Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

16048 Using Oral History to Understand Leadership and Leadership Development

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 8:00 AM
Independence E (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Michael Reisch, PhD, Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor of Social Justice, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Background Issues of leadership and leadership development have long been a concern of the social work profession and social work educators. These concerns have intensified recently due to the the profession's declining influence in the policy arena and the impending retirement of a large leadership cohort in higher education and social service agencies. Educators and professional spokespersons have called for increased efforts to identify and nurture a new generation of leaders, particularly among women and minorities of color (Patti, 2009; McKimm & Phillips, 2009). There remains significant uncertainty, however, about how to achieve this goal. In addition to the age-old debate – Are leaders born or made? – scholars differ over what leadership characteristics should be cultivated, the best means to do so, and the types of leaders best suited to the changing policy and practice environment (Hafford-Letchfield, 2008). Through the use of oral histories and in-depth interviews of established leaders, this paper attempts to shed some light on these issues by examining the factors that shaped their development, identifying common and differential features of their careers, and distinguishing those aspects of their lives and careers which were unique to their generation from those which may be relevant today. Methods Oral histories and in-depth interviews were conducted over a five-year period by the author and several research assistants, whom the author trained. Subjects were identified through the use of key informants and a snowball sampling method. Efforts were made to ensure that the sample was diverse in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, generation, and field of practice. IRB approval was obtained for the research; all subjects signed release forms prior to being interviewed. The subjects' careers were roughly evenly divided between higher education and public policy/administration, although a significant number of educators had experience outside the academy. The open-ended taped interviews were approximately an hour long; oral histories took between 2-6 hours, sometimes taking two sessions. Both were transcribed. Results were analyzed independently by three readers, who identified common terms and experiences among the subjects. Results Major findings of this research included (1) Changes in the political and cultural environment played a critical role in determining the leadership opportunities that emerged, particularly for women and persons of color; (2) Family background and the presence or absence of mentors were more important factors in shaping the careers of women and persons of color than for white males; (3) Women and minorities of color faced an easier path to leadership within the non-profit sector than in either universities or the public sector. Conclusion and Implications The study underscores the importance of context in defining the nature of leadership, developing its vital characteristics, and matching leaders to the environmental set in which they work. It questions the value of a “one size fits all” model of leadership development by emphasizing the need to use diverse methods to recruit and train a diverse cohort of leaders for an increasingly diverse society. This has implications for social work education, in-service training, and research on leadership effectiveness.
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