Leadership in Residential Child Care a relationship-based approach by Adrian Ward : a review.

By Charles Sharpe


Leadership in Residential Child Care A relationship-based approach by Adrian Ward is published by the Smokehouse Press, Norwich in 2014. 192pp, Hardback, £18.00
ISBN : 9780957633537

This book has an interesting pre-publishing history of which Adrian Ward tells in his article for this issue of the goodenoughcaring Journal about how the book became what it is now. The present version is an updated, expanded and revised text for publication in this special hardback edition.


Leadership in Residential Child Care a relationship based approach : a review


Books about leadership in residential child care are rare creatures. I can remember only two being directly dedicated toward it. One, Leadership in Residential Child Care written by Haydn Davies Jones and published in 1970, was the text of that year’s National Children’s Homes Convocation lecture which Davies Jones delivered that year. The other is John Burton’s book Managing Residential Care published in 1998,  which Ward erroneously cites as Handbook of Managing Residential Care conflating it perhaps with another of Burton’s books The Handbook of Residential Care published in 1993.  Nonetheless, most, I think, would agree that fresh thoughts on the subject are overdue. Fortunately, Leadership in Residential Child Care a relationship-based approach is that long sought for verdant oasis. Adrian Ward has written a comprehensive and in my view valid analysis of leadership in residential child care while presenting his own ideas – drawn from a well of experience which is over 40 years deep – about the future practice of leadership. I think too that any chance reader picking up this book would find Ward’s ideas relevant to many other fields of endeavour in which leadership is an element.

Low on jargon, mercifully almost free of imperatives, and with a fluidity of thought, the text did not make me feel lectured to, but more that I was being persuaded to allow my mind to join in a discourse about a subject which the author has thought about a great deal and wishes to share. I, for one, am glad he has done this.

The content is liberally seasoned with vignettes drawn from Ward’s long experience. Occasionally Ward tells these in an admirably self-deprecating way. The stories are at times very funny, at others quite sad and serious, as well as many other things, but they always illuminate the flow of the author’s thought and so provide wise counsel.

Each chapter of the book constructively considers different aspects of the leadership role in residential child care and the dynamics which act upon it. Among others these include, “Becoming a Leader”, “Definitions and Theories of Leadership”, “Working in the Everyday: Leading the Team”, “Below the surface : unconscious dynamics” and “The Leader as a Person.”

I am sure that Leadership in Residential Child Care a relationship-based approach will become essential reading for those in leadership roles in residential child care, as it also should for those in organisations who are charged with setting up residential child care resources, and for those who offer leaders external consultation and support.

Further, the entire text carries along with it the underlying notion that as in life, little is ever static for long in residential child care settings. The changing dynamics within the network of  the various relationships in a residential group are such that there will be times when each and every adult in a staff team will encounter situations during which they will exercise leadership. I think this book should be read by all residential child care workers.



Ward forges the key to the book in his introduction. Taking a “relationship-based” approach to the leadership task, he writes that what matters most in any care organisation is the quality of the human relationships at all levels. In residential child care this means the relationships between the leader, the staff team and the young people, as well as relationships with people on the outside : parents, siblings, teachers and social workers.

In the first chapter “Becoming a Leader” Ward proposes that it is,

“a primary responsibility of leadership to monitor, influence and facilitate these relationships in support of the task of the organization” (p18).

He also suggests that,

“What goes with this relationship-based approach is an emphasis on leadership as a process: an ongoing, evolving and interactive process, rather than a static role, as might be represented by an organisational chart showing the formal hierarchy” (p18).

As to becoming a leader Ward says,

“Leadership takes time : as with any other relationship or set of relationships you grow into it through a transitional phase. In effect, you gradually become the role”(p18).

In this chapter and throughout the book there is an accent on the dynamic. All human communities move on, things change and the author extends this to leadership, suggesting it should be borne in mind that leaders will eventually move on.

Ward speaks of the significance of the period of a new leader’s transition into the role and the resistances to his leadership which he may initially have to face from staff, children and others while he finds his own space. For Ward,

“This transition into really becoming a leader (as opposed to being simply appointed to the position) involves much negotiation and often testing out, sometimes directly and sometimes quite indirectly, as well as a considerable amount of trial and error on the part of the new leader.” (p 19-20).

These ideas are accompanied by a painful, moving and finally uplifting vignette entitled “Tears before bedtime” (p 27-29) in which Ward recalls an evening three months into a leadership post in a children’s home when things at first sight appeared to go wrong for him and he feels utterly isolated. I won’t spoil the story. It is one of a number of apposite ones told in the book.

Ward describes a number of phenomena that work “below the surface” to act toward the isolation of a leader in a residential child care setting. This may be why, focused, as the author is, on individual leadership, he is ever aware of the value of establishing a working model which encompasses the idea that the leader is working within a leadership team rather than attempting to be a figurehead leader.

The chapter, “Definitions and Theories of Leadership” is not an essay crowded with esoteric sociological terms but is a widely searching practical exploration which provides convincing answers to questions like “Why do we need leaders?” and, ”What is it that they do?”

One firm conclusion made however is,

“a leaderless organisation is not viable for long, and that leaders do therefore play a critical role in holding organisations together, and especially in holding people together – and that this is just as true of children’s homes as it is of banks, football teams and any other organisation”(p 40).

There are some who might be less strident about this determination. John Cross, like Adrian Ward, a proponent of a therapeutic community approach for children who have suffered early deprivation, might agree with no doubt with certain important caveats that all the adults and sometimes the children have a “holding” role to play and what in essence leads the team is the shared responsibility held by the group of adults and children, notwithstanding the fact that adults have a special role because they are more mature (Cross 2011-2014). I raise this not to be controversial but to demonstrate that as I understand it, Ward’s position on leadership style is very much that of an active leader operating as far as possible with consensus and that there are other leadership styles as well as the autocratic one which I am certain both Ward and Cross would eschew.

In the chapter entitled “Leadership : Boundaries and Roles” the author considers how boundaries become blurred and can lead to conscious and unconscious collusion that are therapeutically unhelpful and are unjust to a child.

On the other hand, as Ward suggests, boundaries do become blurred and there are times when there seems to be an over-insistence upon keeping everyone on the right side of divides. Nonetheless in one of the firmest statements in the text, he writes,

“ One of the most important qualities of effective leadership is therefore the ability to establish and maintain clear boundaries – being exactly clear as to who should be doing what and why, who is leading what, as well as being clear about the mature and quality of these relationships. Part of what leaders are required to do is to help everyone else be clear about their roles, including not only what they are supposed to do but also what they are not expected to do, their ‘cut-off points’ (p 73).

A tall order and an indirect exposure of the dangers of what he earlier calls the would be “hero leader”(p 62).

My thought was arrested when I read the suggestion that the leader should be “able to work on the boundary”(p79). This idea rings true. Not only the leader but – certainly for me – each residential worker should be able to work on the boundary. Sometimes workers may place excessive stress upon the way children seem to break boundaries, and conclusions are reached informally that this represents singularly or collectively a failure on the children’s part or on the system’s part or on the leader’s part. This excessively defensive reaction can be unhelpful in the process of good enough caring. Residential child care workers as well as their leaders look after children whose boundaries in one way or another have been broken and it should not surprise them that they will seek out the boundaries – find out what is safe – in any new situation they find themselves in. I think there should be an understanding that workers and leaders will for substantial periods work on the boundaries rather than within them.

The chapter entitled “Working in the Everyday : The Leader And the Team” introduces the idea of opportunity led leadership, a notion which falls in seamlessly with opportunity-led work in residential child care which Ward has written about before.

“Below the surface: unconscious dynamics” is a chapter which might be challenging for any readers uncritically in the thrall of the ideology of behaviourism but Ward holds out the hand of peace and argues that what he calls the “pragmatic approaches” centred on conscious behaviour can rest easy with practice based on psychoanalytic concepts. Nonetheless the author holds that what happens “below the surface” (a significant phrase in this book) may sometimes turn out to be at least as important as more “pragmatic approaches” in helping to make sense of some of the powerful and challenging situations in the work of residential child care.

As I’ve implied the idea that there are unconscious forces and conflicts within the overall group of children and adults in a residential child care setting is often resisted, in my view, unfairly and unwisely. Perhaps this is a consequence of the prevalence of simplistic and often ill-informed critiques of psychoanalytically based therapies. Ironically this exaggerated expression of resistance offers strong evidence of unconscious energies at play.

Ward adapts Winnicott’s idea of emotional “holding” to leadership. The capacity to “hold” both consciously and unconsciously all the emotions alive in a children’s home is expected of the leader by children and adults alike. A leader in turn will respond both consciously and unconsciously as he attempts to quell the others’ fears of impending disaster.

For Ward what happens “below the surface” may sometimes turn out to be at least as important as more pragmatic approaches in helping to make sense of some of the powerful and challenging situations in the work of residential child care.

In his penultimate chapter “The Leader as a Person”, the author cautions that in dealing with these unconscious phenomena, leaders have a,

“need to manage their own emotional economy as well as that of the unit.”(p 170).

“Leadership in the context of values : Power, Prejudice and Dependency” opens with a conundrum. Ward writes,

“Leadership is discussed by some as if it was a mechanical science, in which – so long as the necessary components are put in place and the right connections properly wired up – everything will run like clockwork. Others meanwhile describe it as if it were one of the arts, requiring personal qualities and inventiveness, including skill in ‘conducting’ the whole ensemble of the organisation as if it was an orchestra” (p127-128)

Ward stands in the middle of this continuum but admits to a tendency towards the arts rather than the sciences. I tend to agree to with him but I propose a discussion like this expanded from leadership to the practice of residential child care – is it an art or a science ? – would be a useful starting point in a training discussion for residential child care staff teams starting out on an exploration of the nature of their work.

The concluding chapter weaves together various tasks and roles as well as the dynamics related to leadership which have been introduced, described, discussed and illustrated throughout the book. Ward does this by answering the question, ”How does leadership work?” He specifies that he is addressing his answers not only to those in a leadership role in residential child care settings but also those in large organisations with overall responsibility for planning, developing and overseeing residential child care services. According to Ward these are the people who set up the organisational structure. This is something Ward believes should be got right. For him,

“Even the most skilled and insightful leaders will struggle and may fail if the organisational constraints within which he or she is trying to operate are unhelpful or undermining (p 170).

We should hope that the author’s seeds fall on fertile ground.



A review can never fully do a good book justice. Only reading it can. Adrian Ward has written a book which is at once practical and reflective. He makes sense of a complex issue by interpreting it and communicating it in prose which even a general reader would understand. Yet he makes no pretence that he has found the final solution and, given that a mantra of this book is the ever-changing nature of things, it would be surprising if he had. He considers and informs but leaves the reader with something to think about.

Some years ago I reviewed an excellent book edited by Adrian Ward and others, Therapeutic Communities for Children and Young People. My one criticism of it was that I felt none of the authors – who had written chapters on different aspects of their successful therapeutic engagement with children in residential child care in therapeutic communities –   seemed to stretch out a helping hand to others in the wider field of residential child care such those working in all the different kinds of children’s homes run by local authorities and private organisations. Staff in these places, who were with little doubt well-intentioned, were too frequently overlooked, given little encouragement to explore the nature of their relationships with children and given little time to reflect on their practice.

Thinking back on it now my criticism was to an extent aimed at the wrong target, and so I want to make it plain, Leadership in Residential Child Care a relational approach consciously and conscientiously addresses the entire spectrum of residential care and if you are a leader, someone who supervises, supports or manages a leader, if you are a “would be” leader, and if you are a residential child care worker, reading this book will inform your work and engage you in the kind of reflection that will be  in my view, necessary if you want to be involved in good residential child care. This book has made an immediate entry into my list of recommended reading.



Burton, J. (1993) The Handbook of Residential Care    London    Routledge

Burton, J. (1998)  Managing Residential Care    London   Routledge

Cross, J. (2011-14) Interviews recorded with Charles Sharpe and any number of papers presented by John Cross from the1960s to the 1990s.

Davies Jones, H. (1970) Leadership in Residential Child Care    London    National Children’s Homes

Sharpe, C. (2008) “Residential Child Care Can Do With All The Help It Can Get”  in Free Associations accessed at http://human-nature.com/free-associations/sharpe.html  on June 14th, 2014.

Ward, A., Kasinski, K., Pooley, J., and Worthington, A. (2003) Therapeutic Communities for Children and Young People    London    Jessica Kingsley


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