in conclusion

Learning Your Way Out

Action learning can develop leadership as a collaborative practice By Joe Raelin

Joe Raelin holds the Knowles Chair of Practice-Oriented Education at Northeastern University and is principal of the firm The Leaderful Consultancy. He can be reached at


eadership in the current knowledge era cannot rely on a single source of expertise; rather, it needs to be a collaborative practice. We need to respond to complexity in our internal and external markets through the contribution and creativity of all stakeholders.

At the same time, how might we bring this focus on collaboration to a practice-based method of learning? Instead of relying on traditional teacher-to-student instruction, we would need to expose learners to live engagements and then have them collectively reflect on those experiences to expand and even create knowledge while working to improve the given practice.

When it comes to developing practice-based collaborative leadership and management, it is axiomatic that we begin by immersing managers in their own practices, not removing them from their lived experience. For the sake of learning, we may choose to accelerate the process by having facilitators place managers in problem domains or dilemmas to see how they might “learn their way out.” The critical change facilitators would make is to introduce novel forms of conversation that can bring out the skills of collaborative learning and dialogue. Learners would engage in empathic listening, understand the value of reflecting on perspectives different from their own and entertain the prospect of being changed by what they learn. This collaborative process opens up space for innovative ways to accomplish work or even reconceive how the work should be done.

Consider the case of Jim, senior vice president of sales for a large retailer. Jim was involved in a project to determine the reason for the heavy turnover of part-time check-out clerks throughout the company’s chains but had been unsuccessful in diagnosing the source of the problem. Fortunately, he was a member of an action learning team as part of a leadership development initiative, and the facilitator invited his team members to share their views on Jim’s problem.

It turned out that Jim had spoken to a number of clerks but hadn’t realized that his executive rank caused most of them to clam up during conversation. He subsequently hired outside interviewers to survey the clerks and found the clerks felt they were treated like “second-class citizens.” Jim then may have worsened the problem by sending out communications that tried to inspire the clerks, not realizing, according to feedback from his action learning team facilitator and colleagues, that the clerks likely wanted behavioral accommodations rather than sweet talk.

Action learning allows team members to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of others.

Additionally, consider the collective leadership model used by the most successful national men’s rugby team of all time, New Zealand’s All Blacks. A case study of the team conducted by Thomas Johnson and colleagues attributed the team’s 75 percent winning record in test matches over a 100-year period to its leadership, which produces a team commitment to total honesty in self and team evaluation and reflection. Bottom-up collaborative learning accompanies its philosophy, as evidenced by one of its coaches, who said: “As we become more aware of the need for player-centered coaching rather than coach-centered, we try to recreate and simulate pressures of the game … and throw them in unpredicted events, and get the players to solve that problem.”

These examples demonstrate how “learning your way out” can develop leadership as a collaborative practice. The most critical metaskill it enhances is developing in learners a peripheral awareness of one another. They seek out and learn from others’ views. They see value in sharing leadership.

On project and learning teams in particular, action learning allows team members to begin to make use of the team’s resources and recognize the strengths and weaknesses of others — for example, who provides support to team members, who fosters team spirit, who explores and reports on opportunities outside the team, and so on. These issues are learning issues, and practice-based learning does not insist they be lodged within any one person; rather, they become the knowledge responsibilities of the entire team. The team becomes a collaborative enterprise.