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Prepare Thoroughly for the Role of Supervisor

May 1, 2006
by Thomas G. Durham, PhD, LADC
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For counselors who stay in the field long enough, most eventually will take on the role of clinical supervisor. Unfortunately, few are groomed for the position, so they end up relying on their own experiences as counselors and as supervisees. It is natural, and to a degree quite appropriate, for new supervisors to translate clinical skills into the supervisory relationship. Also, many supervisors inevitably will draw on their own experiences (positive or negative) as supervisees. Neither of these approaches, however, provides the thorough preparation needed to supervise effectively and ethically.

Preparation to become a supervisor is not a one-time event. Excellent training programs and workshops on clinical supervision exist, but while training constitutes an important step in nurturing growth as a supervisor, much more is required for effective preparation.

Move to independence

Emulating a role model can prove quite effective, especially for the novice supervisor who has not yet formulated his/her own model of supervision. However, as supervisors search for a personalized model of supervision, their dependence on the style of their own supervisor or mentor must lessen.

In the March/April 2006 issue of Addiction Professional, I addressed the importance of mentoring. Effective utilization of a mentoring relationship happens over time. It is necessary for the protégé to forge his/her own unique style of supervision and leadership independent of the mentoring relationship. An early-stage supervisor-protégé often benefits from receiving a challenge or “push” from a mentor. This can help in setting direction, allowing the protégé to begin to see what he/she is having trouble seeing. Put another way, early-stage supervisors often “don't know what they don't know,” and a wise mentor can help change that. However, the protégé's growth could be stifled with continued guidance and hand-holding.

Effective supervisors eventually begin to forge their own styles. This usually starts by developing an individualized model for supervision that becomes a road map for conducting supervision. Typically derived from a personalized theory of counseling, the model is based on one's philosophical foundation and explains the “what” for every “why.” My advice to new supervisors is to read as much as possible on developing clinical supervision skills (see resources listed below) while identifying a philosophical foundation of supervision. This philosophy often includes one's views on therapeutic change and beliefs about human motivation and behavior.

Three leadership qualities

In addition to forging a supervisory style, emerging supervisors also benefit from developing proven leadership qualities. In a nutshell, these are the three leadership qualities that I think should be at the top of anyone's list: humility, service, and creating community.

When we master humility, we assume other virtues. Humility leads to integrity, courage, empowerment, and acceptance. Being humble goes a long way in any relationship. It is vital in a supervisory relationship, as it paves the way for learning and growth. Humility also shows that one's security comes from within, and that one has integrity that does not require constant comparison with others.

The quality of service in a leader implies doing for others. It means listening, supporting, promoting diversity, and being truly committed to others' success. Servant leaders recognize the dignity and worth of others, promote hope, and provide a model for developing direction and purpose for those being led (or served). It also means the supervisor (or leader) is working side-by-side with the supervisee—an experience that ultimately leads to a strong supervisory alliance.

The third leadership quality is creating community. Good leaders create community when they promote equality and freedom among those they lead. Those who experience a sense of community in the workplace feel safe, cared for, respected, and listened to. An environment of community also allows other leaders to emerge. It is an environment of information sharing, high mutual trust, and altruism. This is an environment that gives members permission to take risks. When community is created in the work setting, a sense of entrepreneurial spirit emerges: Morale is high, members are eager to contribute, and a sense of passion toward the organization's mission and values predominates.

As emerging supervisors forge their own style of supervision, they also must master leadership qualities that will allow their supervisory styles to be effective. To do this, they must develop every potential they can discover within themselves as leaders and build on that. Skills are important, but combining them with a focus on the human aspects of supervision and leadership offers the best preparation for taking on the role of clinical supervisor.

Thomas G. Durham, PhD, LADC, is Executive Director of The Danya Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he coordinates training programs including those delivered by the Central East Addiction Technology Transfer Center


  1. Bernard J, Goodyear R Fundamentals of Clinical Supervision. 3rd ed. Boston:Allyn and Bacon; 2003.
  2. Haynes R, Corey G, Moulton P Clinical Supervision in the Helping Professions: A Practical Guide. Pacific Grove Calif.:Thomson Learning; 2003.
  3. Powell D, Clinical Supervision in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling. San Francisco Jossey-Bass; 2004.
  4. Stoltenberg C, McNeill B, Delworth U, IDM Supervision: An Integrated Developmental Model for Supervising Counselors and Therapists. San Francisco Jossey-Bass; 1998.