Humanity, Social Work/Helping Profession/Mental Health

Social Work, Leadership and Community

A fabulous leadership book which has  important lessons for any profession is Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage by Richard Stengel. Where Westernized society is focused on individualism with its roots in the Renaissance,  the culture that Mandela comes from believes in ubuntu-brotherhood.

A phrase that comes from a Zulu proverb, Umuntu ngumuntu ngabanto which is translated as:  “A person is a person through other people.”  Community, where we do nothing on our own is very different from individualism. “Ubuntu sees people less as individuals than as part of a complex web of other human beings.”

To me, there is a link with social work and other helping professions. We are not an island to ourselves. The end goal is to help others, but also to integrate individuals into society at large. We are not just individuals, but individuals that are part of a larger community.

Those that choose to live with others of their own culture or ethnicity do so for the sense of community, similar values, similar beliefs, similar food preferences; because of culture and familiarity. In reality no matter what religion or culture we are, all humans are part of the ‘larger’ community.

After reading this book I admired Mandela’s vision and end goal even while in confinement in prison. He wanted the people of South Africa to live together. He wanted blacks to have freedom in their land and to be part of the overall community and for whites to accept and welcome this. Now, many may not agree, but when you think about it, we are all humans who happen to have different religious beliefs and practices, who come from different cultures and have a mixture of traditions, values and morals.  This does not mean that we cannot work towards the larger goal of the community. This larger community is all cultures, ethnicities and religions mixing; living in neighborhoods together, attending school together, working together while respecting one another.  Perhaps this is a dream of mine, but I think it is a great dream.

A leader is one who shows his leadership in public and private and they are the same. The values are the same and no contradictions. Leaders at times will disappoint and not fulfill promises, but the goal is to reach the majority. Leaders listen to both sides and hope each will see and hear what the other is stating. Typically the two sides can merge their ideas together to some extent and come up with a new goal/vision and it is done in such a way that neither side feels they lost or were unheard.

Some characteristics that make one a leader are: Self-discipline, confidence, willingness to share credit, willingness to listen, self-control, sensitivity, vulnerability and the ability to verbalize when one has made a mistake. Leaders can be charismatic and charming, generous, polite, cruel and selfish, but the end goal should be about community.

Mandela was a man of courage. He also triumphed as he did not let prison destroy his goal or his integrity. He wanted to unite South Africa. Courage plays a part here as one who stands up to the opposition has to have courage. One who stands up to his persecutors (prison) has to have courage. Those of us who believe social work is not respected enough, valued enough or embraced often enough have to have courage.

I continue to read and hear of grumblings amongst social workers and often pause and think why is this so? Social work and teachers-two needed professions, but not valued by society and the pay is low. Why is this? Imagine even if only for 1 day, all social workers and teachers walked off the job- would we be missed? Would we have more value in society’s eyes? Why do social workers not unite and challenge society on this issue? Some are well paid, many are not, but the reasons for going into the profession are admirable; the desire to help others, to follow a calling and to make a difference-same for teachers.

What are your thoughts and do you value being part of a community that unites rather than divides? Do you have the courage to stand up for what is right? Will you stand by your professional beliefs and values even if they are not embraced by the majority? Sometimes the basic question is: Do you want to be a leader or a follower?

By Victoria Brewster, MSW