Prioritizing Leadership Development in Our Field

By: Charmaine Brittain, Butler Institute for Families, University of Denver
Tracy Wareing Evans, APHSA

October 2018


Today’s health and human services agencies recognize the importance of leadership development, yet too often don’t know which direction to take, or get wrapped up in trying to follow the latest leadership fads. Instead, agencies should eschew trendy approaches and focus on solid strategies and principles that embody timeless messages, including distributing leadership, focusing on strengths, and developing a learning culture.

Distributive leadership means developing leadership at every organizational level to acknowledge the contribution made by all staff—as the frontline staff of today will lead agencies tomorrow. Leadership development has shifted from an executive-level focus to recognizing the importance of leadership development for all agency levels, which then provides the impetus to shift organizational culture.

Constant Learning

An appreciation and focus on strengths is embodied in a distributive leadership approach and that, in turn, leads to a learning culture. Too often in our institutional thinking we want to believe that every organization is a learning organization, but in order to make that happen, we need to constantly be thinking about how staff learn and develop at all levels. Leadership development is not a course that you take once and are done. Instead, a learning culture requires a constant appreciation for differences, and should be a place where mistakes can be made safely and learning is encouraged. This thinking is in alignment with the reality of today’s workforce as it becomes more and more populated by the millennial generation.

According to the Pew Research Center, the millennial generation continues to assert their power in the workforce with over 56 million people, compared to 53 million from Generation X and 41 million Baby Boomers. Motivating this generation requires a different approach, including an emphasis on offering meaningful work, work-life balance, career development, effective preparation, and a tech-savvy environment.

A New Approach

Health and human service agencies must engage this generation differently and shift their expectations if we want them committed to the field, not to just one job. Agencies that focus on distributive leadership and a learning culture will resonate with the millennial generation. Health and human service agencies need to prioritize leadership development so that they can fulfill their missions serving vulnerable families and communities across the nation. Leadership in health and human services can be the cornerstone for how we can achieve thriving communities.