Counselors as Leaders: The Leadership of Counseling Center Directors

Robert Grant , EdD, LPC

Community Counseling Center

Barbara N. Martin, EdD

Professor, Coordinator of Doctoral Program

Southwest Missouri State University

 

About the Authors:

Dr. Robert Grant is a recent doctoral graduate of the University of Missouri and is a Licensed Professional Counselor employed at the Community Counseling Center in Nixa , Missouri . He has been an adjunct professor and Counselor at Southwest Missouri State University . His research interests are in leadership and counseling issues.

Dr. Barbara N. Martin is a Professor in Educational Administration and the Doctoral Coordinator of the collaborative doctorate from the University of Missouri-Columbia and Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield , Missouri . She has been a classroom teacher, a Director of Special Education, and a building level principal. She has experience in research, presentation, and publication in the areas of educational leadership, online learning, cultural diversity, and rural education.

 

ABSTRACT

This study investigated leadership behaviors and characteristics of counseling center directors in higher education institutions. Data collection methods included the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI), Q-sort procedure, and qualitative interviews. The overall purpose of this study was to develop a profile of a counseling center director as an effective leader. Findings from the study provided leadership behaviors and characteristics for counseling center directors to create the following profile of a counseling center director as an effective leader:

  1. The counseling center director exhibits good ethical behavior treating people with dignity and respect.
  2. The counseling center director communicates clearly with others especially in regard to expressing confidence in people's abilities, praising, and giving appreciation to staff.
  3. The counseling center director promotes collaboration among the campus offices and within the counseling center effectively building consensus and involving others in the vision of the center.
  4. The counseling center director understands the risk involved in the director position and is prepared to effectively handle campus crisis situations.
  5. The counseling center director is clear about his or her philosophy of leadership and about relevant counseling theories.

 

Scholars have noted, “Effective leadership involves working as a community, having a shared vision, and reciprocating leadership responsibilities with followers” (Jean-Marie, 2004, p. 39). Moreover, while there are many variables that relate to an organization's success (Bolman & Deal, 1997), research has indicated that the overall success of any organization is a direct reflection of the abilities of the organization's established leader (Yukl, 1998). As Wesson and Carr (2003) noted, “For the visionary leader, learning is an inclusive act that displaces beliefs about what is appropriate to learn and how learning takes place” (p. 98). Among other things, leadership is contingent upon the community in which the leader leads. Worzbyt and Zook (1992) suggested counselors need to take a more active role in organizations and see themselves as leaders. They further proposed counselors need to challenge the purposes and effectiveness of their programs and be able to articulate and inspire a vision, since the leader of an organization is the primary source of influence on an organization (Schein, 1997). A belief that seems to be shared universally is that for any organization to survive, it is essential that leaders lead effectively (Chiaramonte & Mills, 1993).

With the plethora of researchers trying to define leadership and especially effective leadership, what can be ascertained about effective counselor leadership? As leaders, counseling center directors have found themselves facing many challenges. Counseling center directors must not only be prepared, but also proactive in lobbying for the needs of counseling centers (Stone & Archer, 1990). The need for effective leadership in counseling centers is self-evident when considering the limited resources within a higher education setting. Counseling center directors must be effective in being a vocal presence to the university community in noting what the center does and what the center needs from the university (Hotelling, 1990). To date, there have been few studies identifying the effective leader behaviors and characteristics of counseling center directors in higher education settings. Consequently this study focused on counseling center directors in higher education settings and provided a profile of characteristics and behaviors of a counseling center director as an effective leader. The answers to the following research questions were explored in the process of this study: 1.) What are the most effective leadership behaviors and characteristics of counseling center directors as perceived by their superiors, subordinates and themselves?; 2.) What are the leadership behaviors and characteristics of counseling center directors as measured by the Leadership Practices Inventory?; 3.) What profile of a counseling center director as an effective leader can be proposed?

Conceptual Underpinnings

Leadership development is a process that extends over many years ( Gardner , 1987) and includes three elements: an understanding of the desired position, skill development, and practice and time to reflect through experience (Wolverton & Gmelech, 2002). Kouzes and Posner (1995; 2002) identified five fundamental practices and ten commitments that enable leaders when functioning at their personal best to accomplish significant growth for their organizations. Defined by Kouzes and Posner (1995), effective leadership involves five fundamental practices; challenging the process, inspiring a shared vision, enabling others to act, modeling the way, and encouraging the heart. It also involves ten commitments; searching out, experimenting, envisioning, enlisting, fostering, strengthening, setting an example, achieving, recognizing, and celebrating. Effective leadership involves leaders who encompass these key practices and commitments. They further (1995; 2002) provided empirical evidence to support the five fundamental practices of effective leadership and within each of the five practices are ten commitments. The commitments serve as a guide to show how leaders accomplish each of the five practices.

Practice one . This practice involves challenging the process and describes leaders who take risks. These leaders are not afraid to go against the status quo. They are leaders who challenge the purpose and effectiveness of their current programs. They are willing to learn from their mistakes. Leaders in practice one are committed to searching out challenging opportunities to change and are willing to experiment.

Practice two . This practice involves inspiring a shared vision and describes leaders who have the ability to establish a vision for the future and inspire followers to become a part of the vision. They create vision that has a real potential for being achieved. They recognize major assumptions they hold about themselves or the organization and understand how that limits or expands opportunities for future growth. Leaders in practice two are committed to envisioning an uplifting future and enlisting others in a common vision.

Practice three . This practice involves enabling others to act and describes leaders who have the ability to foster collaboration and empower their subordinates and constituents. They enlist the support of subordinates and constituents and put the vision into action. They create an environment of trust where ideas can be expressed and collaboration can occur without restraint. Leaders in practice three are committed to fostering collaboration and strengthening people by giving power away.

Practice four . This practice involves modeling the way and describes leaders who set the example. Leaders who mirror the standards and others observe and emulate that behavior. They set responsible goals and proceed with enthusiasm. They practice consistency between their words and actions. Leaders in practice four are committed to setting the example and achieving small wins.

Practice five . This practice involves encouraging the heart and describes leaders who create courage, enthusiasm, and nourish the spirit. They appreciate and cherish subordinates efforts and contributions. They have a sense of responsibility to make subordinates feel like heroes in regard to the success of the organization. Leaders in practice five are committed to recognizing individual contributions and celebrating team accomplishments.

In relation to these practices, Kouzes and Posner (2002) suggested leaders who got extraordinary things done in their organizations followed the five fundamental practices and ten commitments described. Their leadership theory is one that transcends organizational lines and can be applied to leaders in any field. Counselors, including those in directorships of university counseling centers, can benefit from assessment identifying these five leadership practices/ten commitments and the leadership theory proposed.

A major challenge to counseling center directors is the volatile environment in which they find themselves. The university setting can be a very competitive environment in terms of the various departments competing for resources and legitimacy. In the past the environment in which higher education existed was largely protected from outside competition; however that has changed with declining enrollments and lack of funding (Whetten & Camerron, 1985). These factors have created higher education organizational cultures that are political, and hierarchical.

If the Counseling Center is to survive in the political domain of higher education then directors must be effective in their administrative roles. It is no longer sufficient to have the director perceived as a senior psychologist who does a few administrative tasks on the side (Bishop, 1995). Counseling center directors must adapt a management perspective and recognize the director's role in the broader higher education environment. As the role of a counseling center director becomes more complex and demanding, it is crucial for such individuals to have effective leadership skills and inclinations for the job (Bishop 1995).

Counseling centers must embed their services and programs into the life of the university. Their efforts must be tied directly to the mission of the institution. Success of counseling centers requires that they become aligned with the university goals and justify their contribution to university needs such as student retention, consultative relationships with other campus departments, and teaching and training activities (Guinee & Ness, 2000).

Counselors are finding themselves in management positions and forced to lead not only a department but a department within a volatile competitive institutional setting. As Bishop (1995) warned: “Universities are inherently political, hierarchical, and often competitive organizations and counseling personnel who do not wish to deal with such environments are advised to avoid seeking a leadership role” (p. 40). An effective leadership profile of a counseling center director can help counselors, who find themselves in political, hierarchical, and competitive higher education institutions, to lead more effectively and be successful champions for their department.

The purpose of this study consequently was to develop a profile of an effective counseling center director. A two-pronged approach was used to accomplish this purpose. First, the leadership behaviors and characteristics of counseling center directors were assessed using Kouzes and Posner's (1997) Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI). The results of the inventory were then compared to effective leadership behaviors and characteristics determined through a Q-sort procedure and qualitative interviews.

Research Design and Methodology

Participants. Participants in this study consisted of five purposefully selected counseling center directors, their immediate supervisor, and five randomly selected direct subordinates. The subordinates were Counselors who worked in the Centers. The five universities were chosen based on a combination of the following criteria: Classified as Master's Colleges and Universities I, all are public four-year degree granting universities located in the Midwest, and all housed a counseling center with a designated counseling center director who was viewed by superiors as effective. All five counseling center directors were also a Licensed Professional Counselor or Licensed Psychologists. The Licensure equips counselors to be effective and prepared to work in any counseling setting. Also the Licensure mandates candidates to complete extensive education and work requirements as well as passing national exams.

Of the five counseling center directors, four were female and one was male. Four have been in their position as director for less than ten years and one has been in the position fourteen years. All had been in counseling for more than thirteen years. The age range of all participants showed diversity with every age range being represented from under 25 to 56 and above. Of all subordinates, 15 were female and ten were male.

Data Collection . The data collection included Kouzes and Posner's (1997) Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) self and observer instruments, Q methodological techniques, and semi-structured interviews conducted by the researcher.

Instrumentation : Leadership Practices Inventory . Kouzes and Posner's (1997) Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) was used to assess self and observer perceptions of the five leadership practices: challenging the process, inspiring a shared vision, enabling others to act, modeling the way, and encouraging the heart. According to Posner and Kouzes, the LPI was originally based on case study analysis of more than 1,100 managers and their personal best experience as leaders. In-depth interviews used to enhance the case studies helped in the formation of statements describing leadership actions and behaviors. This progression of research included data from more than 2,100 managers and their subordinates, and led to the development of self and observer forms of the LPI.

Next a Q methodology, commonly referred to as Q-sorting technique , provided researchers with “a systematic and rigorously quantitative means for examining human subjectivity” (McKeown & Thomas, 1988, p. 7). Modeling viewpoints in a Q-sort is accomplished by having participants systematically rank-order a purposefully sampled set of stimuli, called a Q-sample, according to a specific condition of instruction (Mckeown & Thomas, 1988). The condition of instruction in a Q-sort provides a guideline for participants to order the statements. According to de Neui-Lynch (1991), the participant must provide insight in the area under study that requires a more in-depth probe than simply an individual's personal point of view. For subordinates and immediate supervisors, Q-sorts were facilitated and then followed-up with an opportunity for participants to add any additional comments of what they perceived to be effective or ineffective leadership behaviors and characteristics of counseling center directors. Counseling center directors were interviewed more extensively following the Q-sort regarding their individual leadership behaviors and characteristics using a semi structured format. The questions were open-ended in design and framed around the five practices of the LPI.

Data Analysis. A mixed design approach incorporating the quantitative analysis of the self and observer LPI, followed by a Q-sorts and a semi structured interview was conducted. LPI instruments, self and observer, were entered into the LPI scoring software which tabulates the sum of self and observer ratings, and the extent to which observer ratings agree with self-ratings regarding demonstrated leadership practices. Q-sort data means were determined and analyzed according to the combined mean rankings made by subjects. And the semi-structured interviews were conducted; the answers taped and transcribed verbatim. Salient themes were identified by the preponderance and redundancy of response. These results were reported in narrative format. Selected participant comments were used to encapsulate and amplify the data.

Results and Major Findings

Research question one asked what are the most effective leadership behaviors and characteristics of counseling center directors as perceived by their supervisors, subordinates and themselves? Information gleamed from the Q-sort procedures and qualitative interviews revealed that the most effective leadership behaviors and characteristics of counseling center directors as perceived by superiors, subordinate, and themselves are ethical behavior, responding to campus crisis situations, developing a shared vision, and empowering employees. Directors themselves also placed a high importance on intuition in decision making, recognizing high risk in their position, celebrating staff and center accomplishments, communication, and collaboration efforts.

The combined rank order of all participants clearly indicates that the highest ranked statement is it is important for the counseling center director to exhibit good ethical behavior . Other effective behaviors ranked high were the counseling center director should be able to effectively respond to campus crisis situations such as a student's death or violent acts, and as a leader, the counseling center director should develop a shared vision for the center . Those behaviors considered to be least effective were risk taking is an important component of leadership for the counseling center director and in managing his or her center, the counseling center director should be well versed of and use organizational behavior models of leadership . Of all statements, the behavior considered least effective was the counseling center director should be familiar with new technological advances and how they can be applied to enhance the counseling center .

It is important to examine mean scores in analyzing differences in what counseling center directors, subordinates, and supervisors perceived to be effective leadership behaviors and characteristics. Indicated in table 1 are the combined mean scores for each statement, followed by the mean score for each role (director, subordinate, and supervisor). With most statements there was not a great disparity between the combined mean and the mean score of each of the roles. However, some disparities should be noted. The supervisor mean score for empower employees was 4.8 while subordinates mean score was 7.1. Clearly empower employees was considered much more important in the view of subordinates than it was for supervisors. Collaboration on campus received a mean score of 7.8 by supervisors while subordinates mean score was 4.9. Intuition and experience was also a point of disparity. Counseling center directors viewed this statement as important giving it a mean score of 5.4 while supervisors saw it as one of the least effective behaviors giving it a mean score of 2.6. Other statements that saw disparity were versed in legal issues and personal values .

 

Table 1

Means and Combined Means from Q-sort Statements According to Role

Q-sort Statement (abbreviated) Combined Mean Director Subordinate Supervisor

Good Ethical Behavior 8.8 9.0 8.8 8.6

Respond to Campus Crisis 7.25 7.1 6.5 8.6

Develop a Shared Vision 6.25 6.0 5.6 7.8

Empower Employees 6.25 6.0 7.1 4.8

Understand Counseling Theories 6.1 4.8 6.3 6.0

Lead by Example 6.0 6.4 6.1 5.4

Collaboration on Campus 5.85 5.8 4.9 7.8

Recognize Staff Contributions 5.65 6.4 5.4 5.4

Versed in Legal Issues 5.55 5.2 5.0 7.0

Campus Relationships 5.35 4.6 5.7 5.4

Set Achievable Goals 5.25 5.8 5.0 5.2

Motivate Staff 5.05 4.4 5.6 4.6

Involved with Other Offices 5.0 5.2 4.9 5.0

Personal Values 4.95 6.0 4.2 5.4

Clear Philosophy of Leadership 4.8 4.6 4.9 4.8

Involved in Policy Matters 4.6 4.4 4.9 4.2

Intuition and Experience 4.5 5.4 4.9 2.8

Human Resource Manager 4.1 4.4 3.2 5.6

Publicly Praise Center 3.85 4.6 4.1 2.6

Conduct Research 3.8 3.2 4.1 3.8

Strong Budget Skills 3.45 3.2 4.2 2.2

Risk Taking 2.75 2.8 3.3 1.6

Organizational Behavior 2.65 2.2 2.8 2.8

Familiar with Technology 2.2 1.2 2.5 2.6

n=30 n=5 n=20 n=5

Research question two asked what are the leadership behaviors and characteristics of counseling center directors as measured by the LPI. The resultant data indicated that the leadership behaviors and characteristics of counseling center directors would fall into three leadership practices: enabling others to act, encouraging the heart, and modeling the way. Specific components within each practice included: treating people with dignity and respect, developing cooperative relationships, letting people choose how to do their work, praising people for a job well done, giving team members appreciation and support, expressing confidence in people's abilities, following through on promises and commitments, and having a clear philosophy of leadership.

Research question three asked what profile of a counseling center director as an effective leader can be proposed. After analyzing and coding the content of each interview, three major themes developed: collaboration, communication, and ethics. The voices of the directors articulate these themes: “One skill I have is that I am effective at collaboration and I know a lot of people across campus. I think our office is successful partly because we have built some strong relationships interdepartmentally and cross functionally, we involve a lot of faculty, staff, and students with a lot of decision making things that we do” (1). Not only did directors express the importance of collaboration among the campus but also within the counseling center. “Our office is team work oriented, everyone in the office has a say in setting goals for the office and input on decision making” (2). And regardless of what was being discussed, communication was a theme that ran throughout all of the interviews. “Probably the number one thing involved in managing all my relationships, whether it is a peer, a subordinate, or a supervisor, is good communication. One of the things that has contributed to my success as a counseling center director is communication.” (3) And ethical behavior emerged: “The director of the counseling center must be an ethical person. Ethics are very important in this position. You are dealing with a lot of sensitive confidentiality issues and that requires a good foundation in ethical behavior. I would say the main things that guide my decisions and actions are ethics and integrity” (4). Also ethical behavior is not just something that the counseling center director feels is important for themselves, they also feel that their staff should value ethical behavior and be professionals who exhibit the behavior. “I expect certain basic things from all my staff like ethical behavior, that is a given, and I look for that in the interview process” (2). Using the voices of the directors, the information gleamed from the Q-sort procedures and LPI instruments, the following profile of a counseling center director as an effective leader emerged:

•  The counseling center director exhibits good ethical behavior treating people with dignity and respect.

•  The counseling center director communicates clearly with others especially in regard to expressing confidence in people's abilities, praising, and giving appreciation to staff.

•  The counseling center director promotes collaboration among the campus offices and within the counseling center effectively building consensus and involving others in the vision of the office.

•  The counseling center director understands the risk involved in the director position and is prepared to effectively handle campus crisis situations.

•  The counseling center director is clear about his or her philosophy of leadership and about relevant counseling theories.

Implications for Practice

Exhibiting good ethical behavior was one of the strongest leadership behaviors cited in this research study. Counseling center directors by nature of their educational background in counseling have had much exposure and education related to ethical behavior. A thorough foundation in ethics and continued professional development opportunities related to ethics could enhance these behaviors and avoid stagnation thus helping counseling center directors to meet the ethical requirements of the position.

Also since counseling center directors operate within the larger context of higher education institutions. These institutions can be large environments with many departments and individuals competing for resources. The counseling center director is the lead person for the center. He or she must make deliberate efforts to build collaboration among other offices on campus, in so, modeling the collaborative behavior to be seen within the center itself. Communication of center responsibilities and contributions must accompany collaborative efforts so the center has a strong voice and is recognized for its contributions to the institution. Since enabling others to act was the highest leadership practice of these counseling center directors, this practice indicates that currently counseling center directors do a good job of empowering employees and developing cooperative relationships. These qualities can continue to serve counseling center directors well in fostering a strong support from subordinates and creating the needed support from other institutional offices.

Finally, there is indication from this study that counseling center directors need to be aware of high-risk situations that come with the directors' position and be able to respond effectively to campus crisis situations. A priority would be for counseling center directors to be prepared for campus crisis situations through personal involvement or an institutional system facilitated by the university. Success in such areas will also aid in building collaboration, communication, and respect with other institutional leaders.

Directions for Further Research

Additional research should further examine the profile of a counseling center director that has been proposed, and test whether or not there is concurrence of some or all of the profile. Studying the profile at different campuses, with different organizational cultures might validate the reported profile in this study. While there is realistically no single prototype for a counseling center director as an effective leader, are there some standard consistencies such as ethical behavior, communication skills and collaboration building even across institutional and cultural boundaries that need further investigation? Does ones gender or ethnicity have an impact on these behaviors? Also how might the findings be different if a sample of directors who were not deemed so “effective” were included for comparison?

During the course of this study, a consistent theme arose with directors feeling that they had by chance fallen into the position of counseling center director. All the directors stated the position was not something they sought out. Further research should examine this theme more closely. What are the reasons counselors move into a management-oriented position? Why did they choose to be in the position as opposed to declining it? Answers to these questions could also provide insight into the development of leadership programs for counseling directors and continue the research begun on a leadership profile for counseling directors.

 

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