Recent Seminar Examines Leadership in Social Work

Social work leaders gathered at the NYU Silver School of Social Work on Friday, March 24, to share career-learning experiences as part of a seminar on Professional Advancement in Leadership Roles. Panelists explored themes central to leadership advancement, including the attributes and definitions of leadership, leadership roles for social workers within the profession, and leadership positions outside the profession. Organized by the Office of Global and Lifelong Learning, this seminar marks the third in an ongoing series of monthly events titled Fridays at Silver on the Square.

Lynn Videka, dean of NYU Silver, presented the keynote address on “Pathways to Leadership: Preparing Yourself and Finding Opportunities.” In her introduction, Videka expressed the desire to see "human practitioners as leaders in social sectors," invoking the maxim "know thyself" as central to claiming a role in leadership. She focused the first part of her talk on how leadership is often defined, couching each definition in the form of a question: "Is a leader born or assigned? Can you learn leadership, or is it who you are? Does leadership involve actions you take or problems you solve? Is it universal or particular to certain contexts?" These questions are not either/or, Videka stressed, but rather dialectical models for exploring the complex semantics of defining leadership.

In addressing these questions, Videka noted that leadership is a skill that involves an understanding of oneself as well as the context where one works. In her own transition into a leadership track, she described a process of overcoming her perceptions of gender roles before she was able to claim her own leadership identity. Despite not being in an official leadership position, she found an opportunity to expand social resources at a medical agency where she worked as a junior faculty member by recruiting students to supplement work on patient cases. In this way, she was able to introduce a new role for social work in her ward, demonstrating her capacity to lead and innovate. "You can be a leader in any position," she emphasized, noting this can be accomplished by finding opportunities, educating other people about one’s skills and role, volunteering, surpassing negative expectations, and working respectfully with others within the organization. The final phases of Videka’s presentation focused on knowledge for leadership, pointing out that, while technical knowledge is prized in all organizations, no one can expect to master it in all areas. She posited that a deep expertise in selective areas, supplemented by a breadth of understanding in multiple areas is an ideal model, not only for workers in leadership positions, but for everyone within an organization. Leaders also need to tap multiple intelligences to perform well: analytical, practical, social, emotional, and contextual. In addition to understanding the dynamics of knowledge, a leader must be conscious of how they apply power.

Featured speaker Ariel Zwang, chief executive officer of Safe Horizon, spoke on the topic “Advancing Your Non-Profit Career.” Zwang described the path that lead to her current position, from her studies in applied math to an MBA to the way in which her work in the financial sector lead to a reassessment of her values and goals. She ultimately identified urban poverty as the social issue to which she has dedicated her career. She advised the audience not to be afraid to explore the next career choice. She also spoke about the necessity of networking. While still in her twenties, Zwang met a Safe Horizon board member. When she heard about a job opening several years later at the organization, the same board member she met before recommended her. She also emphasized broadening one’s skill base by learning about all of the facets of one’s organization.

A panel discussion followed featuring Linda Lausell Bryant, executive director of Inwood House; Rodney Lee, deputy director of The Children’s Aid Society; and Carmen Collado, chief government and community relations officer at Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (JBFCS) and co-chair of the New York State Board for Social Work. Bryant, PhD '13, kicked off the panel with a presentation focused on her leadership experience as a person of color. Early in life, Bryant said she discovered she had to work twice as hard to be on par with non-minority individuals. She shared her experiences as a girl and a young, professional woman with the importance of unspoken messages; defying stereotypes; learning how to define herself lest others define her; and learning conflict resolution, administration, and responsibility. She explained that a leader must know her strengths, competencies, and weaknesses. She expressed that management is what you do, but leadership is about who you are. This further supported a thematic thread that ran through all of the presentations: good leaders must understand themselves.

Lee spoke from the perspective of middle management, which he described as having “information, but not all the information.” He offered insights into growing leadership in oneself, including modeling responsibility and ethics, understanding power dynamics, setting limits, working collaboratively with colleagues, and especially learning the culture of an organization. Lee believes in supervision, investing in others’ professional development, and helping employees unpack trauma. He tries to identify employees’ strengths and, when talking about behavioral changes, not to demoralize people. He noted that employees feel motivated if they know their supervisor is invested in them and that a leader should catch people “doing good,” not just making mistakes.

Collado’s presentation began with a focus on cultivation: of oneself and one’s passion in a profession, as well as employees’. As in Bryant’s presentation, Collado, MSW '92, spoke to her position in leadership from the vantage of a woman of color and expounded on her experience working in a predominantly Jewish organization. Her role at JBFCS has made her reflect on her identity and envision Jewish and Latino communities working together by considering their commonalities. Collado has translated that experience into becoming a bridge between other divergent populations who would benefit from finding common ground.