The Power to Transform: Leadership in Human Services Organizations

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Human Services workers assist applicants with information about childcare at a job fair.

While Human Services and Social Work share several areas of overlap, they are two distinct fields. Both are concerned with empowerment and the overall good of the community. Social workers more often operate in the field, taking a much more hands-on approach to enable clients to take control of their lives. They share the resources needed directly with individuals.

Human services leaders are more focused on empowering their staff to better serve their clients rather than working directly with the public. To support social workers and other employees, human services leaders work to ensure the longevity of their department or agency and maximize the impact they have on the community as a whole.

To accomplish these goals, they must use adaptive management techniques, creative problem solving, and strategic planning. They are not only invested in the success of their organization, but they also concern themselves with the vitality of collective partnerships across the social sector they work in.

Empowering Staff

In the field of human services, it’s important that organizations address more than just immediate needs, but rather take a whole-person approach to address the root cause of client’s issues and coming up with solutions. For this to happen, leaders must give employees in various departments the freedom to collaborate and work together. Teams need to make cross-department connections and ensure they are not duplicating services.

Human services leaders empower their staff by tearing down barriers and encouraging collaboration and connection between departments and even organizations. Developing a strategic plan ensures the organization is working toward common goals instead of each department or individual pursuing their own.

This creates a company culture of cooperation instead of competition and allows clients to be treated as whole people and whole families, resulting in an outcomes-based focus.

Ensuring Organizational Longevity

In any endeavor, the scope of what an organization can do is often limited by two things: time and money. To maximize the effectiveness of both of these things, leaders and their staff alike must be innovative.

“The only way to change the lives of families and systems is to be inside them,” says Virginia Pryor, Deputy Director of Child Welfare for the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services. “You have to be in there day in and day out.”

Allowing for creative solutions means sometimes relinquishing control and leaving some things ambiguous, empowering employees and giving them not only the freedom to figure things out, but to implement change. “Adaptive challenges are complex and deeply rooted because they involve capacity building, said Ronald Heifetz, founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Not only do they require entire organizations to venture into the unknown, but the journey itself can also be highly disruptive.”

This often means giving up the older, more structured approach many organizations operate in, meeting the objection of “we have never done it that way” with conviction and confidence that change will result in better overall outcomes for everyone.

At the same time, a good human services leader must understand that a one size fits all approach will not work with organizations any more than it does with individuals. Each organization, whether a non-profit offering family support, a service to the homeless, or a government entity providing support to women and children in crisis, is unique in its goals and purpose. A leader in a human services organization is often not granted the ability to make autonomous decisions in the way other managers might be.

Human services organizations often include multiple stakeholders, working with many outside organizations, and contain internal departments that may have overlapping areas of responsibility.

Therefore, developing a long term strategy despite the short term funding cycles often present, and determining what is both practical, proactive, and sustainable is an essential part of the job.

Strengthening Collective Partnerships

While ensuring the organization’s longevity is essential, human services organizations typically have an overall goal to strengthen the community across a broad social sector, sometimes more than one.

As a result, human services leaders must work together with other community leaders, government agencies, non-profit groups, and faith-based agencies to ensure that the needs of the community are being met. A working definition of a partnership is “a collaborative relationship between entities to work toward shared objectives through a mutually agreed division of labor.”

This includes working together to accomplish similar overall goals.

  • Minimize or eliminate duplication of services when not necessary
  • Maximizing the sharing of resources and personnel across organizations
  • Nurturing a spirit of cooperation instead of competition
  • Encouraging a whole person/whole family approach across organizational lines

This can be a challenging task. Not all organizations operate on the same principles, and many have their own bureaucratic obstacles to navigate as well.

This requires one leader at a time, one organization at a time approach, and a realization that not everyone will want to adapt in equal ways. “During the course of these partnerships, organizations often evolve as they learn more about effective management, build capacity, and gain valuable experiences,” shares Mark Publow, who helped develop the Partnerships: Framework for Working Together guidebook for the Compassion Capital Fund. In that sense, partnerships act as learning mechanisms that teach you to be better at what you do and enable you to achieve your goals.”

Developing Needed Skills

Human services leaders need a wide range of skills to manage staff, organizational priorities, and external relationships.

  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Analytical and Critical Thinking Skills
  • Communication Skills
  • Cross-cultural Understanding
  • Human Resource Management
  • Financial Management
  • Marketing
  • Project Management
  • IT Management

In addition, a human services leader must also be able to advocate for social justice, fundraise, and build relationships with complementary agencies and community groups. All of the skills of social work management must also be combined with these executive management skills to ensure the best outcomes.

Students in the Masters of Counseling will develop these skills and gain knowledge that will prepare them to step into these vital roles in the human services field where they can start making a difference in their communities right away.

Additional Reading

Human Services vs Social Work: What’s the Difference?


Government Technology, Adaptive Leadership Rises in Human Services
Accenture, The 2019 Health and Human Services Summit 
Bretton Woods Project, Partnerships For Development: A New World Bank Approach
Accenture, Public Service Consulting