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‘Lonely’ Leaders Connecting Through Action Learning

Loneliness and feelings of isolation are one of the daunting realities of leadership. I have felt this loneliness and have heard the same from many leadership colleagues over the years.

So why is it rarely discussed in professional forums?

Being a leader can mean that you are physically isolated from your colleagues; you may be in a different location or on a different schedule.

Then there is emotional isolation. You have a duty of care to staff, you must deal with HR issues and you have to meet performance targets and funders’ expectations. At the same time you have to consider your own needs - keeping up with your own learning and development, self-management and regulation. However, you may be the only leader in the organisation and have no peers to bounce issues off, share experiences with or even just offload on.

This physical and emotional isolation, whilst having that level of responsibility, can lead to performance, health, and relationship issues.

Having experienced this isolation, I know that meeting regularly with Action Learning Set colleagues, a group of peers who understood the challenges I faced, made a real difference in my ability to lead and supported me in making informed decisions rather than reactive ones. Through a reflective style of questioning, they:

  • challenged my perspective in a safe and respectful way when I wasn’t able to think objectively due to an emotional attachment to the issues
  • assisted me in problem solving and decision making
  • were able to help me generate options that led to solutions

So what is Action Learning?

Action learning is based upon the concept of learning through insightful questioning and reflection on an experience/problem. It is underpinned by Kolb’s Experiential Learning, which suggests there is “no learning without action and no sober and deliberate action without learning”.

Action Learning Sets are small groups, with usually no more than eight ‘Set Members’, who meet regularly, anything from monthly to once a quarter. They focus on an individual’s learning through the study of their own actions and experience. During the meeting each individual has an opportunity to be the ‘presenter’ for a set amount of time, outlining a professional issue or problem that they would like support on. The set members can then ask insightful questions to help the presenter to identify options and generate new ideas and perspectives on the issue. Once the conversation has closed the presenter is given the chance to reflect and summarise the insights and actions they have identified and plan to take forward. The process allows for further check in and exploration in the subsequent meetings to cement learning and create a sense of continued support. (Find out more about the skills and benefits of Action Learning).

Having experience of Action Learning, I have found that it is a powerful tool in supporting the development and maintenance of leadership but possibly more impactful to me is its ability to reduce the feelings of loneliness and isolation and create a sense of belonging in a safe, confidential environment of support. When one member shares an issue, problem or goal and another member says those magic words “I am going through that too” or “When I was in that situation I had the same feeling” – there is a profound effect on both the person sharing the issue and others in the set who have been through or are going through similar issues. In that moment the ‘lonely leader’ feels that little less alone because other leaders have similar feelings, thoughts, questions of ability and self-doubt.

Set members are often fearful about sharing for the first time feeling they may be judged. In that moment you could hear a pin drop until someone in the group begins to share, and what they share is something that every member can relate to in one way or another. That scary moment of sharing becomes the thing that unites you as a group, which makes you feel that “I am not alone”. That to me is the most powerful element of Action Learning.

Having a safe space to explore your thoughts by connecting with and being supported by your peers can make you feel more confident in your decision making and more creative in finding solutions. Possibly more vital for leaders, though, is that Action Learning does not just aid learning but creates a sense of belonging and togetherness in what can be an isolating and lonely role. It can help overcome that daunting feeling of ‘leadership loneliness’.

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