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Section 5: Key Aptitudes of Effective Supervision

There are a number of different aptitudes that effective supervisors develop in preparation for assuming their different roles in the supervisory process. Within the educational or developmental role, the aptitudes include both the wide range of knowledge and skills about clinical work to be transferred to the supervisee and the capacity to engage in teaching processes that successfully effectuate that transfer. Because this set of aptitudes is fairly extensive, it will be addressed in the next chapter.

There are other aptitudes for supervision that create a foundation and context for the therapeutic alliance to be formed between the supervisor and supervisee, and that enhance the management of the administrative, leadership, supportive, and bearer of clinical responsibility roles, as well as the supervisor’s gatekeeping responsibilities, when applicable. These aptitudes are shown below, with discussion to follow:

  1. Generating authority
  2. Building trust and managing relationships
  3. Self-management and self-control
  4. Establishing focus and defining goals
  5. Managing performance and creating accountability
  6. Motivating and empowering
  7. Directing change through teaching, coaching, mentoring
  8. Giving feedback through communication and listening
  9. Managing conflict
  10. Managing and organizing systems and processes


Generating Professional Authority

As a key part of each of the roles undertaken in supervision, effective clinicians should understand how to generate and utilize professional authority within the context of the therapeutic alliance.  This authority is used to lead, direct, inspire, and to set limits and boundaries when the supervisee requires them. In preparation for the development of this capacity, it may be helpful for supervisors to understand the different kinds of authority that may be generated.  

The Four Pillars of Professional Authority

Structural Authority

Structural authority is the kind of authority that is created by rank or position within a hierarchy.

Sapiential Authority

Sapiential authority (from sapiens, the Latin word for wise or knowledgeable) generates its persuasive capacity from the degree of knowledge or wisdom held by a person.

Moral Authority

Moral authority derives its persuasive capacity from the respect given a person who is willing to do the right things for the right reasons in pursuit of a “good mission.”

Personal Authority

Personal or charismatic authority is based on the capacity of the person in charge to rally others to his/her cause based upon charisma, assertiveness, personal presence or other personal characteristics. (Source: TT Paterson, Management Theory (1966). Business Publications Limited, London.)


Applications of the Four Pillars of Professional Authority

No matter which model or approach a supervisor chooses, it will be applied from a role as an expert or leader. This role of a facilitator or leader of change is one which must be built on a foundation of well-constructed and well-utilized professional authority. This means that practitioners must understand the nature and uses of professional authority. The ability to use professional authority competently, like other aspects of maintaining a good therapeutic relationship, is durable and transferable across different modality of intervention. 

The four pillars of authority is a model that is clear, concise, and easy to grasp – for supervisors, supervisees - and clients. It explains very well what people need to focus on in order to generate authority in relationships with other people.

The first important thing to know about professional authority is that the supervisee retains the right to grant it to the supervisor or to withhold it from the supervisor. The supervisee has a choice of whether to trust the capabilities of the supervisor and allow him/her to lead or facilitate the change efforts, or to reject those efforts. The supervisor can optimize his or her actions in an attempt to secure the trust of the supervisee, but even the most skilled professional does not have the ability to create professional authority without the permission of the person at the receiving end. Great leaders can be made or unmade by having great or poor followers.

That said, the degree to which the supervisor operates in a way that commands professional authority, the more likely it is that the supervisee will allow the supervisor to lead the change efforts. 

Professional authority is different from personal authority in that it does not exclusively emanate from any personal characteristic of the practitioner. Professional authority is not dependent upon the provider being of a particular age, gender, ethnicity, personality type, or any other personal characteristic. It comes from knowing how to generate it and use it wisely.

Good supervisors both exhibit authority as a characteristic and use authority as a tool for persuading supervisees to operate in accordance with the shared purposes defined as the change work. Professional authority, properly used, generates both trust and positive pressure for supervisees to confront their own worries about change and resistances to engaging in change work. 

As a metaphor to understand the uses of the four pillars of authority, consider them to be four legs of a table. The table will be maximally stable and strong if all four legs are present. If one of the four pillars is missing, then the structural integrity is weakened, and authority is diminished.

Structural authority is the kind of authority that is created by rank or position within a hierarchy. This is to say that a person’s position within some kind of organized and structured entity allows them to issue guidelines, directives, or even commands to people at a lower point in the hierarchical structure. For instance, within the military, generals have structural authority over majors, who have structural authority over captains, who have authority over lieutenants, and so forth.

The structured system usually allows leaders higher on the ladder to give rewards and apply consequences to people lower on the ladder as a method of directing followers towards preferred behaviors and away from unwelcomed behaviors. Unlike any of the other kinds of authority, where authority is dependent upon the skills demonstrated by the person, the persuasive power of structural authority comes solely from the structure itself and the hierarchy’s ability to dole out rewards and punishments. The administrative supervisor will possess structural authority within a supervisory process, based upon the ability to apply consequences to the supervisee. 

The supervisor in the clinical role may also possess structural authority, based upon the capacity to withhold a recommendation for a supervisee to advance forward in his/her profession.

Structural authority, however, also brings with it a number of responsibilities that limit the rights of the supervisor to operate in unsanctioned ways. Any supervisor who violates practice or ethical guidelines runs the risk of forfeiting this structural authority – and incurs the possibility of consequences from the professional and/or licensure bodies supervising supervision in clinical practice.

Violations of practice by any professional fundamentally weaken the structural authority of all other practitioners by decreasing overall trust for the profession. In business and marketing terms, violations “cheapen the brand.”  For this reason, it is important for supervisors to teach all supervisees about the ethical uses of professional authority, and to encourage, direct, and inspire their supervisees to be mission driven.

Structural authority is the only kind of authority that incorporates coercive modes of interaction: rewards and punishments. All of the other kinds of authority work through persuasive modes of interaction. Structural authority can be given to a person without that person having earned it. All of the other kinds of authority need to be earned.

This is important in terms of utilizing authority in an empowered way. A person who attempts to utilize structural authority – without having earned the other kinds of authority through well-considered action – will usually generate resistance and pushback from his/her followers.

Sapiential authority (from sapiens, the Latin word for wise or knowledgeable) generates its persuasive capacity from the degree of knowledge or wisdom held by a person. The greater the degree of knowledge, the greater the amount of sapiential authority created. People are often promoted to positions of leadership because of their greater degree of knowledge or experience, factors which should allow them to direct others to better results. Supervisors must have a greater degree of knowledge or wisdom is there is to be a successful transfer of knowledge.

In situations where the most important consideration is who knows how to do something in the right way or the best way, sapiential authority can be more important than structural authority. Even the president of a company will generally follow the lead and instructions of a technician lower on the organizational ladder if the technician knows how to do something that the president doesn’t know how to do. 

When a person in a position of authority lacks the wisdom or knowledge to handle the responsibilities of his/her leadership role, that person’s authority very quickly begins to erode. This can lead to a leadership void and an increased risk that followers will rebel against or reject the leader’s defined goals and purposes.

Obviously, sapiential authority is extremely important for supervisors in the helping professions. Our supervisees will continuously be assessing our level of skill in helping them develop and learn. If we do not possess the necessary knowledge and skills to help them, then they will ultimately withdraw their trust

Each of the other key aptitudes of supervision will factor into whether the supervisor is successful in generating sapiential authority. This includes the capacity to building trust and manage relationships – including when conflict arises – as well as manage performance and create accountability. These aptitudes are in turn dependent upon the supervisor’s capacity for self-management and self-control combined with knowledge of systems and approaches within supervisory relationships.

Supervisors must also be capable of establishing focus and defining goals, motivating and empowering supervisees to engage in the hard work of moving towards those goals, directing change through teaching, coaching, mentoring, and giving effective feedback through communication and listening.

Supervisors must also be capable of bringing in, managing and organizing systems and processes that will support the supervisory work, and, if needed, creating systems and process to handle emerging challenges.

Moral authority derives its persuasive capacity from the respect given a person who is willing to do the right things for the right reasons even in situations where doing the right things places personal burdens upon that person. The integrity of the person exercising moral authority models and champions a willingness to put mission ahead of self, placing moral pressure on others to do the same.

Within organizations, moral authority is more powerful and more effective: 1) when the positions taken by the person exercising moral authority align well with the mission of the organization and 2) when the mission itself is seen as right and correct, both within the organization and outside of the organization. Conflicts over the “rightness” of decisions that are made serve to weaken moral authority.

As was previously noted, the leadership role requires that a supervisor remain aware of the context in which the supervision is occurring and become a fierce advocate on behalf of the mission - even if that puts the supervisor in conflict with others within the organization. Through this effort, moral authority will be generated that will more effectively invite the supervisee to be mission driven as well. 

Moral authority can be the most complicated part of authority to address, as it raises questions of what is the “right” mission. Within professional relationships where change work is the mission, moral authority is enhanced when the supervisee is able to perceive the mission as the “right” one. This is aided when the supervisee sees the supervisor as being willing to take on the personal and professional burdens of pursuing that mission passionately.

Personal or charismatic authority is based on the capacity of the person in charge to rally others to his/her cause based upon charisma, personal presence or other personal characteristics, such as confidence, certainty, assertiveness or, in some cases, aggressiveness. Personal authority occurs when the charismatic presence of the person in charge is sufficient to persuade followers to pursue whatever mission that the leader defines as right, whether or not the leader is working with wisdom or folly, good moral intentions or bad.

While many successful leaders possess personal authority – and use it for positive purposes - there are clearly instances in which unscrupulous and unethical leaders have misused personal authority. In the absence of wisdom to understand how to proceed correctly and/or a vision - as well as a mission - that is “right” in a moral sense, personal authority can be and has been used to lead followers in the direction that serves the personal purposes of the person in the leadership role. 

Professional authority is generated by the combined effects of all of these four kinds of authority. The very best supervisors tend to be personally charismatic, operating with a great deal of both knowledge and wisdom, fiercely pursuing a mission that is both well-defined and widely understood as right, within an structural and conceptual framework that arranges itself so that the supervisor is granted wide authority, but with good support and limits from other components of the organizational structure.

Supervisors who do not possess all four kinds of authority in sufficient quantities can run into predictable difficulties. Supervisors who possess ample amounts of charismatic, sapiential and structural authority, but who suffer from a deficiency in moral authority – because they do the wrong things for the wrong reasons - are liable to direct the mission towards wrongheaded, unethical or dysfunctional purposes.

Supervisors who lack sapiential authority, because they apply the wrong knowledge bases to pursuing their task or mission, also weaken their moral authority. Doing the right thing involves gathering the right knowledge to support what you are doing.

Supervisors who possess sapiential, structural and moral authority, but who lack personal or charismatic authority, can struggle in the leadership and directive elements of change work. There is a competition in change work between regressive goals and purposes coming from the supervisee’s resistance to change versus the goals and purposes that lead the supervisee towards positive change. 

A good supervisor must work not to be intimidated by resistance, and personal authority is the behavioral expression of that commitment to use one’s own personal resources for the right purposes. Personal or charismatic authority is often the most readily evident and visible kind of authority. For this reason, it is tremendously important for the supervisor to overcome his or her personal inhibitions to operating with assertiveness and confidence in the leadership role.

The directive and persuasive power of professional authority ultimately is derived from the mission. It is the mission - and not the personal beliefs, values, ideas and/or personal characteristics of the supervisor - that informs the proper actions and interventions. Those actions that best direct the supervisor and supervisee towards the optimal fulfillment of the mission, and its clearly defined goals and purposes, are the correct actions to be chosen by the supervisor in his or her leadership position.

Professional authority, in this sense, does not consist of a solitary and isolated supervisor being engaged in individual interaction with any supervisee. In each individual action or intervention, the supervisor who is effectively utilizing professional authority will have the entire weight and backing of the organization, the state and his/her profession behind him or her.

Because professional authority emanates from the mission, it is deeply impersonal. It has no feelings. Professional authority does not become frightened, or angry, or frustrated. It is always organized and purposeful, engaged in a constant process of searching for the most successful action, approaches and solutions that can lead to the successful achievement of the mission

Professional authority is also impersonal in the sense that it is not directed towards protecting or fulfilling in any way the personal needs, values and feelings of the supervisor who is engaged in its use. The use of professional authority makes demands upon the supervisor to ignore, suppress, and control his/her own feelings, needs, wants and values in ways that pose a personal burden.  Wherever the supervisor chooses to focus on his/her own agenda in a way that interferes with the fulfillment of the mission, he/she relinquishes some portion of the support of his/her state and profession. Hence his/her professional authority is diminished.

Successful use of professional authority requires several things of the supervisor, as well as his/her profession and the state who work together to define standards for practice. It requires that the supervisor be right when he/she acts. This is to say that his/her actions are purposeful and functional, and directed towards the clearly defined goals and tasks of the mission.

At a deeper level, it also requires that the mission be right. Where professional authority takes place within organizations that have a single and largely universally accepted organizational culture, this is to say it requires that the mission be fully in line with the organization, its people and the deeply held values that direct the mission and purpose of the organization.

The other factors that were noted earlier in this chapter as key aptitudes of effective supervision also have deep connections to creating and maintaining professional authority. Each of these factors, performed effectively, increases professional authority, as each of them contributes to successful completion of the mission.  


  • Building trust and managing relationships
  • Self-management and self-control
  • Establishing focus and defining goals
  • Managing performance and creating accountability
  • Motivating and empowering
  • Directing change through teaching, coaching, mentoring
  • Giving feedback through communication and listening
  • Managing conflict


Further discussion on these attributes will occur in a later course in this supervisory series, when we address core supervisory techniques, including techniques at shaping the supervisory relationship. Right now, however, there are two key areas that warrant discussion here.

The first area is concerned with building trust within supervisory relationships.

Trust is one of the most important components in the development of any relationship that involves collaboration over time. It determines in large part the quality of the relationship and the successful attainment of its goals and purpose.

Trust is the ability to rely on another with a certain sense of predictability. It creates a sense of safety, which is a precondition for supervisees to allow their vulnerabilities to be present in the relationship, which in turn allows the supervisor to have a clearer sense of the learning or development areas needed. 

To help develop a sense of trust, supervisors can discuss with the supervisee what both can do to create a trusting supervisory relationship, and encourage – in an open and honest way - their supervisees to bring up any concerns they have about trust during supervision sessions.

Building trust within a supervisory relationship involves the following core elements:


  • Benevolence: Confidence that another person has your best interest at heart.
  • Reliability: The extent to which you can depend upon another party to come through for you, to act consistently, and to follow through.
  • Competence: Belief in another person’s ability to perform the tasks of his or her position.
  • Honesty: Integrity, character and authenticity. The degree to which a person can be counted on to represent situations fairly.
  • Openness: How freely a person shares information with others.
  • Acceptance: Willingness to meet the person where they are at without prejudgment or unreasonable expectation while working with them to establish appropriate goals.
  • Congruence: The degree to which actions are consistent with what has been communicated.


Please note that acceptance of the supervisee does not imply that supportive limits may not be set when appropriate. Limits that are in the service of the best interest of clients, the rightful mission of the organization, and/or the learning and development of the supervisee do not denote a lack of acceptance of the supervisee.


Barriers to Building Trust 

There are also a number of key barriers to the effective creation of trust within the supervisory relationship. 

  • Ineffective use of communication in the supervisory relationship
  • Lack of respect for confidentiality and privacy
  • Gossip or other forms of inappropriate communication
  • Lack of cultural competency
  • Lack of respect for the supervisee’s time
  • Incompetence on the part of the supervisor
  • Incongruence between the supervisor’s words and actions
  • Favoritism
  • Poor role modeling behaviors
  • Generally, absence of the components that build trust mentioned above

Finally, when it comes to how the mission intersections with the performance of successful supervision, the mission requires that the supervision be effective. This is dependent upon the supervisor possessing the aptitudes noted in this chapter. However, it is also dependent upon the last aptitude on our list:

  • Managing and organizing systems and processes

There are systems and processes related to how well supervision may proceed, both in terms of the actual supervisory interventions, and in terms of the systems and structures present in the organization in which the supervision is occurring. This is the contextual factor that was previously discussed.  

Even if a supervisor possesses great interpersonal effectiveness skills applied to supervision (i.e., many of the aptitudes noted above), if the supervisor is unable to organize a systematic approach to best practices supervision, the work will suffer. For this reason, a later course in this series will address the structure of effective supervision, including best practices forms and templates to support that structure. However, this component also has implications for the role and responsibilities of effective supervision. Accordingly, the next element to be studied will briefly concern itself with what constitutes effective supervision from a structural standpoint.


Effective supervision

There are a number of elements that contribute to effective supervision in clinical work. Below you will find some guidelines to help solidify your knowledge in this area from the University of California Davis guidelines for supervisors and from the North Carolina Employment and Training Organization.

Effective supervision is…

. . . competency based and adheres to the following basic propositions:

  • Structured
  • Regular
  • Consistent (style is predictable and professional at all times)
  • Case oriented and/or work oriented
  • Evaluated
  • Balances high productivity and morals
  • Consistent with modeling expectations
  • Supervisor clearly communicates his/her leadership and supervision style
  • Manages positively
  • Insists on accountability—criteria known at beginning of evaluative period (for internship evaluation is based on the learning/educational plan devised collaboratively by supervisor and intern based on competencies to be learned and intern’s level of ability and experience)
  • Establishes clear goals for the employees
  • Insists on frequent communication (UC Davis, Guidelines for Supervisors, 2011,


Characteristics of Effective Supervisors

  • Current on research, where applicable
  • Trained observers: focused and able to connect observations to job performance
  • Good communicators: written, oral, non-verbal
  • Astute listeners
  • Give and earn respect
  • Match supervisory style with learning style of supervisee
  • Lead by example


Effective Supervisors . . . 

. . . follow the four A’s

  • Available
  • Accessible
  • Able
  • Affable


(NCETA, 2005,


Effective Supervisors . . .

. . . understand the key concerns that supervisees have about supervision.

Supervisee Concerns about Supervision

  • Uncertainty about what is involved
  • Loss of independence and autonomy
  • Feeling scrutinized, spied on, interrogated
  • Potentially open to criticism (UK extensive manual)
  • Fear of being exposed as an inadequate practitioner


(NCETA, 2005,


Effectiveness in supervision is heavily dependent upon utilization of best practices knowledge and skills in supervision. This is the subject of the next section.