Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Leadership research pays off

Written by: on December 7, 2017

In an effort to elevate leadership to a higher intellectual plane, Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana bring together the most important scholars from fields as diverse as psychology, sociology, economics, and history in an attempt to shape the academic discipline of leadership.[1] The Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice is comprehensive and evidenced based – in that it compiles research and theories and sets the stage for the next generations’ research agenda.[2]  The majority of reviews of the book were positive (including mine), but I did unearth some concern from the non-academic readers who found the material to be “too academic” and from consultant Robert Morris who questioned the styles of leadership highlighted:  “I’m not saying that questions such as these should not be asked…and answered…I wondered what non-“scholars” also think about various issues. For example, those who head the leadership development programs for the military services (including the academies located at West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs) and those who head the leadership development programs at major corporate universities (e.g. Accenture, ADP, KPMG, Motorola, and Ritz-Carlton).”[3]  Morris makes a valid point – these institutions are experts in their leadership development.  Have Nohria and Khurana made a grave error in omitting research and/or input from them?  Perhaps…but I’m of the mindset research is essential and I’m curious if the above mentioned organizations have done due diligence to show assessment and outcomes of their leadership style.  The days of anecdotal evidence should be over!  Obviously, not everyone will agree on leadership experts, styles, or theories.  I, however, am anxious to explore and implement some of the valuable material I gleaned.

With education and training in social work, I organically navigate towards chapters six (Psychological Perspectives), seven (Clinical Approach), and eight (Classic Sociological Approaches).  Surprisingly (because I see myself as more of a sociologist), I connected most with the Psychological perspective.  Personally, I know the type of leader I prefer to have as a supervisor and the type of leader I aspire to be.  “More than a means of getting ahead and gaining power, leadership must be understood as a serious professional and personal responsibility.”[4] In the social work profession we become experts in human behavior, assertive communication, empathy, and empowerment.  These skills appear to align perfectly with the psychological perspective of leadership.  Experts in the leadership field may argue, however, that social workers are too “soft and kind” and too “quick to spend money on social issues.” I want to refute that attitude and compare and contrast the psychological leadership perspective to the values of social work.

According to the Psychological Perspective in The Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, the following three elements drive leadership success:

  1. Leaders as Astute Diagnosticians – “Leadership is a diagnostic activity requiring a person to ask, in each situation, “What is the maximum and unique value that a leader could bring to this situation?” This also includes the ability to self-regulate and skills of emotional intelligence (ability to assess social and emotional cues in a situation)[5]
  2. Flexible and Self-Aware Behavioral Repertoire – “Once a leader has accurately diagnosed a situation, she needs to have a broad and flexible behavioral repertoire to respond appropriately across a wide array of complex situations.” This also includes adaptability and openness. “One way that leaders may become viewed as reliable by followers is by adhering consistently to their values”[6]
  3. Understanding the Leadership Paradox – “leaders need to embrace the paradox of leadership; that their success is unequivocally derived through others.”[7]

One of the most impactful statements in this section is “We focus here on the importance of publicizing members’ strengths with the group.”[8]  This emphasis on strengths in the psychological perspective is a perfect segue to examining the core values of social work practice.  The core values of the profession include: service, social justice, dignity and worth of a person, the importance of human relationships, integrity and competence. Ethical social work practice requires the professional to utilize the “strengths perspective” to empower and uplift others. There are additional similarities as well.

“Training in social work can be valuable for leaders of all kinds and in all fields because the core values of a social worker are often the same qualities that make a good leader.”[9] What does leadership look like in our profession? According to Julie Goldberg, the following are some performance standards that distinguish strong, professional social work leaders:[10]

  1. Understanding Organizations – “As any social worker will tell you, at the very foundation of social work is the knowledge of how organizations work at their most basic levels. In order to make change within a system, you need to know how that system works. This means possessing institutional knowledge and understanding both professional and community organizations and resources, as well as having the interpersonal skills necessary to work with a variety of people.”[11] I like to connect this with the third element of Psychological Perspective of “Understanding the Leadership Paradox.”
  2. Facilitating Communication – “To be a good social work leader, you’ve also got to be able to say what you mean — and vice versa.” According to the website Social Justice Solutions, social workers are trained “to assess the needs of systems and individuals and create an holistic approach to address these needs.” This means strong communication skills are key, especially when you’re constantly working with other people and maintaining relationships with trust and respect. Good social workers and good leaders use verbal and nonverbal communication skills to establish and maintain relationships of mutual respect, acceptance and trust. “At the same time, a good social work leader is sensitive to other people, showing respect to age, class, disability, ethnicity, family structure, gender, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation.” This social work ethic correlates with the first element of the Psychological Perspective of being a “diagnostician”. Recognizing forms and mechanisms of discrimination and knowing how to take appropriate measures to prevent or mitigate them are at the core of a social worker’s mission. Essentially, a good social work leader possesses the cultural competence to work with people whose backgrounds may be different than their own.”[12]
  3. Championing Change – “So once you’ve got the foundation, what’s next? For a social worker, the main goal is to continually improve the status quo.” This specifically correlates to the second element of the Psychological Perspective of being “flexible and self-aware.” A dedication to social justice in all its forms means that fair leadership is vitally important to social workers. Through this leadership, social workers are able to provide one of the most important services of the profession – addressing unmet needs. From providing quality housing to organizing community support to ensuring that the needs of children are met, social workers become leaders by taking the initiative to make positive change. “Most important, a good social work leader possesses the moral courage to employ strategies that both empower clients and lead others to adopt the promotion of social justice.”[13]

“Social work leadership has been defined as “the capacity to work creatively, constructively and effectively with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities to promote social justice, catalyze social change, and address individual and social problems.” The qualities that make an effective social worker — comprehensive organizational knowledge, excellent communication skills and unfaltering commitment to effecting positive change — are the same qualities that the best leaders in the world possess.”[14]

The opportunity to read, analyze, and apply leadership theories, in a cultural context, is the most exciting and important role of the DMin. program.  Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana have done an excellent job of compiling not just their thoughts – but the research and outcomes of many experts – related to leadership practice.  I’m excited to keep this text as a future resource and highly recommend its reading to all developing leaders.

[1] https://www.leadershipnow.com/leadershop/9781422138793.html

[2] https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/8486713

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Leadership-Theory-Practice-Nohria/product-reviews/1422138798/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_paging_btm_next_2?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=all_reviews&pageNumber=2

[4] https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/8486713

[5]      Nohria, Nitin & Rakesh Khurana. Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice. (Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, Boston). 2010

[6] Nohria, Handbook of Leadership

[7] Nohria, Handbook of Leadership

[8] Nohria, Handbook of Leadership. loc2042

[9] https://socialworklicensemap.com/why-the-best-social-workers-make-the-best-leaders/

[10] https://socialworklicensemap.com/why-the-best-social-workers-make-the-best-leaders/

[11] https://socialworklicensemap.com/why-the-best-social-workers-make-the-best-leaders/

[12] https://socialworklicensemap.com/why-the-best-social-workers-make-the-best-leaders/

[13] https://socialworklicensemap.com/why-the-best-social-workers-make-the-best-leaders/

[14] https://socialworklicensemap.com/why-the-best-social-workers-make-the-best-leaders/

About the Author

Jean Ollis

4 responses to “Leadership research pays off”

  1. M Webb says:


    Good point about the authors not referencing the military academies. In short, the military model removes “I” and instills “Team” into each cadet as they begin their journey into 4 years of academics and then a career in their selected service area. To do this, they use physical activity, fatigue, regimented standards, stress, and other means to instill discipline, honesty, ethics, and a sense of community or team. They give the cadets small opportunities to lead along the way which develop into larger leadership opportunities in the future. This tried and proven model may be a little too strict for our authors, but I know it works and can be adapted into the workplace after fulfilling one’s service to their country.

    I enjoyed your apologetic narrative for social work in the ministry marketplace. I can see you doing awesome works, already prepared for you, for the Lord in the foreign mission field. Have you thought about that someday?

    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  2. Greg says:


    I hate to admit I didn’t read those chapters and was drawn to topics that interested me a little more. After reading you blog I feel like I missed out on some quality stuff. I would like to have this book in printed form rather than digital so I can treat it more as a resource than a straight read through. Good job related it to your life in social work.

  3. Jean,

    I appreciated your observations on the chapters of Nohria and Khurana that zeroed in on psychological and sociological approaches to understanding leadership.

    In social work, the third goal you cited was that of helping people advance out of the status quo to a desired future. I share this passion – I hope to be an agent of change.

    I wonder if there’s any times when the status quo becomes our friend instead of something we are continually trying to move beyond?

    I have appreciated your insights this fall in this course and will pray for you and your family as you settle in to enjoying Christmas together. Merry Christmas!

  4. Kyle Chalko says:

    Jean, the research in this book was it’s redeeming factor for me. The part I struggled with was the claim that this was going to “elevate” the conversation of leadership. I think this comes from the posture of Academics that they see themselves as living in the elevated space, so when they talk about it, its elevated too.

    You were on to this when you brought up, what about the research done by Fortune 500 companies? Is that not thorough enough to be accepted?

    Also I’m curious if you have read any research/data-driven leadership books like Good To Great, or anything that Jim Collins does. There are others like him, but he is the best. I know im being a fanboy to this Collins, but there is also a follow up called “Good to Great in the Social Sector” which you might be particularly interested in.

    Your application to the field of social work was spot on. Great job bringing it home. I could see you teaching this as a leadership lesson to a group of social workers.

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