Practice Leadership – Part 1

This article was authored by Janise Mitchell,
Deputy CEO of the Australian Childhood Foundation.

In reforming child protection systems, practice leaders are increasingly seen as pivotal in the process of embedding changes in decision making that lead to successful implementation of policy and legal initiatives.

In this two part series, I consider how practice leadership is defined and supported in the area of child protection and child welfare in particular.

In her book on child protection systems in 2008, Munro pointed out that

“…child protection work is intellectually and emotionally challenging, requiring a full range of human reasoning skill. Practitioners use formal knowledge, practice wisdom, emotional wisdom, and ethics in working with families….Practitioners need to be helped to develop critical reasoning skills so that they review and challenge their reasoning whatever combination of analytic and intuitive processes have been used.”

In situations where practitioners are frequently challenged by conflicts in values, goals, purposes and interests professional pluralism can result, as each professional within a discipline seeks to find a way to practice within this complexity (Schon, 1991). The achievement of accountable, transparent and effective child protection practice is thus reliant on processes and structures that support and develop the capability of the staff and enable critical review of decision-making and planning. Too often, child protection systems are perceived to fail to achieve the positive outcomes it desires for children, young people and their families.

Wagner et al (2006) noted that

“organisations that engage in ongoing dialogue around goals, priorities, and professional standards for individual and group performance intentionally foster the skills and norms that require everyone in the system to work more collaboratively together. Everyone’s work becomes more visible – beginning with the leaders. The leader models learning, teamwork, and openness to others’ feedback” (p 16).

Practice leaders are strong operational managers and senior practitioners who demonstrate competent, safe and ethical practice, creative and critical thinking, have the ability to motivate individuals and teams and are independent lifelong learners. They are tasked with serving as thought leaders and knowledge managers in a certain area of agency expertise including policy advice, leadership in networks, overseeing practice quality and supporting career development for staff in the relevant professional practice area.

Practice Leaders develop and nurture expertise via the provision of professional advice and consultation, proactively sharing expertise with others on the team and in the agency, actively leading or participating in communities of practice, and contributing to the development of new practice resources and frameworks. Practice leadership is also demonstrated through the support of induction to protocols and guidelines, attention to administrative requirements as well as staff induction and supervision.

Practice leadership is a distinct category of leadership and unique domain of learning that differs from generic management training. It is conceived as a set of skills that leaders use to engage workers to consciously critique their practice and explore the interface between personal value judgement and professional decision making, manage risk, facilitate quality child protection decision-making, facilitate strengths-based practice, lead multiple stakeholders in a statutory context, provide coaching and supervisory processes, and use research to inform practice.

What do you think makes a good practice leader?

How important do you think it is in implementing reform?


Munro, E. (2008). Effective Child Protection. London: Sage.

Schon, D. (1991). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, London, Ashgate Publishing.

Wagner, T., Kegan, R., Lahey, L, Lemons, R., Garnier, J., Helsing, D., Howell, A., and Thurber Rasmussen, H. (2006). Change Leadership: A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers.