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Experiencing Social Work Leadership Through The Story Of A Social Work Leader

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Table of contents

  1. Transformational
  2. Authentic
  3. Complexity theory
  4. Feminist
  5. References

Social Work is a dynamic and ever-changing field which over the decades has evolved and melded itself around so many facets of not only individual’s lives, but communities and countries, with the aim of illuminating, enhancing and attending to social issues for a better collective wellbeing.

This essay concerns itself with identifying a leader in Social Work and the analysis of the leadership style and values this individual possesses which has enabled them to become the leader they are recognised as. The leader this writer has chosen for the purpose of this essay, well-known and regarded as a pioneer in the field of Social Work, Mary Ellen Richmond. The rationale for the writer choosing this leader in Social Work took several deciding factors into account:

  1. Drawing on the writer’s understanding that Social Work is a multifaceted profession, which encompasses so many skills, theories, lenses and trains of thought from various disciplines, that a leader in this field would most definitely demonstrate equally multifaceted attributes.
  2. The writer wanted to identify a female Social Work leader as the writer identifies that gender roles and stereotypes are still an apparent social issue in contemporary settings.
  3. The writer wanted to focus on an individual that did not come from a wealth or background of academia, but rather someone who had lived experience, as the writer identifies through her own professional practice in Social Work, that a lived experience is invaluable and is not always something that can be gained from pages in a book.

Mary Ellen Richmond as Agnew (2004, p.5) defined, was a leader, theorist and teacher in the field of Social Work, with Mary citing that research needs to occur before a diagnosis can occur, it was with this in mind that Mary developed the content and methodology for diagnosis, defining that the care of an individual needed to focus on the individual within their situation. Mary called this diagnostic, ‘Social Diagnosis’ (Richmond, 1917 p. 26). Specifically, Mary developed a circle diagram demonstrating the interaction between individual and their environment. In this, she identified six sources of power which are available to the individual and their social worker; these can be found within the individual themselves, in the home environment, community and agencies. This diagram and its sources were perhaps the precursor for Systems Theory, which was developed further by Brofenbrenner (Harms, 2010 p.10) and is actively used in contemporary Social Work practice.

By Mary’s approach to research, she was able to give the clients of Social Work a voice, which is ultimately the cornerstone of advocacy in our modern day Social Work practice. Through this approach she uncovered a new area of social research, which instructed Social Workers on information gathering, interview methodologies, establishing rapport and conducting conversations. Her second publication “What is social casework?” introduced and unpacked the methodology around learning from cases, providing several practice situations (case studies in our modern practice) and focused on the psychological elements of a client’s situation. Mary’s social casework methodology was aimed at the resilience of the individual and involving them in the process of resolving their situation (Richmond, 1922 p. 88).

The writer can clearly identify these elements in the fundamental social work theories of psychodynamic, strengths, critical and task centred and their application in practice, given the familiarities with regard to information gathering, identifying strengths, unpacking interactions and understanding what will elicit change.

Mary’s research and subsequent publications were fundamental in providing social worker’s casework with strong professional presence, something that is still an issue the Social Workers advocate for in contemporary practice. It cannot be disputed that Mary’s research and application has set the path for modern day social work. Her leadership in the field not only created a voice for the client, but a voice for Social Work as a profession.

This writer has determined through literary analysis, that Mary adopted more than one leadership style in her research and practice, these are identified as:

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Mary demonstrated inspirational motivation by taking the individual into consideration in her work. She was radical in the sense that she wanted to look at things differently, she earned trust and advocated for those without a voice but also motivated others to do advocate for themselves also. An example of one of these contributions was her research and publication of “Nine Hundred Eighty-five Widows”, which researched families and the financial resources of widows and how they were treated by social welfare systems (Richmond, 1913). Armed with this research, she went on to fight for legislation for deserted wives (Agnew, 2004 p. 113).


As touched on earlier, Mary came from humble beginnings, which provided her with authentic lived experience which prompted her research; specifically being orphaned at 7 years old and raised by her widowed Grandmother, who was an active advocate for women’s inequality and suffrage and taught Mary the fundamentals for critical thinking about those who were disadvantaged (Agnew, 2004 p.8). It is apparent that Mary had a genuine interest in improving the quality of life for others and demonstrated this through relational transparency – in that she shared information openly and genuinely in order for it to be a foundation of practice to be utilised, challenged and improved upon (Gardner, 2016 p. 159).

Complexity theory

Mary is considered a visionary for her research and practice, and the writer identifies the complexity theory of leadership in her style in that she relied upon critical theory to identify all aspects of a social worker’s role in an individual’s life. This can be demonstrated once again with her research into widowed and abandoned wives and the application of her ‘Social Diagnosis’ diagnostic tool and the understanding of all the elements that interact within an individuals life and aligns with Uhl-Bien and Marions (2009, p. 3) definition of complexity theory as a leadership style which conveys strong interconnections.


Unequivocally, another of Mary’s leadership style’s had a feminist lens, purely on lived experience alone, Mary was home schooled educated by her grandmother and aunts (Agnew, 2004 p.8) and was exposed to critical, feminist viewpoints regarding the treatment of widows. Her research was spurred by a letter from the Charity Organisation Department of the Russell Sage Foundation, requesting particular attention of the methods in which widows with children were treated. Armed with her research of 985 widows, Mary was able to apply her diagnostic social work tool and ascertain the adequacy. Further, Mary examined family-by-family, which provided a ratio, however she also measured the care – something not easily expressed by numbers, her term being ‘relief’, but something she hoped could be utilised to encourage better practice (Richmond, 1913 p. 7-9).

Montalvo’s (1982) study into the ‘third dimension of social casework’ states that Mary’s conceptualisation of family group therapy set the path for clinical practice, which was only realised some thirty years on and we see shades of it in applying our Systems (as mentioned), Strengths and Critical theories, today.

Mary’s approach looked at the empowerment and recognised the importance of what a family can do/achieve, learn, enjoy and feel which will help them. From the beginning, Mary’s diagnostic assessment questions related to the family unit’s relationships, values and goals, but at the same time did no detract from the individual of focus and their interactions with the unit. Many of the diagnostic questions remain familiar to contemporary family functioning therapy, which can be found in the appendices of Richmond’s (1917, p. 457-464) “Social Diagnosis”.

The reader identifies that Mary’s research and practice has undoubtedly created the foundations for modern systems therapy practice, despite the influx of the psychoanalytic phase of casework, which occurred with Freud’s research into human behaviours and the like, however, Montalvo’s (1982, p. 104) study stated that Mary’s work may have “prophesised” the development of family psychology and its treatment. Not only has Mary’s published theoretical works significantly impacted change for the importance of the recognition od professional social work and its methodologies for application, her research underpinned many of her advocacies and lobbies to address legislation for social change– particularly those issues affecting women and children.

Mary’s quote exemplifies the nature of her work and why it still works so we in practice today; “The charity worker together with the cooperative spirit, is always thinking of things he can do with the family and the worker who lacks this spirit can only think what he can do for them”


  1. Agnew, E. N. (2004). From charity to social work: Mary E. Richmond and the creation of an American profession. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  2. Gardner, F., and Gardner, F. (2016). Working with human service organisations. Retrieved from
  3. Harms, L. (2010). Understanding Human Development: A multidimensional approach (2nd ed.). South Melbourne, Vic.: Oxford University Press.
  4. Montalvo, F. (1982). The third dimension in social casework: Mary E. Richmond's contribution to family treatment. Clinical Social Work Journal, 10(2), 103-112.
  5. Richmond, M. (1913). Nine-hundred and Eighty Five Widows. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  6. Richmond, M. (1917). Social diagnosis. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  7. Richmond, M. (1922). What is Social Casework: An introductory description. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  8. Uhl-Bien, M., and Marion, R. (2009). Complexity leadership in bureaucratic forms of organising: A meso model. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 631–650.
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Experiencing Social Work Leadership Through The Story Of A Social Work Leader. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2023, from
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