Action-learning: The key to successful leadership development

In the mid-twentieth century, Reg Revans first introduced the concept that later became known as action-learning, and ever since, the concept has demonstrated its unique capabilities in problem-solving, team-building, leadership development and organizational transformation (Boshyk 2002; Boshyk and Dilworth 20 I 0; Dilworth and Willis 2003; Dotlich and Noel 1998; McNulty and Canty 1995: O'Neil and Marsick 2007).

What is "action-learning"? All action-learning approaches are philosophically rooted in theories of learning from experience. It essentially encompasses the process of learners actively being involved in their learning, rather than passively participating.

Action learning is being used increasingly as a primary method for building leadership skills and improving leadership behavior. In fact, it is proven to be significantly more effective in learning compared to other methodologies often used to develop leadership competencies. As the pace of organizational life and change has accelerated so has the need for leaders to become better leaders and better learners. Essentially, companies are faced with the growing challenge of increasing the capabilities of their leaders with less time and less resources (Bennis & Nanus, 1997; Linsky & Heifetz, 2002; Lojeski, 2010).

"With up to 40% of new leaders failing within

the first 18 months of promotion or appointment,

leaders need to become better learners in order to be successful."


Action-learning with its clear goal of improving the ability to learn as well as improving performance has lead to a paradigm shift in contemporary learning. In their article, "Leadership Development via Action Learning", Leonard & Lang (2010) substantiates the notion that people learn more and better when put into action than when passively listening to lectures or audio tapes or watching video presentations. Learning through doing - possible supported by in-company, one-to-one coaching of a leadership consultant as in the case of Rex Albright's leadership programmes, can prove invaluable in the learning process. The National Academy of Sciences (Christina & Bjork, 1991), in reviewing what is known about optimizing long-term retention and transfer of knowledge, made a number of recommendations to educators and trainers. These recommendations, include the following (Leonard & Lang, 2010):

  • Engage the learner in the process: As noted by Reg Revans (1998), “there can be no action with learning, and no learning without action." Participants who are engaged in meaningful action, with inquiry and reflection, cannot help but learn.

  • Integrate new knowledge with existing knowledge: The action learning coach specifically uses this strategy when asking questions that require learners to identify not only what they learned but how these learnings can be applied in the future.

  • Increase proficiency and mastery by adding more challenges once more basic skills and knowledge are mastered. With new challenges tested and tried in "real life" practice settings, new skills and perspectives emerge. As the skills are practiced, the learner begins to recognize more nuances to the problem and processes. 


Hicks and Peterson (1999) also explained why action learning is such a powerful method for developing complex skills such as leadership. In their view, five elements constitute the platform for learning and sustained development:


  • Insight

  • Motivation

  • Skill development

  • Real-world practice, and

  • Accountability.


Each of these elements represents a key “active ingredient” in the learning or development process, determining how much learning or development actually takes place. For example, a leadership program with a great classroom curriculum will have only modest "real life" value without opportunities for real-world practice or organizational policies that provide consequences, both good and bad, for performing the new skills on the job. When viewed through this lens, action learning does a better job in ensuring the inclusion of these necessary and sufficient elements than other popular leadership development strategies.

At Rex Albright A/S all our leadership and talent development programmes, are constructed such that participants not only are ‘taught’ or trained, but are putting learning into action. Experience has shown us that unless we practice new skills and ideas soon immediately after a programme module we tend to forget the lessons learnt. Action-learning will help ‘close the loop’ and ensure that our learning is as effective as possible. In fact, action-learning in the context of Rex Albright's leadership development programmes are - and should be - tailored to develop specific leadership competencies identified by individual participants while, at the same time, developing key leadership skills needed at each level of the leadership pipeline - from managing yourself to managing others and all the way up to enterprise management. 

Article by Henrik Brabrand, CEO - Rex I Albright

Rex I Albright A/S

Bredgade 63A

DK-1260 Copenhagen