Professional Leadership for Relationship-Based Practice
A N N A FA I R T L O U G H
Introduction Other chapters in this book advocate for the central importance of relationship-based practice in social work. This chapter explores how we can support the development of these forms and understandings of practice within organisations and the profession as a whole. It argues that professional leadership – conceived as something that we all do throughout our career and not something that is just done by those in senior management positions – is necessary to do this. It will examine the personal and professional qualities that we need in order to foster our own professional leadership and the external conditions and relationships that best enable us to do this. The chapter takes as a case study the career development of a social worker, who is acknowledged as having achieved an exceptional level of skill in systemic-based, relationship-focused practice and has influenced others to practise likewise, and examines transformational, distributed and relationship- based approaches to professional leadership. It argues that to promote relationship-based practice we need to integrate social work values both in what we aim to achieve through our professional leadership and how we choose to exercise it.
Definitions and key concepts Over past decades the concept of leadership, understood as non- coercive influence, has been increasingly central in management studies. Northouse (2013) provides a comprehensive overview of
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leadership theories and demonstrates how these have evolved from study of the characteristics and behaviours of exceptional individuals to examination of the organisational environments in which leadership takes place. Since the beginning of this century, social work management texts have also taken up the theme of leadership (Hafford-Letchfield et al. 2008; Gray, Field and Brown 2010). Hafford- Letchfield et al. (2014) use the idea of ‘inclusive leadership’ to bring effective relationships between people that use and provide services to the forefront of leadership practice in social work and social care. Lawler (2007) provides a useful categorisation of different dimensions of leadership in social work: promoting the public image of social work; improving staff effectiveness, social work leadership of inter- professional activities and social work leadership to counterbalance managerialism.
However, relatively little has been written specifically for professional leadership in social work outside of these management texts. Implicitly linking leadership with management has a number of disadvantages. It tends to de-couple continuing professional expertise from professional leadership and it implies that advancement in a management hierarchy is the sole route to professional leadership. It also tends to obscure the vital role of collaboration between practice and the academy in professional leadership. My own work on professional leadership for social work practitioners and educators (Fairtlough 2017) aimed to contribute to filling this gap and this chapter uses some ideas developed in more depth there. McKitterick (2015) asserts a need for ‘self-leadership’ – that is, consciously influencing one’s thinking, feeling and behaviour to achieve one’s objectives – for social workers to provide confident and skilful social work practice. Self- leadership needs to operate both on an individual basis for social workers, managers and educators, and for the profession as a whole.
The professional capability framework (PCF) introduced in England in 2011–12 provides a useful counter to the management-focused conceptualisation of professional leadership mentioned above. In this framework professional leadership is identified as one of the nine core domains of social work practice (British Association of Social Workers n.d.). It is seen as something that is undertaken by social workers at every stage of their career from novice to expert, though with growing depth, scope and degree of complexity. Although at advanced and strategic levels of practice we may specialise more in either direct
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practice, education or management, professional leadership is essential in all three of these areas. At the time of writing the PCF is being revised. However, the proposed new description of this domain encapsulates how professional leadership is understood in this chapter (College of Social Work 2015), so will be outlined here.
Take responsibility for development of professional leadership appropriate to own role and status. Be proactive in selecting oppor- tunities to model, promote or use professional leadership. Incorporate professional leadership into improving practice standards, influencing inside and outside the profession. Provide and model professional challenge of own and other’s practice. Facilitate the professional learning and development of others through supervision, mentoring, assessing, research, teaching, and management.
Outside the UK context, other definitions have been developed within professional education; the University of North Carolina’s definition1 is highlighted as it adds two other important components of professional leadership: the need for ‘self-knowledge’ and ‘moral courage’. I will return to these two aspects of leadership later in the chapter.
Two sets of concepts from the generic literature on leadership are particularly valuable in illuminating this understanding of social work professional leadership. The first draws from Burns’ (1978) distinction between traditional understandings of management, which saw the management role as being to control the behaviour of subordinates with rewards, punishments and corrective criticism, which he described as ‘transactional leadership’, and ‘transformational leadership’. Transformational leadership is involved with emotions, values and long-term change in people and organisations. Bass (1985) developed a well-known model of transformational leadership and identified four key components: idealised influence that models high ethical standards, inspirational motivation to promote commitment to best practice, intellectual stimulation encouraging creativity and innovation, and individualised consideration for others’ individual abilities and needs.
The second body of ideas relates to what is often known as distributed leadership, but also as dispersed or shared leadership, which conceptualises leadership as something that can potentially arise
1 See https://ssw.unc.edu/files/web/pdf/LeadershipDefinitionandElements.pdf
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in any professional interaction (Bolden 2011). Spillane (2006, p.11) understands distributed leadership to include any ‘activities tied to the core work of the organisation that are designed by organizational members to influence the motivation, knowledge, affect or practices of other organizational members’. Clearly, this can be provided by anybody at any level of the profession: it arises from someone’s actions, not his or her position. Definitions of distributed leadership remain contested but Bennett et al. (2003) identify the following common characteristics:
• emerges within groups of interacting individuals
• exercised by the many not just the few
• openness to the situations and contexts in which leadership can be exercised.
Fairtlough (2005) asserts that hierarchical structures and relationships are often our default position for imagining how to get things done. However, there are alternative ways of getting things done that we can use to exercise distributed professional leadership. One approach that has been identified is ‘heterarchy’. Heterarchy distributes decision- making amongst participants and allows power to be exercised in different directions, laterally and from the bottom up, not just through a pre-determined top-down hierarchy. Multiple forms of knowledge and experience are valued within this framework. Working through inter-professional forums, creating horizontal relationships between people within and across organisations to develop new practices, co- production with service users and carers, and various steering and ‘task and finish’ groups are all examples of heterarchical practices in social work and social work education. In order to exercise distributed leadership we also need to take – and be allowed to take – some degree of ‘responsible autonomy’. Responsible autonomy delegates authority for aspects of decision-making and action-taking to individuals, groups or teams within a transparent framework for accountability. It is similar to the notion of self-leadership discussed above. In any organisation or practice system all three ways of getting things done (hierarchy, heterarchy and responsible autonomy) are likely to be needed, although their precise constellation will be dependent on context and situation.
Whole systems work brings an ecological dimension to thinking about how practice systems can respond to complex problems that
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are not amenable to simple single-agency fixes, such as child sexual exploitation (Pratt, Gordon and Plampling 1999). It provides a useful set of principles and practices for enabling distributed leadership, heterarchy and responsible autonomy. Attwood et al. (2003) identify five keys to this way of working: strategic leadership, public learning, the significance of difference and diversity, different meetings and follow-through actions. Strategic leaders, rather than being the sole initiators of responses to complex practice issues, provide ‘holding frameworks’ that enable others throughout the system to ‘be free to make sense and take action’ (p.61). Public learning signals the importance of genuine collaboration between professionals and service users, carers and the wider public in sense-making and action- taking. Difference and diversity are significant not only in promoting equitable socio-economic and cultural representation but also in terms of incorporating the ideas and perspectives of people from every part of the system. In contrast to traditional conferences or top-down led presentations, whole systems meetings actively engage all participants, taking them out of ‘audience mode’. Pratt et al. (1999, pp.126–132) describe a range of tools that can be used for this purpose. ‘System mapping’ involves participants honestly exploring what would really happen in an archetypal situation. ‘Future search’ invites participants to imagine an aspirational but realistic future and to plan concrete steps together to achieve this. ‘Real time strategic change’ enables policies or practice frameworks to be shaped through conversations between people representing the whole system. People are encouraged to agree to take specific action steps following the meetings. In the turbulent environments in which we work, follow-through actions are often hard to sustain, but engaging people in creating change is the best way to foster their continuing support.
Learning to become a professional leader in relationship-based practice: Nana’s story These ideas are now explored further through the professional social work journey of Nana Bonsu. I first got to know Nana when she was newly in post as a lecturer in the university where Nana was training to be a social worker. I then met her again some 15 years later when Nana returned to the same university to facilitate reflective practice groups with students. Nana’s expertise in relationship-based practice
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was immediately apparent to me and my colleagues and in feedback from students. The following is taken from an in-depth interview with Nana. It makes use of her actual words (in quotation marks) combined with my summaries, reflection and analysis. It covers the stages of Nana’s career from being a student and a newly qualified social worker through to becoming an advanced practitioner who is also supporting the professional development of others. Although Nana has had supervisory responsibilities, her passion is practice and teaching others. The interview used an appreciative enquiry approach, which investigates the circumstances that allow things to work well (Bellinger and Elliott 2011), as Anna’s intention was to find out what had helped Nana to develop her expertise in relationship-based practice and professional leadership. The case study is used to explore the internal and external conditions that best facilitate development of professional leadership for relationship-based practice by educators, practitioners and managers.
‘Being pulled apart and put back together’ Nana’s story begins with her experience of professional training and education.
‘We had to do a lot of peer-directed group-based learning. We had to decide what we were going to do in our project and who would do it. Looking back, it was so clever because it enabled you to work in a multi-disciplinary way early on without realising it. You had to think about how to work with difference. Some people were challenging…and you had to find a way through and come up with a solution. We were there to learn from each other.
Paying attention to issues around race and class and power was very important. There was a real strong sense of involving service users…I became aware of the experiences of marginalised communities. Whose needs get considered? Who gets the resources?
The teaching staff were genuine…I felt we were able to challenge, to say no we don’t want to do it like that. While there was a sense of being assessed there was also a sense of being able to influence things…That’s what made it a safe space. A permission to challenge hierarchy and each other. Sometimes it was difficult
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but I grew from it. I think of myself as having been pulled apart and put back together again. And I wasn’t the same person when I was put back together.’
Nana’s account identifies the following as crucial to this stage of her professional development:
• opportunities to make sense of her learning with peers in self- directed groups
• respect for the expertise of service users
• awakening to issues of power, diversity and justice
• non-hierarchical atmosphere where students’ own experiences and knowledge are valued and students are able to challenge others and staff without fear
• relationships with teaching staff who were genuinely interested in understanding her.
Social work education requires both instrumental learning, which involves abilities to appraise the accuracy and logical coherency of information, and communicative learning, which necessitates participating freely and fully with others in continuing dialogue (Mezirow 2009). Learning involves cognitive, emotional and social dimensions (Illeris 2009). The ‘enquiry and action learning group work model’ (Burgess and Taylor 1996) adopted by the social work programme Nana was undertaking enables students to bring together these different dimensions of learning to actively construct joint learning. Although not all students experience this approach to learning so positively, from Nana’s perspective it provided her with a foundation for lifelong self-directed learning, critical thinking and teamwork skills.
The learning conditions described allow students to make use of heterarchy and responsible autonomy. Learning takes place horizontally within the student group and between students and service users rather than only in a traditional hierarchical relationship with an educator. The students have autonomy to determine aspects of their own learning and choose topics for research. Nana identifies that her learning about how power and diversity operated within the learning groups formed a foundation for her subsequent practice with diverse
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professionals. Her description of being ‘not being the same person when I was put back together’ evokes the idea of transformational learning (Mezirow 2009, p.92), which is defined as ‘the process by which we transform problematic frames of reference (mindsets, habits of mind, meaning perspectives) – sets of assumption and expectation – to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective and emotionally able to change’.
Nana identifies the role that supportive – genuine, individually attuned and accepting – relationships with teaching staff played in enabling her learning. The concept of epistemic trust is of value here. Fonagy and Allison (2014, p.373) define epistemic trust as ‘trust in the authenticity and personal relevance of interpersonally transmitted knowledge’. They suggest that secure attachment is a key pathway for children to develop epistemic trust, which generates confidence in one’s own judgements as well as trust in those from whom one is learning. Similar processes may well be at play when adults learn from each other in social work education and practice.
‘You will go to court but not yet…’ Nana then moved into her first qualified social worker role. She saw other newly qualified colleagues taking on complex child protection court work right at the beginning of their careers. She thought that she too ought to be able to do this. Her manager, however, judged that she was not yet ready. Nana recalls:
‘I felt that’s not fair. She’s holding me back. And I also remember being so nervous about going to someone’s home and talking to them about their problems and then going to child protection conferences and having to explain my work to the conference chair. My manager was right. It was important that I incrementally developed my skills and exposure to more difficult work. I was also in a team with very experienced workers so I was blessed with a lot of knowledge around me. I was able to build my practice on solid ground, to feel contained and grow in confidence.’
The significance of the transition from student to a newly qualified social worker (NQSW) is widely recognised (Walker 2014). Social workers do not always experience the smooth transition that Nana
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describes. As one of the participants in Bates et al.’s (2010, p.162) research put it:
I was supposed to have a slow, gentle introduction, but basically there were a number of crises, so it was a baptism of fire.
Healy, Meagher and Cullin (2009), in their study of novice child protection practitioners in England, Australia and Sweden, found a high proportion of newly qualified social workers were undertaking complex work and many felt they were not ‘supported or protected in the emotionally challenging aspects of their work’ (p.306). If Nana had been allowed – or required – to undertake more challenging professional tasks than she was ready for at that time it is unlikely she would have ever have gained that solid grounding she describes. She might have left within two years as around 50 per cent of child protection workers in Europe do (Frost et al. 2017). Or she might have adopted defensive strategies (Whittaker and Havard 2016) such as being overly risk-averse and reliant on her manager’s judgement, prioritising completing paperwork over direct contact with families, or alternatively developing a superficial confidence to deal with anxiety and insecurity.
NQSWs particularly value managers who recognise the individual person within the professional (Jack and Donnellan 2010). The key professional leadership skills that her supervisor exercised were to accurately identify Nana’s individual level of development, understand how this related to the professional tasks she was asking her to do, and put in place strategies to support her development and protect her case load while she was learning. Nana’s experience, however, may not be typical: 72 per cent of NQSWs (n = 116) surveyed in a study by Manthorpe et al. (2015) reported that supervision helped them improve their professional practice only a little or less. Although this chapter argues that social workers should be enabled to exercise more professional leadership, this is of course not to say that people should be pushed, or push themselves, to act beyond their current level of expertise. Indeed accurate self-knowledge of one’s own capabilities is an essential element of distributed leadership. The other key factor that Nana identifies is having experienced workers around her with whom she could consult, a point echoed in the literature (Grant, Sheridan and Webb 2017).
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‘I did an evening class in hairdressing…’ Nana did develop confidence and skills and started to work with more complex cases, including those that entailed court work, and she became a senior social worker in another local authority. This was not a good time in her career, however. She describes it like this:
‘I started to lose my sense of good social work. It felt that I was just filling in statutory forms. Six years in and I was getting bored. It was soul destroying. I was knocking on people’s doors, demanding that they follow through with a child protection plan. Reading the riot act. These were women who were being abused, and I was making them feel like they were the problem. So I went off and did an evening class in hairdressing. I was seriously thinking of leaving social work.’
Nana’s experience of statutory social child care social work chimes with many studies published at the time. More generally, many practitioners in statutory social work (particularly child protection) settings felt caught up in an overly proceduralised system where direct work with families was increasingly being pushed to the margins. For instance, following an enquiry commissioned by the British government, Munro’s reports into the child protection system (2010, 2011a, 2011b) concluded that it was over-bureaucratised and deterred social workers from using their professional judgment and skills effectively. Priorities had become skewed: there was too much emphasis on compliance with prescribed processes and completing paperwork rather than support for thoughtful, relationship-based practice with children and families.
It is clear that Nana seriously considered leaving social work at this point, reflecting a concerning trend across the profession which has significant implications for, amongst other things, the development of confident and experienced professional leadership. Turnover rates for experienced child care social workers are high not only in England but also in the USA, Canada and Australia (Baginsky 2013). Baginsky highlights the negative effect of poor retention rates on the quality and safety of practice and on the morale and expertise of those remaining in post.
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‘This bravery in me…’ Nana did not leave social work, however, but made a sideways move into a principal social worker role at a family centre. Her experience there was different.
‘My manager there was my secure base who was consistent and reliable. I modelled myself on her. She would challenge me a lot. She would ask critical questions. “So why is that a risk? Who is saying that is a risk?” In the statutory setting it felt like it was “them and us” whereas in the family centre under her management, even though we were working with some of the most difficult court- mandated situations, it was different. She helped me get in contact with myself as a human being. She helped me transform who I was in terms of practice and leadership…to find this bravery in me, to go out and learn about other ways of doing things, to come back and change my organisation.’
Nana recalls some significant pieces of work that marked her growing professional satisfaction and expertise. Through these her manager was helping her to integrate authoritativeness with compassion. In one situation, Nana was enabled to acknowledge her fear of telling one father that they were recommending that his children should not be returned to him and think empathically about his experiences and feelings. The meeting that she had dreaded ended with him shaking her hand and apologising for having previously been abusive to staff.
In this environment Nana was able to rapidly expand both her expertise in relationship-based practice and her professional leadership capabilities. She was one of the first to bring the ‘signs of safety model’2 into the organisation. The signs of safety approach is a strength- based risk assessment model for child protection practitioners that emphasises collaboration with parents in designing safety-orientated plans. Although more widely known now, at that time this model was less used in the UK. Using this model, Nana helped a mother, whose previous four children had been removed from her care, to make changes in her life so that she could safely care for her new baby. Nana helped this woman understand better the impact of previous traumatic experiences, to identify her strengths and to recognise what was now
2 See www.signsofsafety.net
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different in her life. A pivotal moment was when she broke down in tears with Nana for the first time and from then on their work together became more effective because of the trusting nature of the relationship they established. The assessment report that Nana and her colleagues produced was recognised by senior managers as an outstanding piece of work. After this Nana was allocated another complex assessment that might otherwise have been given to a (costly) outside expert. Instead, this expert was employed to give Nana consultation while Nana herself undertook the work.
Another important influence on Nana’s practice at that time was undertaking a Masters level family therapy course. Intellectually, her learning about relationship-based practice and systemic work transformed her practice and helped her incorporate a growing belief in herself as a professional leader. As she gained a reputation on the programme as being the one who would enthuse others about new ideas she began to realise her capabilities as a teacher. Overcoming her fears about her practice being observed resulted in her valuing, as never before, feedback from a reflecting team. This became a cornerstone of her practice. Inspired by the work of Dr Ann York, a local child and adolescent psychiatrist, on promoting reflective practice,3 Nana initiated a visit with her manager to Dr York’s service to learn about how they were implementing multi-disciplinary peer group discussions. Senior managers encouraged and supported Nana and another practitioner to establish similar groups across their organisation. Later, these groups were particularly commended during a formal external inspection of the quality of practice in the organisation.
A number of factors seem to be significant in supporting Nana’s growing capacity to take responsibility for providing leadership for relationship-based and reflective practice in her organisation. Foremost in her account is the relationship with her manager, which enabled Nana to recognise and work with the emotional impacts of the work and empowered her professionally. Nana’s description of her manager as a ‘secure base’ echoes the discussion earlier of epistemic trust: clearly their relationship provided an environment for Nana to critically reflect on her practice and build confidence in her own judgements and expertise. Her manager here is both modelling relationship- based practice skills and demonstrating transformational leadership
3 See http://capa.co.uk/11-key-components/10-peer-group-discussion
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attributes. Nana talks about being supported to find the emotional ‘bravery’, similar to the idea of ‘moral courage’ discussed above, that she needed in order to influence others and proactively introduce new practice methods and organisational innovations. This relationship also allowed Nana to reflect on the affordances and constraints that being an African woman of immigrant parents gave her. On the one hand her family experiences of immigration and of being a black parent in South London afforded her insights into the lives of many families she worked with. However, she also had to overcome the constraints of a self-narrative about not belonging and not being good enough.
Ruch’s (2007a) research identifies the conditions that best enable holistic reflection – that is, reflection that integrates emotional and experiential knowledge and is concerned with sense-making as well as practical or procedural tasks. She proposes a notion of ‘holistic containment’ comprising emotional, epistemological and organisational elements, adapting Bion’s (1968) original formulation. Containment has been defined as the process whereby ‘one person receives and understands the emotional communication of another without being overwhelmed by it, processes it and communicates understanding and recognition back to the other person’ (Douglas 2007, p.33). Emotional containment involves the presence of trusting relationships between practitioners, managers and other professionals, and spaces for emotions to be processed. Epistemological containment provides practitioners with practice frameworks that facilitate integration of multiple forms of knowledge with ethical decision- making. Organisational containment refers to the capacity of an organisation to provide clear and supportive managerial structures and processes. All three elements are present in Nana’s description of the circumstances supporting her professional development at this time.
Nana was able to access significant continuing professional and career development opportunities. The family therapy programme supported her intellectual and professional growth. She describes the reading that she did on that programme about relationship-based and systemic practice as like a ‘light bulb’. The family centre provided an environment that was receptive to her bringing back these ideas to improve their practice and model this for others. Nana’s manager trusted her to act with responsible autonomy. Nana developed confidence in seeking mentoring and consultation from others outside
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the organisation. Senior managers recognised her growing expertise and through providing a ‘holding framework’ were willing to allow her to exercise distributed professional leadership and move beyond a narrow definition of her role. As a result, practice innovation was led not hierarchically by top-down management requirements but heterarchically by those with practice expertise.
‘I want to be creative in my practice and not be stifled…’ Nana is now undertaking a senior family therapist role within children’s services. She had this to say when asked about her next steps in social work:
‘I like the idea of being a professional leader. I think I have the right attributes. I have something that people want, they come to me. I think social work is a kind of political thing. I question what is happening, if certain issues come up, if certain sections of the community are not being served. I have the confidence to say things are not good enough. To challenge and to find solutions. I want to be creative in my practice and not be stifled, to develop new projects. These are the things that excite me.’
One new professional leadership activity she is undertaking is the role of ‘teaching consultant’. This role has been developed as part of a Teaching Partnership that provides formal links between the university and three local authority partners. As part of these arrangements, practitioners, recognised for their expertise in specific areas of practice, come into the university to teach social work students alongside academic staff, which has had the effect of bringing social work practitioners and academics closer together. Nana has been involved in ‘intervision’ groups, which offer students a space to reflect on practice experiences that they are finding challenging (Akhurst and Kelly 2006). As its name suggests, ‘intervision’ emphasises horizontal relationships between colleagues rather than the vertical, hierarchical relationship intrinsic to supervision. Like other structured reflection models, intervision aims to provide an emotionally containing space in which participants can critically examine conscious and unconscious assumptions and develop new insights into practice situations (Ruch 2007b; Fook 2010). The groups are informed by relationship-based,
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psychodynamic, systemic perspectives and by critical social theory. A particular feature of intervision groups is that they are peer-led; relationships are non-hierarchical, with the roles of presenter, facilitator, note-taker and group member being interchangeable. There are clear expectations for each of these roles and ground rules encouraging curiosity, respect for multiple perspectives and attention to processes of power and participation. The facilitator plays a key role in keeping time, managing the process and encouraging application of the ground rules. Groups use the following format:
• The presenter presents their dilemma and key question for the group.
• The presenter listens to, but does not actively participate in, the group members’ reflection on their hunches, feelings and fantasies about and analysis of the situation.
• The presenter gives feedback on their responses.
• Group members, again without the presenter, consider potential solutions to the presenter’s question.
• The presenter reflects on their learning and insights.
• The whole group reflects on key learning.
Nana thinks that what she can offer as a facilitator is to act as a role model so students can learn how to use the groups effectively. She had this to say about her contribution to intervision groups:
‘I was trying to fuse what I have learned throughout my practice and my family therapy training. The idea that we can use peer supervision in a collaborative way to challenge ourselves. To help students think about how they position themselves in terms of their race, their class, their ability, and what that might mean about how they position the families they work with. With peers who are positioned differently…it can help us to take a different stance…I wanted to model how we can have conversations with each other, how to ask clarifying questions, how to hone down what the presenter wants. Everybody had the chance to act as the facilitator after watching me do it.’
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Feedback on the experience of participating in one of these groups suggests that students found that the intervision groups helped them think about relationship-based practice issues and provided an emotionally containing environment in which to explore dilemmas they were experiencing during practice learning. The groups served as an important bridge between practice and academy. For some students, the groups provided a powerful experience of intimacy and trust not found elsewhere in the taught programme or in their placement agencies. Students identified that the involvement of teaching consultants, such as Nana, was particularly valuable. Nana was thus supporting the students to use holistic reflection through providing for them, in a parallel process, the holistic containment that she herself has experienced, and thereby enabling students to learn about and become professional leaders for relationship-based practice themselves.
In terms of her professional practice, Nana is interested in developing relationship-based practice interventions that go beyond work with individuals and families and extend into the wider community. She describes how she has worked with some young women who were vulnerable to child sexual exploitation (CSE).
‘I had a spate of girls going missing. I was going into different homes and it was the same story in each of them. So I said to the mothers – I had a moment’s hesitation about the ethics of this but I took the risk – “I know that your daughter is with so-and-so because they go missing together.” I had a meeting with all these girls and they brought their friends. I asked a female colleague in my team to join the meeting. We had a massive group of girls in the room eating fried chicken. And we asked: “What is going on out there when you go missing? Do you guys know what CSE is?” There was this girl, she was a bit older and was almost taking on the role of a therapist but using their colloquial language. She was saying, “Do you want to know what others are calling you?” The girls were affronted that they were known as girls that gave “sexual favours” but it made them think. I had a meeting with the mothers too. They all shared numbers and agreed what they would do when the girls went missing. That was more sensible and useful than sitting in endless meetings with the police.’
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The Teaching Partnership referred to earlier provides a vehicle by which ‘whole systems working’ could be deployed to develop this piece of work. The Teaching Partnership Board, which comprises senior staff from the partner agencies and provides governance for the partnership, is committed to supporting distributed leadership and is in the process of agreeing a common practice framework with relationship-based practice at its core. This provides the necessary ‘holding framework’. The young woman who ‘acted like a therapist’ demonstrates the expertise already existing within local communities. This initiative incorporates the principle of ‘public learning’ discussed earlier as young people and parents are being empowered to make sense of what is happening in their communities and co-produce solutions (Social Care Institute for Excellence 2013, updated 2015). The relationships that Nana has built while undertaking this piece of work and those that have been developed between practitioners, experts by experience, academics and managers through the various activities of the Teaching Partnership would form a nucleus of people to develop new responses to child sexual exploitation in this locality. A whole system event could deploy a system-mapping exercise to bring together young people and families from communities affected by child sexual exploitation, social workers and their managers at all levels, social work academics, and other professionals such as police officers or teachers to honestly examine what is happening when young women go missing and use ‘future search’ to imagine alternative options. Once these options have been developed, ‘real time strategic change’ strategies could be used to shape new policies and practices. Academic partners could play a role in undertaking action research on this initiative or supporting others to do so.
Conclusion This chapter has explored the place of professional leadership in promoting and sustaining relationship-based practice. Professional leadership has been understood as something that social workers undertake at all stages of their career, and as practitioners and educators, not only as managers. The idea of distributed leadership emphasises the actions that people take rather than the position they hold. The concepts of heterarchy and responsible autonomy have been proposed as mechanisms to understand how distributed leadership can
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be exercised. Whole systems working offers some useful principles and tools for organisations and practice systems seeking to promote distributed professional leadership. Teaching Partnerships provide an example of one organisational model for facilitating diverse groups of people from a practice system to come together to achieve these aims.
The chapter has traced a practitioner’s journey from student social worker to expert professional leader. It demonstrates that in order to have strategic influence it is not necessary to become a senior manager, provided practitioners are supported to develop the necessary personal and professional qualities and, crucially, are given opportunities to exercise distributed leadership. Nana’s account highlights the central role of relationships with peers, educators and managers in her continuing professional development. She describes the transformational effect of one manager who provided her with a secure base from which she could learn and try out new ways of working. Many social workers report that they feel ill-prepared for the transition from practitioner to front-line manager, which suggests that organisational attention to support for the continuing professional development for supervisors and managers is also vital (Patterson 2015). The concept of holistic containment, comprising emotional, epistemological and organisational components, provides a model for understanding how organisations can support the conditions needed for social workers, managers and educators to embed relationship- based practice.
Professional leadership for relationship-based practice requires personal and professional qualities of confidence, courage and self- awareness as well as expertise in the practice itself. Nana’s story suggests that these qualities are best fostered when they are mirrored in the relationships between educators, practitioners and managers. Although Nana’s rapid development occurred when she moved away from a child protection team into a family centre there is no reason why this is necessarily so. After all, she was working with the same families in the same complex situations. Although, as acknowledged earlier, 50 per cent of child protection workers leave within two years of practice, Frost et al.’s (2017) international research focuses on the factors that explain why 50 per cent of child protection workers stay. Their multi-layered findings resonate with much of what has been discussed in this chapter: while well-established factors such as workload management, good supervision and supportive colleagues
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featured highly in their participants’ accounts they found that ‘creativity, power, reflective spaces and interpersonal relationships’ (p.1) were also important. All these factors have been important for Nana too and without opportunities to exercise and experience them she might well have left social work. Perhaps we could all agree that although Nana would undoubtedly have been a great hairdresser, hairdressing’s gain would have been the social work profession’s loss.