Action Learning for developing emerging leaders

Leadership is hard

Leadership is hard, I tell my students. However, good leadership is really hard, and good impactful leadership is really, really hard. They are among Oxford’s brightest emerging leaders from across the university’s departments, aspiring for impactful lives, solving the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems.

I design and facilitate programmes aimed at helping them develop as effective leaders in their field, and to create a community among others doing the same.

It is my belief that the essential capacities of good, impactful leadership are innate to human beings, and they can be developed and strengthened.

One of the best supportive tools I’ve found for this is Action Learning. Students meet weekly or monthly in groups of 5-9 to work together on a problem brought by a member of the group. The rule is, they cannot offer advice to the person with the problem. They can only ask this person questions which help them to consider their problem from more perspectives and frameworks than they would on their own.

Aha moments

The results are often remarkable with a lot of ‘aha moments’ and ‘I had never thought about it like that before…’. Initially, it is not easy. As it turns out, most of us to varying degrees LOVE giving advice, but the process enables people to self-reflect and develop a variety of capacities relevant to good leadership.

To help someone solve their own problem without solving it for them requires discipline, discernment, patience, generosity, trust, undivided attention, good communication, and self-awareness.

We end each session with a discussion on what people learned and observed in the process. As the facilitator, I observe that as the weeks go by, the reflections change from, ‘it was so hard not to tell them what to do!’ to helpful insights about themselves, each other, and practicalities about what makes for good communication, and how to build trust.

Ultimately it is a practice of empowerment.

A group of your respected peers trusting in your intelligence, creativity, and strength to solve problems without needing their advice is empowering.

Likewise, someone trusting your discernment, attention, patience, and discretion to share what is often a sensitive problem and vulnerable process, is empowering.

As well as developing with practice, it can be other’s recognition and trust in these innate leadership capacities within us that help us to discover and strengthen them in ourselves. None of this is easy, but it’s doable, and for anyone who really burns for solving social injustices or environmental degradation, it’s a welcome challenge in preparation for the harder work.

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