Leadership Traits Every Counselor Should Have

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Far from simply setting up student schedules and administering placement and academic evaluation tests, school counselors are leaders who can have a huge impact on the acceleration and the enhancement of learning. They must possess the ability to negotiate, persuade others their ideas are worthwhile, and collaborate with principals and other school officials.

A school counselor welcomes students back for the school year.

School counselors have many responsibilities, including counseling students, working with teachers and parents, referring students to outside agencies, participating in student welfare and learning support communities, and evaluating and improving their own school counseling program.


First and foremost, a school counselor needs to be a good listener. Often, they have several students they work with and may get very few chances to converse with them in a one on one setting. “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood,” said Ralph G. Nichols. “The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

To listen effectively, counselors must be fully in the moment, not thinking of their “to do” list but rather giving their full attention to the issue at hand. Reflecting back to the person, your perception of what they said helps show understanding, and lets them make corrections. The counselor must also keep an open mind, being careful not to make any judgments until they have heard the entire story.1

Being Empathetic

Often a part of listening, putting themselves in the shoes of the person speaking, whether that is a student or another school official, helps counselors truly understand the underlying issues.

“Without the ability to understand what the student is experiencing, a counselor cannot truly do an effective job,” says Helen A. Hatridge, past president of the Missouri School Counselor Association. “Empathy leads to good listening and a better ability to help the client come up with solutions. It also helps the student feel more comfortable and willing to open up to a counselor.”2

To be more empathetic, it is essential for a counselor to put aside their viewpoint. At the same time, they need to validate the student’s viewpoint, which does not always mean agreement. Instead it means acknowledging their right to have an opinion, and that they have valid reasons for it. Asking how that person thinks a situation should be handled or what they would do opens up an even deeper understanding.3

Building Relationship

It takes time for a counselor to build a relationship with any student or even their peers. However, through listening and being empathetic, that process can be accelerated.

To feel free to talk to a counselor, a student must often “break the ice,” and needs to feel trust, comfort, and acceptance. Students need to accept that the counselor is a professional caregiver, and someone they can turn to without fear of judgement.

A counselor who develops this trusting relationship with students can get a lot more done, An understanding of the kid culture and what they care about can go a long way toward providing that environment of trust and understanding.

Performing Assessments

Assessment skills are essential for any school counselor in a number of areas. From academic and skills assessment to personality testing and career advisement, the ability to discern the intersection of talent and desire is essential to offering good counsel.

Assessment also includes determining if a student has special needs and interpreting test and non-test data to decide where the student should be placed, and what programs will most benefit them.

Regardless of the reason for assessment, the steps often include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Choosing what tests should be administered and when.
  • Scheduling, preparing, and administering tests.
  • Scoring tests or sending them out to be scored.
  • Advising students, teachers, parents, and other staff on test score interpretation.
  • Evaluating the testing process, results, and subsequent recommendations.4

Assessments involve some testing but must also be combined with listening, empathy, and the relationship that has been built to determine how testing outcomes relate to personality, desires, and the goals of the student.

Coordinating Efforts and Activities

Efforts and activities can fall into a couple of different categories. A counselor will have to coordinate Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students, and other student specific plans as well. Along with coordinating individual student plans and interacting with teachers and other school officials, the school counselor often coordinates other activities and projects as well.

In many cases, the school counselor is in charge of parent newsletters, school announcements, managing social media accounts, and other community outreach and event planning efforts.

The ability to coordinate and manage these efforts and activities requires strong leadership and organizational skills. Teaching these skills to students by allowing them to take responsibility for their own educational goals and other efforts enables a counselor to show leadership by example.

Exercising Authority

In order to be able to implement programs, direct student activities and coordinate tasks, a counselor must exercise a certain amount of authority.

This means first of all that the counselor must be granted the authority to handle certain tasks by other school officials such as principals and administrators. The more their authority is validated by their actions, the more the counselor will be perceived as a leader by parents and students alike.

Secondly, the school counselor must be willing to wield the authority they have been granted, taking charge of tasks and situations, setting expectations, and holding those responsible to deadlines.

The counselor must also know in any given situation when to cross the line from friend to professional. If a student is being abusive or abused, a more professional response is ethically and legally mandated. It is the counselor’s obligation to take charge and follow through, ensuring that student safety comes first.

Being Flexible

If one thing is certain in the field of education, it is that things will change. Interruptions, schedule changes, new programs, and new responsibilities all interrupt a counselor’s daily routine.

Student needs and the needs of the school overall often take priority over scheduled meetings. Parent phone calls, staff concerns, talks in classrooms, and unexpected counseling needs can all be disruptive.

A successful counselor should:

  • Leave gaps in their day for unscheduled needs.
  • Use good time management techniques.
  • Set reasonable boundaries. Know what is worthy of an interruption, and what can wait.
  • Communicate clearly. Inform students, parents, and faculty of schedules and boundaries.

By remaining flexible, a counselor can better manage the stress inherent in the job and be more responsive when needs arise unexpectedly.

Having a Sense of Humor

Being able to see things from the side of humor has a number of advantages. It lets students see that the counselor is human and can not only laugh at situations but laugh at themselves as well.

This is frequently one of the biggest assets in building student trust and developing a relationship with them. It is often how those students relate to adults, whether through jokes or humorous anecdotes that illustrate a point the counselor is trying to get across.

Humor is also a stress reliever. Being able to see the humorous side of interruptions and other daily situations allows a counselor to relax and keep anxiety from taking over many scenarios.

It takes a combination of many leadership traits to make a school counselor effective. They must use listening skills and offer empathy in order to build relationships. A counselor must also perform assessments and coordinate activities and educational efforts. These duties mean they must remain flexible and exercise authority when appropriate.

Not one of these traits alone is enough, and no one is equally adept in all of them. They are taught and can be learned in a Master of Arts in Counseling with an emphasis in school counseling like the one offered by Wake Forest University. This graduate degree will prepare you for a career as a school counselor in almost any setting.



Fast Company, 5 Ways To Improve Your Listening Skills

Education World, School Counselors Reflective On What Makes Them Effective 

 Mind Tools, Empathy at Work

4  American Counseling Association, Assessment Skills for School Counselors