ACA Blog

Jun 17, 2013

Sometimes leadership means having to be looked at as the bad guy

Leadership is something that is often expected of clinical professionals whether or not they are supervisors, directors, owners of private practice or newbies who have just entered the field. Newbies become de facto leaders of their clinical groups, or even viewed as leaders of sorts by their individual clients. Others, as they grow in responsibilities find that they are put in charge of leading whether they want to be or not.

As for me, I never wanted leadership but for some reason it has been thrust on me throughout my career. I can’t really tell you why it happened but it has happened to one extent or anther in just about every placement that I have had. Sometimes the leadership is built into the position one takes on, other times leadership comes not from a job title but from the fact that workers, clients and or the greater community views you as such and thus looks to you for guidance. This can be a mixed bag to be sure.

Working at a transitional living center years ago we suffered from a lack of leadership after the Director left us with no notice and the next in charge, though very competent in many ways clinical did not see herself as the leader. Soon everyone was coming to me for guidance and direction even though I was one of the newer staff members and according to job description, had no leadership roles or responsibilities. By the time a new Director was installed, everyone it seemed took direction from me, to the point that they would not leave a staff meeting until they got the cue from me that the meeting was over (even after the Director left the room). I have no idea how it happened but it put me on the outs with the new Director even though my mantra to staff who were angry at his changes was “He is the boss; your job is to follow his direction…” A matter of weeks into his watch he called me into his office to let me know that he viewed me as a threat and he worked diligently to have me removed from his site. A leader who has no official authority can be a target of those who do.

Leaders with official authority can be a huge target as well, but they do have a means in which to lead regardless of the challenges. It is not for the faint of heart. It is not for those who have an inborn need for acceptance, respect and a need to be “one of the group.” The truth is that being an effective leader is that you cannot always be the good guy, you cannot always make popular decisions and you cannot always be everyone’s friend. You can however usually be respected even when those who are effected by your decisions may not agree with them.

When joining an established program with an ingrained group, there are often challenges to any change that you may want to make that goes against the established direction. It is wise to try to calculate the need for every change and to weigh the risks versus rewards of the changes. It may also be wise to do what you can to thoroughly understand the way things are working currently, how these things are viewed by those who do them as well as who the key players are in getting things done. If you can get the players to buy into your new direction, you can often get the rest of the group to follow.

But what to do when this is not possible? What if rapid changes need to be made in order to save a program? What if you cannot build consensus?

Recently, I have had to make some unpopular choices as part of my work in order to help programming grow. Some folks have embraced these changes while others have had less than positive views of my decisions. Some feel that any change is bad IF it affects them because things are working great as is, in their view. Others feel that changes are needed IF we are to succeed.  I will admit to some stumbling in trying to “do the dance of change” and it is really too early to tell if we will be successful or if we will fail. I do know this however, if certain changes are not made, then our fate will be made for us, instead of us deciding our fate. I will not knowingly or willingly let things fail on my watch as too many folks depend on me and the programming that I have built, and as a leader I will risk what I have to in order to succeed.  Though I do my best to match the worker with their strengths, I have had times when I have had to tell workers to leave our group. Though I have personally liked certain folks, I have had to tell some folks that we would no longer be working with one another. Though I have loved certain aspects of programs, I have at times had to remove, postpone or greatly change them in order to keep our doors open. I do this not with any real desire to lead, but because like it or not I was thrust into this role. Though I often wish to remain anonymous, though I wish I could be a lonely researcher who also sees clients, I have had to accept that my professional trajectory has lead me elsewhere. Though I may prefer to be liked, sometimes as a leader you must accept that you will be seen as a bad guy even by those who you have dedicated yourself to serve.
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (

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