Exploratory Study of Expert Group Leadership

An Exploratory Study of Expert Group Leadership

Deborah J. Rubel Oregon State University

William B. Kline University of Mississippi

This article presents the results of a grounded theory exploration that described expert group leaders’ experiences and perceptions during the process of leading groups in terms of influence of experience, preexisting knowledge and attitudes, and in-the-moment leadership process. The discussion presents implications for practice, counselor education, supervision, and research.

Keywords: expert leadership; group counseling; group leadership; group therapy; leadership process

Research has established group counseling and therapy as effective therapeutic modalities (Burlingame, Fuhriman, & Johnson, 2004; Dies, 1994). The effectiveness of counseling and therapy groups, how- ever, depends upon competent or effective group leadership (Kline, 2003; Yalom, 1995). Conyne, Harvill, Morganett, Morran, and Hulse- Killacky (1990) described effective group leadership as a complex endeavor that rises above simple application of skills and techniques and requires ‘‘. . .spontaneous and creative responses to complex and unrehearsed situations’’ (p. 34). While recent literature has reiterated that a deeper understanding of effective group leadership is needed (Ward, 2005), few studies have addressed the complex process of effec- tive group leadership.

Jennings and Skovholt (1999) reasoned that studying expert or ‘‘master’’ therapists could provide useful information about effective therapy. Regarding expertise in therapy, Skovholt, Hansen, Jennings, and Grier (2004) noted that the ambiguity of the practice makes defin- ing and identifying expert therapy difficult. They concluded that a

Deborah J. Rubel, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of counselor education, Department of Teacher and Counselor Education, at Oregon State University. William B. Kline, Ph.D., is a professor of Counselor Education, Department of Leadership and Counselor Edu- cation, at University of Mississippi. Correspondence regarding this article should be sent to Deborah J. Rubel, Ph.D. Education Hall 210, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331. E-mail: deborah.rubel@oregonstate.edu.

THE JOURNAL FOR SPECIALISTS IN GROUP WORK, Vol. 33 No. 2, June 2008, 138–160

DOI: 10.1080/01933920801977363

# 2008 ASGW


clear and concise definition of therapist expertise has not been pro- duced. In lieu of such a definition, researchers who have studied expertise in individual therapy have most often relied upon amount of experience as an indicator of expertise (Albert, 1997; Hillerbrand & Claiborne, 1989; Martin et al., 1989). Jennings and Skovholt (1999) contended that studies using this method are limited due to the lack of evidence linking the amount of experience to expert- ise and effective practice. Additionally, Jennings and Skovholt cri- tiqued prior studies of therapy expertise for exploring only the cognitive domain and suggested that future studies include affective and relational domains as well.

Research on individual therapy practices and processes cannot be readily generalized to group counseling and therapy. Some authors have suggested that studying expert group leaders could deepen under- standing of effective group leadership (Conyne, 1998; Donigian & Malnati, 1997). However, an examination of the research related to group leadership expertise raises concerns similar to those expressed by Jennings and Skovholt (1999). Kivlighan and Quigly’s (1991) study compared experienced and novice group therapists’ conceptualizations of group members, while Hines, Stockton, and Morran (1995) compared the self-talk of novice, beginning, and experienced group leaders. Both studies supported contentions in the therapy expertise literature that experienced therapists have more complex thought processes than less experienced therapists (Albert, 1997; Hillerbrand & Claiborne, 1989; Martin, Slemon, Hiebert, Hallberg, & Cummings, 1989). However, both studies relied upon amount of experience as the criteria for identi- fication of participants and focused only on cognition. In addition, both studies utilized analogue methods, which have been criticized for lack of connection to real-world phenomena, problems, and processes (Dixon & Dixon, 1993; Frey, 1994).

In a third study, Conyne (1998) used qualitative methods to study experts’ group leadership experiences. Through a five question, open-ended, mailed survey the researcher explored the personal meaning participants had derived over the course of their group lead- ership experiences. While useful information related to, ‘‘. . . personal involvement, member responsibility, and being oneself as a leader’’ (p. 253) was gathered, the focus of the study was mainly participants’ motivation for becoming group leaders and their summative learning about group work rather than the processes involved in effective group leadership. In addition, identification and recruitment of participants occurred solely through participants’ membership in the ASGW Lead- ership Team, without any other criteria for expertise.

The purpose of the current study was to increase understanding of effective group leadership by exploring what expert group leaders


experience and perceive as they engage in the process of leading groups. The grand research question was: ‘‘What do expert group lea- ders experience and perceive during the process of leading counseling and therapy groups?’’ Existing studies provided only isolated glimpses of this complex process and were not designed to effectively identify expert group leaders or to ensure connections to real-world group pro- cesses. The current study was designed to address these shortcomings.


Frey (1994) contended that qualitative research methods are ideal for gaining understanding of the complexity of group processes. In keeping with the process focus of the grand research question, this research utilized a qualitative method, the grounded theory approach described by Strauss and Corbin (1998), which was designed to be sensitive to and describe processes. Grounded theory involves the sys- tematic and progressive gathering and analysis of qualitative data for the purpose of constructing a theory grounded in the perceptions and experiences of participants.

To address the issue of definition and identification of expert group therapists, the researcher turned to Jennings and Skovholt’s (1999) research, which utilized peer identification to identify master or expert individual therapists. Peer identification has been supported as effective for tasks such as assessing interpersonal skill or discrimi- nating between more and less effective therapists by Anastasi and Urbina (1997) and Loborsky, McClellan, Woody, O’Brien, and Auerbach (1985). For the purpose of this study, expert group leaders were defined as group leaders who are identified by peers as being exceptionally effective, knowledgeable, and skilled in their leadership of groups. Additionally, to encourage connection to the real-world pro- cess of group leadership, this study used participants who were lead- ing counseling and therapy groups at the time of the study.

Participants and Setting

Participants were selected through purposeful sampling (Patton, 1990), which is the selection of information-rich cases useful to the purpose of the research. In this case, the researcher reasoned that such information-rich cases would consist of expert group leaders who were leading at least one counseling or therapy group in the field during data collection. To gain access to this population the principal researcher used a chain sampling process, which involves a knowledgeable informant identifying potential participants who also


identify other potential participants (Patton). The secondary researcher, who had extensive experience leading groups, identified potential informants based on the questions 1. ‘‘Who do you consider to be a highly effective or expert group leader,’’ and 2. ‘‘Who would you refer a close family member to for group counseling or therapy?’’ The principal researcher then contacted these informants. In turn, these informants identified other informants based upon the same questions.

Ultimately, 42 potential participants were identified, 32 responded to phone messages, and 8 met the criteria of currently leading counsel- ing or therapy groups and were able to participate in the study. Although data collection and analysis began with 8 participants, the researcher remained open to recruiting more participants if this num- ber did not prove sufficient to achieve saturation. Saturation occurs when additional data collection does not result in the emergence of new concepts or connections (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The data col- lected from three rounds of interviews with the eight remaining part- icipants proved sufficient to achieve saturation and rich description of the phenomena.

The eight participants had between 28 and 51 years of group lead- ership experience and were leading between 1 and 18 groups per week. Participants identified themselves as counselors, psychologists, social workers, and group psychotherapists and reported psychodynamic, systemic, focal conflict, and interpersonal theoretical orientations. Seven of the participants were Certified Group Psychotherapists, five were Fellows of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, and two were Fellows of the Association for Specialists in Group Work. Participants practiced in the West coast, East coast, Midwest, North- west, and Southwest. Five participants were female, three were male and all were of Euro American descent. All participants were leading their groups alone. Three participants were leading time-limited (between 10–20 sessions) process-oriented counseling groups, and four were leading long term, ongoing psychotherapy groups.

Data Collection

Data collection involved developing specific interview questions and selecting data collection methods (Maxwell, 2004). The initial inter- view questions reflected the group leadership literature, yet were suf- ficiently general to allow participants to fully express their experiences. The initial questions were (a) What thoughts and feelings do you experience while you lead a group, (b) Describe how you make sense of the groups you lead, and (c) Describe your relationships with the group as a whole and group members while you lead your groups.


Participants were asked to focus and reflect upon their most recent group session. However, they were also allowed to relate the experi- ences that seemed most present for them during the interview.

The most practical method for data collection was telephone inter- viewing because participants were located in widely separated areas and interviews were scheduled as soon as possible after participants concluded group sessions. Most interviews were conducted within an hour after group sessions ended. However, several interviews were conducted up to two days after the group session had ended, and the groups led by two participants ended before completion of the study, so their third interviews were retrospective. The principal researcher conducted initial 30–45 minute telephone interviews with each partici- pant, which were audiotaped and transcribed. Subsequent rounds of interviews were of similar length and used questions grounded in the data and analysis of previous interviews to more fully explore con- cepts and relationships that emerged from earlier rounds (see the Appendix for a complete list of interview questions). Three rounds of interviews were sufficient to produce data redundancy and thick description of emerging concepts.

Data Analysis

Data analysis was conducted following procedures outlined by Strauss and Corbin (1998). Analysis began with open coding, which involved examining transcript data to determine their meaning, assign codes, and group similar concepts into thematic categories. The data were then examined further to identify subcategories, properties, and dimensions that describe the categories. For example, during open coding the researcher identified a theme related to pre- existing attitudes and knowledge, which was grouped into a large category labeled leader resources. Continued examination of the data led to identification of a subcategory of leader resources, leader knowl- edge, which included three distinct types of knowledge that were developed into three properties of this subcategory. Data that described variation within types of knowledge were developed into dimensions. For instance, one type of knowledge varied along a con- tinuum of abstractness from formal theory regarding effective group interaction to concrete descriptions of effective interaction.

Axial coding was employed concurrently to move beyond open cod- ing by examining the process and structure surrounding the cate- gories identified during open coding. The process and structure that surrounds categories takes the shape of relationships between their various subcategories, properties and dimensions (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Continuing with the example above, axial coding involved


examining the data for ways in which the subcategory leader knowl- edge affected and was affected by other categories, subcategories, and properties. For instance, the researcher noted relationships between one type of leader knowledge and the category, leadership process, through its subcategory, understanding.

As open and axial coding concluded, the researcher employed selec- tive coding, where all categories are integrated into a larger theoreti- cal scheme based upon a central category (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). To accomplish this, the researcher identified the central category based upon its preponderance in the data, logical relationship to all other categories, and ability to explain variation. In this study, a category related to the influence of accumulated experience upon the experi- ence of leading groups was identified as the central category. Theory was integrated with this central category through the process of writ- ing a storyline that captured the essence of the participants’ experi- ences of leading groups. Then the categories, subcategories, properties, and dimensions that had been abstracted from the data earlier were superimposed upon and integrated into this essential structure.

The process of refining the theory began at this point and involved the researcher evaluating the tentative structure for logic and consist- ency, validating the structure against the data, and filling in poorly developed categories (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Areas within the theor- etical structure that did not make sense were restructured, and areas that had less detail were augmented through the development of ques- tions that were used to collect additional data during later interviews. For instance, during first round interviews participants mentioned that at times they did not understand what was going on in the group, but it was not clear how the participants coped with this. A general question was developed to further explore this area, ‘‘What do you do when you don’t understand what is going on in your group?’’ This question was presented during second round interviews and the data were collected, analyzed, and integrated into the theoretical structure.

Measures to Ensure Trustworthiness of Results

The criteria for trustworthiness include credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Credibility refers to the correspondence of the researcher’s findings to the reality of the participants. Since researcher bias is the major threat to credi- bility, Creswell (1994) encouraged researchers to clarify any personal assumptions so that their impact might be more easily identified and minimized during data analysis. For this study the researcher, who had several experiences leading groups, identified the following


assumptions: a) group leaders must manage the complexity of group interactions to be effective, and b) group leaders’ personal reactions to group members and the group as a whole affect the process if group leadership. Also, to minimize a priori assumptions based on anecdotal, theoretical, and research literature on therapy and group leadership expertise, the researcher’s initial literature review was purposefully limited to what was needed to define the problem, without including that which characterized group leadership expertise or the process of expert group leadership (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). A more detailed literature review was undertaken during and after data analysis.

To build credibility, Lincoln and Guba (1985) suggested the use of prolonged engagement, triangulation, and peer debriefing. Prolonged engagement builds trust with participants and provides opportunities to check for misinformation (Lincoln & Guba). To this end, the parti- cipants in this study were contacted and interviewed repeatedly over the course of six months, which allowed the researcher to fully engage with the participants, setting, and data.

Triangulation, a strategy where multiple sources provide validation of theory generated during the study, was also used to increase the credibility of this study (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). For this study, both experts in the field who were not involved as participants and the part- icipants themselves were consulted after theory generation. Non- participant experts were identified in the same manner as participants, however did not meet the criteria of currently leading at least one group. Non-participant and participant expert group lea- ders were provided with graphic and text descriptions of the tentative theory and then presented with a verbal description of the theory over the telephone. Afterward, they were encouraged to provide feedback regarding the fit of the theory with their own experiences. A final triangulation method involved an ongoing review of the literature, whereby emerging concepts were checked against existing literature.

Finally, peer debriefing was used to enhance credibility. Peer debriefing involved presenting the analytic discourse to disinterested peers (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). This opened the researcher to questions about all matters relevant to the research and held her accountable for her reasoning and decisions. To increase the credibility of this study, the researcher periodically discussed data, analysis, and conclusions with disinterested peers, in this case, other counselor education doctoral students who were not otherwise involved in the study.

Transferability refers to the applicability of the research to other settings, while dependability refers to reproducibility of results. Confirmability is analogous to objectivity (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). To achieve transferability, this study includes detailed descriptions of participants, events, and the settings that should enable others to


make decisions regarding the applicability of finding to their settings. Dependability and confirmability were addressed using a single tech- nique, a confirmability audit. The confirmability audit requires an audit trail, which includes raw data, data reduction and analysis pro- ducts, data reconstruction and synthesis products, process notes, and research development notes and materials. For this study, all such material was retained and made available for future examination.


Three major concepts describing expert group leaders’ experience of leading groups emerged from three rounds of data collection and analysis. The central category, experiential influence described the pervasive influence of the participants’ accumulated experiences with groups upon their group leadership. Experiential influence served as the context for the remaining two categories, leader resources and leadership process. Leader resources described the pre-existing knowl- edge and attitudes participants utilized as they lead their groups, while leadership process described how participants developed their understanding of group interaction and made decisions about interact- ing within the group. These emerging concepts and relationships were the basis of the resulting theory. The following sections will describe each of these categories, their subcategories, and the major interac- tions between them. To conserve space, properties and dimensions are not explicitly described but incorporated into the narrative descriptions of the categories, subcategories, and interactions.

Experiential Influence

The central category that emerged from participant descriptions related to the influence of experience upon their group leadership and was labeled experiential influence. Experiential influence shaped leader attitudes and knowledge, which in turn affected how they related to group members, understood group interaction, and formu- lated their interventions. As one participant stated, ‘‘My experiences with group have determined about ninety-eight percent of the way I conduct a group. . .’’ For these participants, experiential influence took the form of increasing confidence and increasing knowledge, which were identified as subcategories of experiential influence.

Increasing confidence. These expert group leaders reported that experience leading groups increased their confidence. They reported that this confidence was related to learning to trust the group process,


group members, and themselves. They trusted the process of group counseling and therapy because they have seen many times that the process is resilient and benefits group members. Their trust in the pro- cess helped them weather difficult periods in their groups when improvement was not apparent, frustration among members was high, and they themselves were struggling to understand what was happen- ing. Trust in the process also allowed the participants to take risks as they led, believing that the process was resilient enough to handle the mistakes they make. Participant 4 commented, ‘‘. . .I trust the process so much because of my experience. I’ve seen over and over how it’s okay to get into anything because the process will take care of it.’’

In addition, the participants learned to trust group members because they witnessed many times that group members can grow and be of benefit to others in a group environment. This trust allowed them to encourage group members to take responsibility in the group. A partici- pant related, ‘‘I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut more. I try to let the group do the work whenever they can and get in there only if I have something unique to contribute or if they’re off track in some way.’’

Along with trusting the process and trusting group members, the expert participants learned to trust themselves. This trust was the result of experience, knowledge, and self-awareness they gained by facing many challenges while leading groups. They trusted themselves to understand what was happening in their groups, respond effectively, and to recover from mistakes in ways that benefit the group. This self- trust allowed expert leaders to take more risks and act more sponta- neously while they led. Participant 1 described the type of self-confi- dence and beneficial risk-taking that resulted from his experiences:

. . . what I’ll do now more than I used to do is take more risks, try to stimulate more stuff, and not be as careful as I used to be. I used to be real cautious . . . now I just go ahead and overwhelm them, or let them overwhelm each other and spend time talking about it and usually things turn out pretty well.

Increasing knowledge. In addition to being aware that their confidence had increased with experience, these experts were aware that their knowledge of group leadership increased with experience. This knowl- edge contributed to their confidence and allowed them to understand group interaction and formulate interventions quickly and effectively. Here, Participant 7 describes how theoretical knowledge he acquired influenced his current leadership of long term psychotherapy groups.

I couldn’t hold people in the group. I couldn’t understand what the hell was going on. So I started investigating . . . I wasn’t dealing with any


kind of aggression at all. So I started studying ego mechanisms . . . and I found out how to deal with them. And then I started getting a lot of aggression and now all my people stay with me.

In another example, Participant 4 described how experience and increasing knowledge have changed the way she thinks about and views her groups ‘‘ . . . before I had run so many groups, I mostly thought of the individuals or two people at a time. But now I think at all three levels, the group, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.’’

Finally, the following statement from Participant 1 illustrates how experience translated knowledge into quickly usable form.

I tend to have these thoughts that go through my mind, ‘‘Oh, I’ve seen this before!’’ Or, ‘‘This reminds me of some other time.’’ Or, ‘‘Oh, I know what’s going on here.’’

The experiential influence subcategories of increasing confidence and increasing knowledge affected all other parts of the participants’ experience of leading groups. The categories of leader resources and leadership process described in the ensuing text were conceptually nested within and connected to the participants’ extensive experience. Figure 1 provides a graphic depiction of the relationship between experiential influence and the categories of leader resources and leadership process and their subcategories.

Leader Resources

The category leader resources emerged from participant descriptions of pre-existing attitudes and knowledge that they relied upon as they lead their groups. Two subcategories, leader attitudes and leader knowl- edge, comprise the category of leader resources. These resources were in turn affected profoundly by the participants’ long experience leading groups and resultant increases in confidence and knowledge.

Leader attitudes. The predominant attitudes expressed by the expert participants were enthusiasm and caring. Enthusiasm described participants’ attitude of enjoying the complexity and unpredictability of leading groups. Participants related being excited about and interested in the leadership process and attributed this to the challenge, complexity, and unpredictability of the leadership process. Participant 5 stated, ‘‘Yeah, it’s exciting. It’s exciting, it’s interesting, and it’s fascinating. It’s complex, it’s engaging, and it’s challenging. All of the above.’’ This statement from Participant 1 further illustrates this enthusiasm and some of its origins.


. . . so there’s always kind of a, ‘‘Gee, what’s gonna happen?’’ There’s always there’s that element in there . . . there’s some excitement there. Like I don’t really know how things are going to turn out all the time.

Caring referred to participants’ attitude of being interested in group members and being committed to their well-being. Participants described their relationships with group members in terms of connec- tion and warmth and clearly indicated that they enjoyed this aspect of group leadership. Participants indicated that group members were aware of this attitude and responded positively to it. The following statement from Participant 4 exemplifies caring:

. . . the group knows that I’m very interested in them and that I’m stimu- lated by them. That comes up a lot, that I really do want to be there and enjoy the group and help the group.

Figure 1 Categories, subcategories, and relationships between categories and subcategories of expert group leaders’ experience of leading counseling and therapy groups.


Participant descriptions of leader attitudes indicated that both their enthusiasm and caring were positively influenced by experience. Their trust in the group process, group members, and themselves allows their enthusiasm and caring to flourish not only when their groups are working well, but also in the face of conflict and stagnation.

Leadership knowledge. In addition to the preexisting attitudes that they brought to their leadership, these expert group leaders brought with them a wealth of knowledge. Their descriptions of this knowledge became a subcategory of leader resources, leadership knowledge. Part- icipants reported relying upon three distinct types of leadership knowledge while leading. This knowledge included a type of knowl- edge that helped them conceptualize group interaction, knowledge that assisted them in formulating their actions, and knowledge that was specific to their groups and group members.

The knowledge the participants reported using to conceptualize group interaction, assisted them in understanding the purpose of the group and group members’ behavior and allowed them to dis- tinguish effective interaction from ineffective interaction. This will be referred to as group interaction knowledge. Group interaction knowledge took the form of formal theories, informal theories, and specific descriptions of group interaction. Participant 1 described the use of a formal theory in understanding his groups: ‘‘ . . . what I begin to do is listen not only to interaction but try to define what the purpose of the interaction is. And that’s where I really pull in theory . . . ’’ Par- ticipant 4, however, described understanding her group using a less formal metaphor: ‘‘. . . one thing I use is that I think about the group as the mother, and everybody coming in to be part of the mother.’’ And, while Participant 7 ascribed to a psychodynamic theory, he described how he understood his group in very concrete terms: ‘‘I know that if they’re not revealing new material, establishing new relation- ships, having new feelings, coming up with new thoughts, I know that there’s a resistance.’’

In addition to group interaction knowledge, these expert participants also possessed knowledge that assisted them in formu- lating their actions in the group, which will be referred to as leader interaction knowledge. Unlike group interaction knowledge, leader interaction knowledge was rarely in the form of formal theory, but ranged from general metaphors that suggested action to concrete descriptions of leader behavior that are contingent upon leaders’ understanding of group interaction. Here Participant 7 describes a general metaphor he uses when considering intervening, ‘‘. . . the group is a crucible in which the patients can interact with each other and I have to see that the crucible is kept at the right heat.’’


In contrast Participant 1 described a contingency that guides his actions, ‘‘. . .when I think what is going on is really important to what’s happening in the group in the moment and it’s something that members really need to get clear about, I’ll just say, ‘What’s going on here?’’’

In addition to group interaction knowledge and leader interaction knowledge, these expert participants also used knowledge that was specific to their groups and group members, which will be referred to as group-specific knowledge. Participant leaders knew what had happened in previous group sessions and used this information to understand current group interaction and to anticipate future interac- tion. Here Participant 8 integrates her group’s history as she describes her process of understanding current interaction, ‘‘Now as I said, this is a very sophisticated group. That is, three of the members are very experienced group members. They’re not very likely to behave that way.’’

In addition, the expert leaders’ awareness of the goals and needs of individual group members informed their leadership. For instance, Participant 5 described her understanding of a group member as she considers how to work with him within her group.

. . . it’s also true in terms of his interaction with people, how frightened he is in terms of interacting within the group. It’s also true in his world outside of the group, because he’s a very anxious guy who’s afraid of reaching out.

Participants’ descriptions of the influence of experience revealed that their theoretical knowledge of group interaction and intervention has been integrated into their leadership process through years of leading groups and observing group interaction. Abstract theories were fleshed out with real life detail, which allowed these expert part- icipants to quickly recognize what is happening, anticipate what might happen, and take action. Experience also heightened their sen- sitivity to the most relevant information about their groups and group members, which they integrate with their group interaction and intervention knowledge.

Leadership Process

The third category, leadership process, described the expert leaders’ in-the-moment process of leading their groups and was labeled. The experience, attitudes, and knowledge of expert leaders affected each part of leadership process. The experts described the experience leading groups as a recurring circular process of engaging with the


group, perceiving interaction, developing understanding of these per- ceptions, and deciding how to engage further based upon their under- standing. The steps were not discrete; rather, they were woven intricately together and occurred simultaneously. The following sections are a description of the subcategories, of the participants’ in-the-moment process of leading their groups: perceiving, understanding, and formulating.

Perceiving. Expert leaders indicated that they perceived different types of information from a variety of sources, during the leadership process. They were aware of feelings, behaviors, and ideas that arose out of some interactions. They gathered this information from individ- ual members, interactions between members, the group as a whole, and from themselves.

The participants were constantly aware of their own emotional reactions while leading because they believed this to be an extremely important source of information. At the same time, they were also keenly aware of the feelings and reactions of members to themselves and other members. Participant 1 related how this occurred for him during his group.

. . . when I have these feelings I’ll watch for evidence that people are hav- ing those emotions, too. And I’ll see it either in terms of their non-ver- bals, or the kinds of words they use, or how tentative they are about describing something.

In addition to emotions, expert leaders were acutely aware of their own behavior and the behavior of members while they led. They watched the members closely to see who interacted with whom, the manner in which they interacted, and what body language was dis- played. A few of the many illustrative statements were ‘‘. . . there are four people in here who are absolutely silent,’’ ‘‘These people were being just being nasty to each other and just cutting into each other,’’ and ‘‘. . . so as another person kind of jumped in and was responding to the first person. . .’’ These expert participants did not stop at collecting emotional and behavioral data while they led. They believed that being open to the thoughts of members was critical to understanding and working effectively with their groups. They considered group members to be an extra set of eyes and minds and used this resource to maximize the effectiveness of their groups. Participant 3 gave this example, ‘‘I’ll say, ‘What do you think’s happening right now?’ . . . I really use them as a source of information. And I don’t presume to know everything that’s going on.’’


From these expert leaders’ descriptions it was apparent that their perceptions of the groups they were leading were influenced by experi- ence. That is, the leadership process subcategory of perceiving was influenced by the context of experiential influence. Because of their experience, these expert leaders perceived what was going on in their groups at the individual, dyadic, sub-group, and group as a whole levels and knew where to focus their attention to gather the most use- ful information.

Understanding. The expert participants reported that as they per- ceived interaction, they began to assign meaning to it based on their accumulated knowledge and experiences. Understanding occurred when their perceptions coincided with their knowledge and experi- ence. However, the participants sometimes did not understand inter- action. On these occasions, their curiosity was sparked as described by Participant 5.

There are clearly times when I see interactions, I sense and feel interac- tions that are foreign to me . . . And I get particularly vigilant, and I think that this is something very unique . . . what do I know that I can bring to this.

When the participants did not understand, they sometimes observed until understanding occurred, searched their memories for useful information, or consulted group members during the process or, later, other group leaders as described by Participant 1.

When I think what is going on is really important, I’ll say, ‘‘What’s going on here?’’ Other times when something’s going on that I really don’t have a clue about, and I don’t think it really has to be dealt with right away . . . I wait to see the patterns. A lot of times I won’t make sense of the group until later. So I’ll just leave it kind of on the back burner and . . . I’ll ask myself a question or see what comes up later or I will talk about it with my colleague.

These expert group leaders also experienced tentative understand- ing of group interaction, and they responded in several different ways. At times they simply observed until they could substantiate their hypothesis about the group, intervened based on their tentative understanding and observed how members reacted, or asked group members if they supported the hypotheses as illustrated by this quote from Participant 5.

Boy, there are four people in here who are absolutely silent, that I sus- pect that they just don’t know what to say. I better talk to those four


people who are feeling left out . . . ‘‘What my sense is that some of you in here don’t know what to say.’’ (and they responded) ‘‘That’s right. I don’t know what to say. . .I want to support her . . .’’

At other times, the participants were confident that they under- stood interaction. This occurred when their observations, feelings, and theory supported the understanding they had developed. In addition, expert leaders had confidence in their understanding when they saw that their groups and group members were responding well and moving towards effective therapeutic interaction. Participant 2 gave an example of this.

. . . I can tell if what I’m doing is working when the energy opens up. When the energy is released and the spontaneity increases and there’s more expression on peoples’ faces, more interaction, more depth, and more intensity or whatever.

In addition to the deliberate process of understanding described above, the participants also understood interaction through intuition. They trusted and valued this ability because they had learned over time that their intuition was accurate. Despite their trust, expert lea- ders periodically validated their intuitive understanding with knowl- edge and observations of interaction. Participant 4 included intuition as part of her process of understanding an incident in one of her groups.

I do as much intuitively as I can. . .I knew intuitively that they needed to interact and get hooked back up, and that the woman who had been talking was capable of updating the person who had been out and helping her see that she was off base. And so it turned out just fine . . . Intuitively I knew it was better not to act and see what happens.

The influence of experience upon these participants’ process of understanding their groups were many. These experts were aware that understanding occurred more quickly due to their extensive group interaction knowledge and group-specific knowledge, ability to think in metaphors, and the many examples of group interaction that experience brought. For these participants, one of the greatest gifts of experience was intuition. Because they had learned the value of intuit- ive understanding, these expert group leaders relied progressively more on it as they gained experience. However, experience also taught these expert leaders that they could not always understand group interaction, but this only added to their enthusiasm for leading groups.


Formulating. As part of their leadership process, expert leaders made decisions about how to interact with their groups. Like their process of understanding group interaction, expert group leaders’ process of decid- ing how to interact was deliberate or intuitive. When making conscious decisions about how to interact, expert leaders used their understanding of what was occurring, knowledge about the group’s history, and knowl- edge of a variety of interventions. They were cognizant of how well the group was functioning and that their goal was to develop or maintain effective interaction. In addition, if expert leaders did not understand an interaction, they chose interventions that generated more infor- mation, such as asking for input, experimenting, or observing. Here, Participant 7 describes a very deliberate process of formulating:

Before I make an intervention, I use my own feelings to analyze what’s going on. Then I use observations about the group. My own thoughts about what I’m observing. Thinking about what needs to happen, what each person needs, what an interaction needs, and what the group needs, and then making an intervention that fits.

In addition to this deliberate process, expert leaders also experi- enced an intuitive process of formulating interventions. During this process, they were aware of an idea or an ‘‘aha’’ moment, or they were only aware of spontaneous action they had taken. Expert leaders were comfortable with this intuitive process because they had witnessed over time that their intuitive decisions about intervening were effec- tive. Participant 3 described his sense of intuitive formulating in his long-term therapy group.

. . . I do experience responding in the group and then realizing what it was about later . . . But sometimes your intuition works very fast, I guess, and you respond in the moment and if you took a lot of time to think about it the moment would be gone.

In conjunction with deliberate and intuitive decision-making pro- cesses, these participants revealed that they evaluated both imple- mented and potential interventions. They evaluated implemented interventions by determining if the group had responded to the inter- vention in a manner consistent with the intervention goal. If they eval- uated their interventions negatively, they then considered that information as they formulated their next intervention. Participant 2 described evaluating her interaction negatively and moving on to something more specific and effective.

I said, ‘‘This is sounding a lot like a case conference up at the mental health center.’’ But they didn’t really take the hint and kept going and


going. Then I had to be more specific like, ‘‘What are we avoiding?’’ That seemed to be the question that got them going.

The participants also evaluated potential interventions by predict- ing how members might respond to an intervention based on the group’s past reactions to similar interventions, the group’s develop- mental level, and the goal of the intervention. Participant 3 elaborated on how he evaluated his intuition about how to intervene.

My experience is that over the years, I trust my intuition and I trust spontaneity. But there’s also a filter…so I structure the spontaneity a lit- tle bit. I look at the questions of how is this going to affect the patients, and how it’s going to affect the group, and how it’s going to affect me . . . And if what I’m about to say is going to advance the progress of the group or is it somehow going to delay it. And even if it may delay it, I may say it anyway . . . Then if I don’t use that comment, I might use it later.

Experience and resulting trust in the process, members, and them- selves propelled these participants towards more spontaneous and challenging interventions. They knew that they could quickly adjust their interventions if they perceived that members were not respond- ing well. This knowledge allowed expert leaders to remain relaxed and focused even as the group environment swirled around them.

In summary, these expert group leaders were excited by the chal- lenges of leading groups. They became immersed in a process of under- standing and intervening that utilized their intellect, instincts, and emotions. As they gained experience, these participants’ fascination with groups increased. They developed knowledge and confidence that intensified the benefits of spontaneity. The group setting provided an ideal environment for them to express their caring and enthusiasm and to challenge themselves through continual surprise, learning, and adaptation.


Theory developed during this investigation described expert lea- ders’ experiences and perceptions while they lead in terms of influence of experience, preexisting knowledge andattitudes, and in-the- moment process of leadership. This study included specific procedures, such as member checks, to increase the trustworthiness of the find- ings. Lincoln and Guba (1985) commented, however, on the limitations of member checks, ‘‘ . . . member checks can be misleading if all of the members share some common myth or front, or conspire to mislead or cover up’’ (p. 315). The possibility exists that participants shared


common biases, perhaps related to shared training or membership in professional organizations, which skewed the report of their experi- ences. In addition, Maxwell (2004) indicated that shared biases and assumptions are limitations to using multiple sources, such as experts and literature, as triangulation methods. In this study, efforts to counteract this bias included using literature from different fields. Finally, this study utilized methods to increase transferability. How- ever, transferability is not synonymous with generalizability. Thus, this study and other qualitative studies are not generalizable. The results of this study are intended to generate and continue discussion and provide ideas for continued research. Readers may also determine if the results are applicable to their settings upon careful consider- ation of the context of this study.

These findings share similarities with research and theoretical literature, yet add uniquely to the group leadership literature. Hines et al.’s (1995) research uncovered 17 categories of group leader self- talk, which were conceptually similar to and supported by the category, leadership process, and its subcategories, perceiving, under- standing, and formulating. However, the theory resulting from the current study adds descriptions of how participants evaluated their interventions and also descriptions of how leader knowledge and leadership process interacted that were not noted in the research conducted by Hines and her colleagues. These elements were most likely absent in the earlier study because the analogue procedures used did not allow participants to act within their groups and to reflect upon their actions. Hines et al. also implied that experience influences group leadership when they concluded that experienced group leaders have more complex cognitions than less experienced group leaders. The current study also described the influence of experience upon the leadership process, however grounded theory methods allowed participants to fully reflect upon and report how their past experiences influenced their current leadership and resulted in a more detailed account than the earlier study.

Additionally, the categories of experiential influence, leader resources, and leadership process are largelysupported by Kottler’s (1994) descriptions of advanced leadership and Dye and Norsworthy’s (1997) account of the process of becoming effective group leaders. Simi- lar to participants’ descriptions of experiential influence and increas- ing confidence, Kottler described advanced group leaders as self- confident, which allows them to endure the intensity and contradic- tions of group work. Participants’ descriptions of the influence of experience upon their group interaction and intervention knowledge also paralleled Dye and Norsworthy’s description of developing a cohesive but flexible conceptual framework based on theory and


experience as a part of becoming effective group leaders. Additionally, Kottler theorized that advanced group leaders make intervention choices in a way that parallels the interaction of the leadership process subcategories of perceiving, understanding, and formulating with the various types of leadership knowledge. The current research adds sup- port that is grounded in systematic inquiry, additional detail of the general processes they describe, and examples across eight different cases to Kottler’s and Dye and Norsworthy’s theoretical and anecdotal accounts.


This study provides detailed descriptions of the growth expert group leaders experienced as they gained experience and the knowl- edge and processes by which they understand groups and formulate interventions. The results have implications for counselor educators, supervisors, practitioners, and researchers in their quest to promote effective group counseling and therapy.

Counselor educators and supervisors may use these descriptions to inform and shape their training practices and programs. The parti- cipants’ emphasis on the influence of experience suggests that counse- lor education programs that require no specific amount of supervised group leadership experience should consider requiring at least the minimum of 10 hours of supervised group leadership suggested by ASGW (ASGW, 2000) if not the 20 hours that are recommended. Part- icipants’ descriptions of the types of knowledge they use and the inte- gration of this knowledge with real life examples supports and encourages supervised experience or observation of groups that stres- ses application of theory to a wide variety of group types and group members. This type of supervision would also be beneficial to practi- tioners who are seeking growth. Intuitively, the potential seems high for supervisors to facilitate better integration of theory and experience through exposing their supervisees to the decision-making process described by the category leadership process and supporting its use during live or videotaped supervision. Additionally, participant quotes provide a rich source of metaphors and real life examples of the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral experience of expert group lead- ership for novice and intermediate practitioners to draw upon and dis- cuss during supervision.

Finally, group work researchers may base further research on the concepts uncovered by this study. Future research could address the influence of experience on group leaders’ attitudes and emotional reactions. Similar studies with other populations, such as beginning and intermediate group leaders, multicultural group leaders, co-leaders,


and psychoeducational or task group leaders could provide insight into the development of group leaders’ effectiveness. Finally, the picture of expert leadership would not be complete without studies that focus on the group members’ experience of such leadership.


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First Round Interviews

What thoughts and feelings do you experience while you lead a group?

Describe how you make sense of the groups you lead. Describe your relationships with the group as a whole and group

members while you lead your groups.

Second Round Interviews

Describe your thought processes as you attempt to understand group interaction and decide what to do.

What do you do when you don’t understand an aspect of group inter- action?

How does your experience leading groups impact the way that you lead?


Third Round Interviews

Participants describe sometimes intervening spontaneously or intuitively. Do you experience this and if you do, please describe your experience.

How do you determine what you want your interventions to accomplish?

How do you know if what you are doing is working? When are you confident that you understand group interaction?


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