Posted by: chrismaser | May 9, 2010

CHARACTERISTIC-4: A Therapeutic Person

A therapeutic person is one who has healing powers, for, as Carl Jung said, it is the personality of the doctor that has the curative effect. But why, you might ask, do you use the term therapeutic? I use the term therapeutic because a good leader not only must bear the uncertainties and fears of those who follow but also must help them reach beyond where they thought they could go.

In this sense, an effective leader treads, albeit lightly, in the realm of psychotherapy. Hence, because a leader is asking people to risk a greater personal honesty by looking within, it is critical that the leader exhibit the courage to search within and hold their own life open to the same kind of scrutiny that is being asked of their constituents, all the while knowing that, in moments of weakness, we have all done things of which we may be ashamed.

Professor Gerald Corey has provided an excellent synopsis of a therapeutic person in terms of being a psychotherapist. It is with gratitude and humility that I adapt his synopsis to the realm of leadership, for they are in many ways one and the same. In this sense, as Corey says of psychotherapists, leaders must continually ask themselves: What do I personally have to offer those who are struggling to find their way. Am I living my life honestly, freely, and boldly as I am urging others to do?

There are two central questions tied to a leader’s personhood: (1) How can a leader be a therapeutic person? and (2) How can a leader be an instrument of awareness and growth for those who follow? Here I return to the notion of a leader as a public example whose life, as Mahatma Gandhi once said of his own life, is their message.

Leaders can acquire extensive theoretical and practical knowledge and make that knowledge available to their constituents. But until that knowledge is integrated into one’s real life as a leader, it is seldom, if ever, inspirational because, in the end, a person always brings themself as an example before their constituents, wrapped in their own qualities and the life experiences. This is a critical concept because a true leader must, above all else, inspire others to follow the noble path of service to all citizens—present and future.

If, therefore, leaders are going to promote inner growth and change in their constituents, they must be at least equally willing to grow and change within by exploring their own choices and decisions and by striving to always be aware of, accept, and act on their own potential for growth. Their willingness to live in accordance with their own truths and to set an example of those truths by how they live is the positive model that makes effective leaders “therapeutic persons” for their followers.

As Corey stated, and I emphasize, the following list is not proposed as a model of perfection. Rather, the importance lies in a person’s continuing struggle to attain these dimensions, albeit he or she may repeatedly miss the mark. It is the willingness to remain open to the struggle of continual personal growth that is crucial for a vital leader; not only for the leader himself or herself but also for the experience of those who follow.

I propose this evolving list of characteristics of a therapeutic person in the same vain as Corey did for psychotherapists, not as some dogmatic itemization of what is “right,” but rather to provide a foundation from which to examine your own concepts of a therapeutic leader. I also recommend that you add to this list any characteristics that you feel are missing. To better allow you to feel the list, it is presented in the first person.

1. I must find my own way in that I can only lead effectively, where I have personally traveled. In so doing, I am in the process of developing a style of leadership that is uniquely mine and consciously reflects both my philosophy of life and style of living. Although I must, of necessity, be a sifter who borrows ideas from others, I remain true to myself in how I apply that which I borrow.

2. I respect myself and appreciate both what I am and what I am consciously becoming. I can give out of my own authenticity, rather than seeking a false sense of fulfillment from others. I have the humility to ask of, to be needed by, and to receive from others without isolating myself as a means of control.

3. I am comfortable with my own sense of personal power and am secure enough to allow other people to also be comfortable with their own sense of power. Hence, there is no need for me to diminish others or encourage them to maintain a subordinate stance. I consciously use my power with respect as a healthy model for those who follow.

4. I not only am in touch with myself and open to change but also am willing to take calculated risks. Rather than settling for less or that which is comfortable, I am willing to plunge into the unknown, where I find within my uncertainties my own untapped potentials.

5. I strive to continuously expand my awareness of others and myself, realizing that limited freedom comes with limited awareness and vice versa. To enrich my own life and thus the lives of others, I direct my energy toward new experiences that will in turn expand my awareness of cause and effect and hence improve all of my myriad relationships.

6. I am both willing and able to accept ambiguity because personal growth means leaving the perceived safety of the familiar for the uncertainty of the unknown. I know that the price of entering an unknown territory is a degree of ambiguity in life. But instead of perceiving it as a threat to my existence, I view it as a hidden potential to which I am inextricably drawn. And as I learn increasingly to trust myself and my intuition, I become increasingly trustworthy to others.

7. I have a personal identity in that I know what I am, what I am capable of becoming, what I want from life, and what is essential. I am willing to reexamine my values continuously and consciously and strive to get in touch and stay in touch with my inner core and live from the authenticity of my own center. My standards are internalized, and I have the courage to act in a way that is consistent with my own belief. I know the only way to communicate my inner truth is to live that truth.

8. I am consciously aware of my own struggles and pain from which I gain a frame of reference that allows me to identify with others while maintaining my own identity. Put differently, I do not get mired in someone else’s emotional quicksand.

9. I am committed to living life to the fullest and best, and I refuse to settle for mere existence. As Winston Churchill once said about the road to success, I go from “failure to failure with enthusiasm”—always recognizing that success and failure are interpretations of an event, and not the event itself.

10. I am authentic and refuse to hide behind masks of persona, sterile roles, or facades. I will risk instead being genuine.

11. I am able to give and receive love from the fullness of my soul. I am thus vulnerable to those I love and have the capacity to care for others.

12. Recognizing that shame can only live in the past and fear can only live in the future, I choose to live in the present, where there is neither shame nor fear. I choose the eternal now and invite others to join me.

13. Although I make mistakes like everyone else, I willingly admit them. I do not lightly dismiss my errors, but choose instead to learn from them rather than be encumbered with pointless misery.

14. My “work” is a labor of love and a way of living. Although I find deep, spiritual meaning in the work I do, I am not enslaved by it for my identity. My work is coupled with other dimensions in life, which collectively provide me with a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

15. Unbound by my past ways of being, I am constantly changing as I struggle to become that which I want to be. In so doing, I am constantly revitalizing and recreating significant relationships.

16. Being open to my own emotional experiences, I can be emotionally present for others in their joy or pain.

17. Aware that I have no choice but to make choices that shape my life, I am not a victim of my past decisions because I know that if I err I can always choose to choose again, and yet again if need be.

18. I openly challenge unreasonable assumptions and self-destructive beliefs and attitudes, rather than submit to them. Being thus engaged, I do not needlessly limit myself with negative self-talk.

19. I know that in the end all I have to give of real value is my love, trust, respect, and the benefit of my experiences. I am also aware that people do not care about how much I know as a leader, until they know how much I care about them. Someone once said that soldiers will follow a leader whom they know is willing to die for them if need be. This is the kind of caring that really counts.

20. I know that choice is the root of all human relationships and that choice (both conscious and unconscious) directs the outcome of all such relationships. I understand that choice is the cause of an effect and am thus careful to choose wisely for all concerned—present and future.1

As Corey himself indicated, this snapshot of a leader might appear unrealistic. After all, who can be all these things? Again, I point out that these are characteristics of leadership to strive for as you reach to become more of your potential self. As a Chinese proverb points out: Even the journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

I emphasize the word “strive” because, as Jungian analyst Eleanor Bertine says of human relationships: “Acceptance means taking the other person as [they are], without reservation,” which includes your own relationship with yourself. She goes on to say that people often remark they like this but not that about so-and-so. Such an attitude reflects your own biases concerning the “assets and liabilities” of the other person, which, according to Bertine, is not love. Love, is unconditional acceptance of all virtues and faults.

Why, you might ask, should I struggle so hard to achieve these aspects of leadership? Sociologist and minister Marvin Layman offers what I think is a compelling reason. Layman writes that religion, psychology, and medicine all have a healing role—that of making whole the individual. I include leadership in this group.

“Never before,” says Layman, “has there been a greater need for such ‘physicians of the soul.’ For in our corrupt and spiritually bereft society, those . . . [with] psychic wholeness are desperately needed bastions of strength for many others.” A truly competent leader, according to Layman, must be more than just technically proficient; they must have a genuine feeling for, even a love of, people, a considerable degree of psychological maturity, and some degree of wisdom and “inner soul quality.”

I present this view of leadership in the hope that you not only will examine it but also will develop your own concept of leadership, that which you deem essential to those people whom you would lead so that one day you would be comfortable following them.

Series on Qualities Of Leadership:

• The Essence Of Leadership: Personal Values And Philosophy Of Life

• Characteristics Of An Effective Leader

• Characteristic-1: Other-Centered And Authentic

• Characteristic-2: An Honorable Person

• Characteristic-3: Balancing The Masculine And Feminine

• Characteristic-5: Detachment And Equanimity

• Characteristic-6: Being A Good Follower

• Characteristic-7: Servant Leadership

• Characteristic-8: Sharing Leadership

• Characteristic-9: Willingness To Delegate Authority

• Characteristic-10: Encourages Leadership In Others


  1. The foregoing discussion is based on the most excellent book by Gerald Corey. Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (3rd ed.). Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., Monterey, CA. (1986).

Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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