feb 23, 2023
Keywords Social work
Public URL
Additional Information School of Health and Social Work, The University of Hull
Award Date Apr 1, 2019


Thesis (2.2 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2019 Cullen, Anne Felicia. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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