Teaching Leadership in a Relational Context: Using Action Learning Teams and Projects

August 21, 2012

By Kathy E. Kram, Boston University

About five years ago, I began using relational learning as a centerpiece for the infrastructure of “The Leadership Challenge,” an MBA elective I teach at the Boston University School of Management.  In a significant change last fall, we introduced Action Learning Teams and Action Learning Projects, in which students would be expected to practice specific leadership behaviors and attitudes that they identified through the 360 assessment that they completed at the outset of the course.  My collaborator in this was Jeffrey Yip, who is an advanced doctoral student in Organizational Behavior, and formerly worked at CCL  (Center for Creative Leadership).  He was instrumental in the design and implementation first time around.


In relational learning environments, students and instructors collaborate to learn and share knowledge. “The Leadership Challenge” is designed to include cognitive, emotional, and relational learning opportunities that together enable students to build new leadership capabilities.


The core elements of the course infrastructure include regular self-assessment and 360 feedback related to leadership motives, values, mental models, and behavior; action learning teams of five students per team;  individual action learning projects, and  four written reflective writing assignments.  In addition, the course includes leadership theory and cases that illustrate and parallel personal learning goals on a weekly basis. Norms of confidentiality, trust, risk taking, support,  mutuality, and accountability—within each team and in the classroom as a whole—are essential to support members’ development.

Action Learning Teams.  The primary purpose of each action learning team (ALT) is to 1) collectively reflect on assessment data and course concepts, 2) coach and support each member’s learning and development, and 3) hold each other accountable for progress on individual action learning projects. At each class, ALTs meet for 45 minutes.  Guidelines on  team contracting, effective norms for learning groups of this kind, effective peer coaching in groups, and mechanisms for assessing progress along the way are provided (based on work by Bill George, 2009;  Judy O’Neil and Victoria  Marsick, 2007; Joe Raelin, 2010; Polly Parker et al., 2008).

Action Learning Project. By Week 4, students are asked to identify one specific aspect of their leadership practice that they would like to strengthen during the semester.  With help from his or her action learning team, each student creates a development goal as well as an action plan to accomplish the goal which includes a list of individuals to enlist to support his or her  efforts. The project should involve taking a leadership role and engaging in some form of action to improve a situation at work, in school, or in the community, or in another person’s life.  It should be implementable within the semester, and students should be able to meaningfully measure or document progress by the end of the term.

Reflective Writing Assignments.   Students are encouraged to keep a journal throughout the course, and are given suggestions on how to do so.  Four times during the semester, each student must submit a four-page double-spaced paper in which s/he reflects on his or her ALP, ALT, and assessment data,  applying relevant concepts from class readings and discussions.  Guiding questions are provided, and the student is expected to identify key lessons learned at the end of each paper.

Learning Outcomes

Students develop self-awareness, reflective learning skills, relational skills, and particular leadership practices of interest to them.  However, the breadth and depth of learning is highly individualized. As a result of their experiences in their action learning teams, most  know the value of building high-quality relationships for the purpose of  learning about leadership and developing leadership capabilities.