Leading the Way

By Glenn Cook

July 2024

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Carla Adkison-Johnson, PhD, LPC, LPCC, had worked as a licensed counselor for four years before moving into academia in the mid-1990s. What started as a passion to help African American adults, parents and families had broadened into an interest in research and improving the skills of graduate students moving into the field. Adkison-Johnson has now been a mental health professional for more than three decades. 

“I wanted to lead in terms of informing best practices and policies through research. I wanted to lead in innovation, to help discover the best and newest ways so we can better understand and help the adults and families our profession serves,” says Adkison-Johnson, professor in the Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology at Western Michigan University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development.  

Like Adkison-Johnson, those who enter the counseling field are motivated by a desire to help others. And many counselors naturally possess traits — adaptability, compassion, empathy, empowerment, passion, resilience — that make them candidates to become great leaders. But leadership is about much more than becoming a president of an organization, chair of a department or a keynote speaker. It comes in many forms, and counselors can strive to nurture qualities to become strong leaders in their practice, profession and communities. 

Katarzyna Weresz, LCPC, is founder and clinical director of Counseling Speaks, a Chicago-based mental health collaborative. Weresz, who has served in various leadership roles in her city and state and presented on leadership nationally and internationally, calls the work “the cornerstone of progress and transformation.” 

“Leadership is essential in the counseling field because it promotes innovation, collaboration and ongoing progress in therapeutic techniques,” she says. “Individually, leadership improves a counselor’s ability to positively impact their clients’ lives, advance their own professional development, participate in research and policymaking, and mentor  
future generations.” 

Throughout her career, Adkison-Johnson has taken on a number of leadership roles, all of which help further her life’s goal: to provide access to culturally responsive mental health services for all people, especially for those who have been traditionally denied or underserved.  

“Sometimes the choice to want to help transcends having just a passion to be a counselor, teacher or physician,” Adkison-Johnson says. “You must be dedicated to serve in those positions, but how you become a leader is by operating simultaneously in your passion and training and, most importantly, in your purpose. What are you purposed on this earth to do?” 

Seeing Yourself as a Leader 

When Laura Shannonhouse, PhD, LPC, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida, she wasn’t sure graduate school was in her future, even though she dreamed of someday being a counseling clinician. Shannonhouse, who had been a conductor with the Gator Band as an undergraduate, took a job as the program’s secretary and started developing “a sense of self advocacy.” 

“I started believing in myself,” says Shannonhouse, now an associate professor and principal investigator for the H.O.P.E. Lab at Georgia State University. “I figured that if I was smart enough to conduct a band, run a performance or organize travel that I could go to grad school.” 

Today, Shannonhouse leads a team of practitioners and graduate students at the H.O.P.E. Lab, which is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In addition to doing research, the lab has provided suicide intervention skills training to more than 1,000 students and personnel in schools, universities, law enforcement and health care professions. 

“I don’t like to see myself as a leader, but I do lead a team,” says Shannonhouse, who co-wrote the $700,000 grant that established the lab. “I’ve tried to stay out of predominant leadership positions because I see my role as on the back side, generating evidence needed so we can demonstrate what we do as counselors to make a difference in the lives of our clients.” 

Rohanna Brooks-Sykes, LPC, is assistant director for school mental health at Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, a Texas-based nonprofit. She says counselors “are leaders in whatever setting they serve,” noting the best ones are those who work within and across teams to ensure the organization’s goals and mission are upheld. 

“A good leader is a collaborative partner, an organized visionary and a proactive advocate,” she says. “They must remain organized and focused on long-term progress, which often means thinking outside of the box for solutions and anticipating what is on the horizon based on trends.” 

The Importance of Mentors 

For new and aspiring counselors, finding strong mentors is critical as you work to develop and refine your therapeutic and research techniques and the interpersonal skills that will help you build rapport and trust with clients.  

Brooks-Sykes says her mentors were “great counselor legacy builders” who helped shape her career by emphasizing lifelong learning through personal and professional development. They also urged her to pay it forward. 

“Their leadership allowed me to find the path that was best for me, make positive differences for my clients and grow into the professional that I am today,” she says. “I take the lessons that I learned from them to invest in other counselors and empower them to lead with purpose and passion.” 

While pursuing her master’s degree, Shannonhouse says she was invited by her professors to co-teach and work together on research. The mentoring led her to pursue a doctorate as she became more deeply interested in research instead of clinical work. As an intern with Chi Sigma Iota, the international counseling honor society, she became immersed in the society’s principles and practices of leadership excellence and collaborated on a project studying the egos of humanitarian aid leaders.  

“Excellent leaders serve because they’re interested in making a difference for others,” she says. “That’s the hallmark to being a good leader. In the study, these leaders not only had a desire to make a difference for others, but they also had an accurate view of themselves that was not too high or too low. They were open to learning from the communities they were serving, and they were really good within themselves. They didn’t need the credit; they gave it away.” 

Adkison-Johnson says new and aspiring counselors need to build a “solid foundation of training” that they can leverage when moving into leadership roles. Internship experiences “start to launch who you are as a leader,” she explains, and they provide you with a “chance to see who you are and who you’re trying to be.” 

“When you’re in a master’s program, you want to be like a sponge,” she says. “You have to go above and beyond and have a vision of how you can be the best you can be to respond to the needs of others. You need to pick up the foundational skills to culturally respond to the community that you want to serve.” 

Throughout her career, Adkison-Johnson has acquired these foundational leadership skills that she uses to help ensure her community has culturally responsive and evidence-based services in areas where they are needed the most. For example, she and her colleagues at Western Michigan University acquired a $1.9 million workforce development grant funded by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, which is focused on a culturally competent behavioral health workforce. 

Continuing to Learn 

Learning how to be a good leader comes with a price, Weresz says, noting you must be dedicated to ongoing improvement, professional development and self-reflection. Strong leaders, she believes, demonstrate “integrity, empathy and a deep commitment to uplifting those around them” without alternative motives. 

“Effective leaders become great by creating and holding a space in which others can be seen, heard and fully understood,” Weresz says. “A good leader is truly humble, realizing that their purpose is to serve others with grace and kindness.” 

Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC, is a member of the core clinical faculty at Southern New Hampshire University and author of A Year of Finding Your Calling: Daily Practices to Uncover Your Passion and Purpose.  

“One of the things I stress is leading by example and having a well-balanced life,” Glowiak says, noting he always describes himself as a “father of three and a loving husband” before talking about his work. “I talk to my students about the importance of intentionality and really building up on that. You have to be intentional about what you’re choosing to do because you have to see value in it.” 

But Glowiak, a self-described extrovert who traditionally functions on little sleep, has had to learn the lessons about a well-balanced life the hard way. While working on his master’s internship, Glowiak was “burning the candle at both ends” and had started talking to a counselor as well. 

“I was working with one of my clients and talking to them about self-care,” Glowiak says. “It had been a 14-hour day, and the client looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘I hate to call this out, but you need some self-care, buddy. You look like you need some rest.’ I thought, ‘Wow, if my client is talking about this, then he saw right through it.’” 

Glowiak says he immediately apologized, noting that he never wants clients to perceive him as something he’s not. “I never say to clients that I’m a perfect person. If I make a mistake, I take corrective action. Setting the example while maintaining professional boundaries is a really important part of what we do as leaders, whether it’s in our practice or in the classroom. And always being kind is a huge part of it, as long as its genuine.” 

Shannonhouse describes this as the “three factors of humility” — an accurate view of self, ability to give away credit and openness to learning. 

“Having these three qualities simultaneously enables us to be ‘other-focused’ as opposed to ‘self-focused,’” she says. “The focus shifts from the self to the other, which seems foundational to any leadership position in counseling.” 

Empowering Others to Lead 

Like Shannonhouse, Margarita Martinez never expected to be in a leadership position, even though they are managing director and career coach at the Multicultural Career Center in Northern Virginia. At their first ACA conference, Martinez met Amney Harper, PhD, a professor in the Department of Professional Counseling at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. 

Harper, who became a mentor and friend, introduced Martinez to members of what is now the Society for Sexual, Affectional, Intersex, and Gender Expansive Identities (SAIGE). The two also worked on SAIGE’s Competencies for Counseling LGBQQIA Individuals, approved by ACA in 2009, and are again helping to update the competencies this year. 

“They empowered me,” Martinez says of Harper. “They told me I had something to add and that I could be someone of significance as a master’s-level student.” 

Martinez was vice president for Latine/x Concerns for the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD) and served as president in 2021–2022. They became president of the Northern Virginia Counselors Association this month and will be SAIGE’s president in 2025–2026. 

“I learned a lot about leadership in my AMCD experience,” Martinez says. “We created some cool things and innovated, and I met allies and great folks who helped me lead. At the same time, I learned that it can be hard to be a leader. It can be isolating, and you feel like you’re not doing much because everything takes so much time and energy.” 

Martinez says being a leader for the LGBTQ+ and Latine/x counseling professionals is important because it diversifies the profession and helps families feel more comfortable. At the same time, they caution that being too ambitious in a leadership role can lead to burnout, something Martinez says they learned in an earlier role. Pacing yourself and having realistic expectations about what can be accomplished during a finite period of time is important. 

“You have to give people space and opportunity to grow,” they say.  

“I don’t expect to have all the answers, and my plan is to not be as ambitious in my leadership role this time. I still have big dreams, but I want to be more realistic about what can be done.” 

Adkison-Johnson says diversifying the counseling profession and its leadership has been a long-standing challenge that she and others are trying to rectify.  

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about it, but I still don’t see many people who look like myself,” she says. “The counseling profession is very much into talking about it, but the system still has not changed. I tell my students that they will need perseverance to be a leader in this profession if they’re not a white female or a white male because you’re often going to stand in opposition to systems (power) that people still want in place.” 

The reason she continues to serve in leadership roles, Adkison-Johnson says, is because it gives her an opportunity to “inform and change policies” that lead to improvements in professional competencies and practice for everyone. Ultimately, she says, policies that are well-designed and implemented with sustainable outcomes are a harbinger of true leadership. 

“Policies at the end of the day create who has access to mental health and who doesn’t,” she says. “More important for me is, when we do have access, is the professional counselor going to be someone I want to send one of my family members to see? If it is, and I’ve helped in some way to make it happen, then I can say my leadership has made a difference.” 


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