Harnessing the Energy within Human Services
: a re-conceptualisation of professionalism that incorporates leadership as told through participants’ narratives

  • Linda Walker

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    The study is located within a Scottish human service context, with human services being defined as predominantly work directly with people (service users; patients; volunteers; clients) across public and third sector settings. It draws on narratives from six distinct disciplines including social work, education, police, community learning and development, educational psychology and nursing. Whilst participants reflected on their journeys to becoming a professional, they explored how opportunities, both given and taken to lead throughout their careers, may have influenced their understanding and experience of professionalism, professional identity and leadership.

    Narratives frequently identified participants’ overwhelming desire to enter and remain within human service professions being driven by a social justice agenda, with an inherent desire to ‘make a difference’. Participants articulated how leadership opportunities had provided them with greater confidence and an ability to improve standards within their field, often from an early stage in their career. This in turn had often strengthened their sense of professional identity.

    Findings suggest participants made very strong connections between the concepts of professionalism and leadership, particularly when leadership was understood as distributed throughout the organisation. Distributed, dispersed, collaborative or ‘leadership at all levels’ are terms often used interchangeably to describe ‘a pooling of ideas and expertise to produce services and leadership energy that is greater than the sum of individual capabilities’ (Patterson, 2010:6). This type of leadership therefore, not only recognises the ability of people within non-traditional positions of power or who are not at the top of their organisational hierarchy, to become leaders, but also recognises the collaborative nature of such interactions.

    Based on the findings, a key recommendation suggests that within human service contexts, a re-conceptualisation of professionalism, which incorporates models of distributed leadership, should be adopted. This would have the capacity to unleash latent leadership potential within professionals who want to ‘make a difference’ and would be like ‘pushing on an open door’. It is further argued that such a consideration could support the development of leadership strategies in human services although the author cautions that organisational cultures can both promote or inhibit effectiveness and impact.

    Key words: professionalism, leadership, organisational culture, professional identity
    Date of Award2014
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorTim Kelly (Supervisor) & Gaye Manwaring (Supervisor)


    • professionalism, leadership, organisational culture, professional identity

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