Action Learning for Developing and Supporting Leaders in Family Firms

Subject: Leadership Styles
Pages: 7
Words: 4083
Reading time:
17 min
Study level: PhD


The current changes in the sphere of management and organizational life have increased the necessity for leaders to develop their skills, become better learners, and be better leaders (Leonard & Lang 2010). According to Linsky & Heifetz (2002), they have proven the fact that many organizations have already faced the challenges connected with the inabilities to find enough time and resources to increase and develop the skills of their leaders in a proper way. One of the main reasons why leaders should think about re-evaluating their abilities is the presence of a high rating of leadership failures. More than 40% of new leaders are not able to pass their first 18-month trial periods and do not know what they have to do during their promotion (Marquardt et al. 2009). Ward (1997) conducted a survey in the context of family business leadership and clarified that poorly developed leadership skills turned out to be of one the threats that decrease the success of the family business. Even the next-generation leaders, who believe that they are properly prepared and have the required number of professional skills, cannot be easily engaged with the work of their companies in a short period of time (Handler 1992; Morris et al. 1997; Sharma & Inving 2005). Family firms have to deal with the requirements that are crucial for the transition of knowledge from one generation to another (Morris et al. 1997). Family business leaders need to choose the most appropriate method to search, analyze, and use knowledge in practice and share it with all family members involved in a family business. The importance of family business and educating leaders can be explained by the necessity to learn how to explain the worth of a family business and the peculiarities of the work done by a family to the next generations (Barbera et al. 2015).

There is a tendency that leaders learn more and better if they choose action learning as their main method. Action learning is an effective process that helps leaders to reflect on their personal attitudes and actions when they are involved in organizational activities or try to discuss problems (Trehan & Pedler 2009). Action learning is one of the frequently used methods to develop a new portion of skills and knowledge. It helps to improve the abilities to learn and succeed in performing duties regarding the development of new leadership needs and challenges. Regarding the current technological and managerial changes, the worth of action learning has been increased rapidly. However, not all organizations know how to use action learning. For example, in the period between the 1980s and 1990s, only several global corporations were aware of the benefits of action learning (Davids, Aspler & McIvor 2002) and could use it properly. Today, many organizations know about action learning and are ready to use it in order to succeed in developing family business and improving leadership skills. Still, the intentions should be supported by practice and clear instructions that are offered by experts.

The necessity to research the idea of action learning in order to develop and support the leaders in a family business is defined by several past studies. Barbera et al. (2015) have already the WPL (whole-person learning) tool to promote the necessary leadership qualities in a family business; still, they fail to explain how such independent variables as family size, the size of a company, or age can define the project. Breton-Miller and Miller’s investigation (2015) creates a solid basis for the investigations of educational roles that should be played by different family members. Lansberg and Gersick (2015) underline the importance of the choice of the material for educational purposes.

In the context of this research, the writer seeks to explore how action learning can be used to improve the basics of a family business, identify the roles that have to be performed by educators and students, and discuss the materials that can be used in a working process. It is suggested to divide this project into two main parts. First, it is necessary to comprehend and explain why the family business issue has to be properly investigated and educated. Second, the action learning approach should be identified to be implemented for supporting and developing leaders. A family business is complicated indeed, and people should learn how to develop it properly regarding a number of ethical considerations, working approaches, and demands of all stakeholders. Leaders are challenged not only by the necessity to guide people, consider the goals of projects, or predict the outcomes but also by the possibility to work with familiar people, understand their weak and strong aspects, and use all this information properly.

Literature Review

The essence of Leadership Development

Leadership development is not a unique concept in cultural and creative industries, and all stakeholders know that it is necessary to consider the importance of the relations between development, strategic orientation, and organizational performance in order to implement the required interventions in time (Burns & Wilson, 2012). There are many traditional approaches in leadership development the essence of which is to make leaders take responsibility to solve problems and decide on behalf of all people in an organization (Bolden et al., 2015). At the same time, such researchers as Edwards (2015) offer to consider leadership development as a possibility to improve the sense of belonging to all members of a group, create friendly relations and introduce social networks that can help to understand the communities better. As soon as people comprehend the essence of leadership, it can be possible to develop the required portion of skills and knowledge to succeed in leading people. However, the current changes in the sphere of business and education promote the necessity to improve the existing knowledge management activities and clarify the requirements and settings of the environment where people have to work, educate, and develop their personal and business relations (McGiver et al. 2013). People have to learn more in order to understand what is expected of them in terms of leadership.

Raelin (2011) offers to develop the leadership-as-practice movement in order to find out and understand the essence of leadership with the help of the evaluation and analyses of all practices within which it may occur. Leadership is not only a collection of certain theoretical approaches and ideas. It is also about practices, actions, and personal attitudes to everything that has to be done. In case many arguments and discussions take place from a theoretical point of people, not many people are eager to share their practical experiences and ideas on how to develop leadership in the communities. The development of leadership skills is possible in practice, and action learning is one of the possible methods that can be used to build leadership skills and improve leadership behavior (Leonard & Lang, 2010).

From this theoretical point of view, the process of leadership is not a simple combination of activities. It is the process based on learning activities, practices, negotiations, and examinations. The main theoretical perspectives that can be used in research are based on action learning and various approaches on how to improve the possible outcomes of the process. In addition to critical active learning, Willmott (1997) offers to pay attention to conventional action learning with the help of which it is possible to develop the required number of qualities for promoting managerial practices and organizational tasks.

Leadership as a Social Phenomenon

Leadership remains to be a social phenomenon that involves many people, who have different knowledge and skills and have to share their experiences. There is a widely spread tendency that people can learn better and achieve good results in educating in case they choose action learning as the method to rely on. Trehan and Pedler (2009) describe action learning as a combination of practices that can be developed when learners try to reflect on their attitudes in regards to the activities their leaders want to introduce. Action learning has been proved as the method that experiences considerable growth due to its possibility to involve many people and improve their capabilities and leadership as the method to gather mutual interests and reflect on the surrounded world in the most effective way (Rigg & Tehan 2008).

The investigations by Raelin and Trehan (2015) show that leadership and the importance to develop appropriate skills in any sphere of business have been challenged considerably during the last centuries (Edwards 1992). The promotion of critical action learning is one of the examples that can be offered to analyze the shifts in the business and management spheres. People start paying more attention to the daily realities and the requirements of organizational life (Trehan & Pedler, 2009). The authors underline the importance to develop leadership in terms of some institutional and social contexts in order to explain the power and significance of the relations that should take place between leaders and employees. At the same time, Rigg and Trehan (2008) discuss the difficulties any stakeholder may face while employing the critical reflections on leadership and workplace peculiarities. There is a necessity to give clear definitions and explanations, consider the current changes in everyday practice, and try to answer all questions connected with leadership development and the required pedagogical methods (Reynolds & Trehan 2008). For example, to stay loyal, leaders have to understand how to motivate, guide, and support employees properly. It is not enough for leaders to identify the orders and responsibilities. Employees, like any other educators, are in need of explanations that have to be logically introduced by leaders. Raelin and Trehan (2015) offer to regard leadership, as well as the idea of leadership development, as a practice within the frames of which it is possible to improve the already gained skills, study new material, and find a practical implication to the theoretical knowledge. Leadership as a practice consists of a number of stages that have their own periods and categories.

Action Learning and Promotion of Leadership

To succeed in promoting leadership and explain how leaders can improve and share their knowledge, it is necessary to use the method that can cover all aspects of the above-mentioned complicated term. Research by Trehan and Pedler (2009) helps to enhance leadership and management development. The authors suggest action learning as the main perspective to promote effective learning and pay more attention to various political (McGill & Beaty 1996) and cultural processes (Schein 1992) that can influence organizational development. Trehan and Pedler (2009) describe action learning as a combination of practices that can be developed when learners try to reflect on their attitudes in regards to the activities their leaders want to introduce and explain how their followers can take the same actions with the same profits. Action learning may promote and develop leadership skills in several ways. Leonard and Lang (2010) offer to engage the learner in the process and take meaningful steps in order to integrate new knowledge with the already gained facts. Besides, it is possible to create the strategies with the help of which simple questionnaires that can be used to involve team members in activities and use their knowledge in practice. Finally, action learning is characterized by spaced practices when employees may use their new skills between different sessions so that they can use and then analyze the achievements.

Trehan and Pedler (2009) base their investigations on the idea that action learning helps to promote useful progress that to identify the problems and search for the required portion of solutions or opportunities. It is not enough to introduce action learning as a good method to rely on when leaders have to share their knowledge and skills. It is more important to evaluate the effects that can be observed in action learning. Trehan and Pedler (2009) offer the idea of critical action learning as an opportunity to evaluate the control issues of leadership and focus on the external factors that may define the quality of leadership. Raelin (2014) is not confident in the power of a leader’s individualism and tries to introduce collaborative agency as the solution to problematic action learning situations. For example, it is possible to use dialogues to understand what can be used and how new knowledge can be implemented in practice. Vince (n.d.) says about critical action learning as a possibility to develop collective emotional dynamics that are necessary for leaders and their employees. The author mentions the fact of helpfulness and offers leaders to deal with such “working blocks” and challenges using the power of a team. Leaders, who want to work individually on mutual tasks, can hardly succeed, and action learning is a chance to comprehend how collaboration may assist in developing the required leadership skills and team building (Raelin, 2006). In addition to the development of a number of personal traits, it is possible to consider political and cultural processes that may affect leadership development (Trehan & Pedler, 2009) because every culture is a set of new assumptions and ideologies that can determine the quality of work that is expected.

Critical Action Learning Perspective

Critical action learning is defined as a part of action learning and as an approach that can be used in all leadership activities (Revans 1998). Raelin and Trehan (2009) explain how to treat leadership not as an activity and thoughts offered by one person but as the results that can be achieved by people who work together. Therefore, as soon as leaders learn the main features of critical action learning, they should believe that they have succeeded in action learning as a practice. Such achievement proves the possibility of leaders to analyze their skills and opportunities and offer a guide for their teams to be followed. It means that more attention should be paid to the basics of how social and interpersonal relations should be developed (Raelin 2011).

According to Trehan and Pedler (2009), there are three main features of the action learning approach in the context of leadership. Collaboration is the opportunity to promote partnership and engagement and use group discussions as the only appropriate collective process during which professional relations and mutual understanding can be achieved (Vince 2004). Regarding this perspective, Trehan and Pedler (2009) conclude that only self-empowered leaders can benefit from active learning. Another feature of action learning is the necessity to recognize practical knowledge within institutional and social contexts (Mingers 2000). Leaders have to be ready for a considerable shift from what they have already known and used in practice to new learning material and the development of new approaches that have never been implemented before in a particular organization. Finally, Trehan and Pedler (2009) promote the union of such ideas as deliberation, reflection, and transformation on the basis of the work developed by Mezirow et al. (1991), who described the learning process as the way to perceive, understand, and feel the changes.

One of the possible lines of inquiry that can be pursued in research is based on the necessity to explore the peculiarities of channeling leadership and focus on the investigation of the nature of managerial work (Raelin & Trehan 2015). Finally, Raelin and Trehan (2015) offer to use critical action learning as a call for collective reflections that can be given to the already gained experiences. According to Jordan (2010), reflection has to be regarded as a critical ingredient of leadership practice that promotes the importance of high situational awareness and the possibility to avoid conflicts. Action learning is not only the way to learn something new. It is a chance to unite the requirements of the workplace with the abilities of people, who need to study (followers) and educate (leaders). Pedler (2004) underlines the possibility to treat action learning as a reflective activity that should help leaders to improve their outcomes. Such attitude to an educative process should help to understand the strong and weak aspects of the work, analyze the achievements that have been already made and that are going to be considered. Action learning is the method that combines knowledge, practice, and personal attitudes to the activities that are expected from leaders and their followers.


Researching the Concept of Leadership

In this part of the project, it is necessary to discuss the peculiarities of the methodological techniques and procedures that are applicable to the development and support of leaders in family organizations. The choice of methods in a project is an integral step that determines the tools and the success of the work planned. This choice should be made in regards to the already identified research goals, practical norms, epistemological concerns, and ethical, political, or even some personal characteristics of the field (Buchanan & Bryman 2007). It is suggested to use action learning as the method to promote a leadership-training program that can be used to mentor future potential and current senior managers in the company. Coghlan and Brannick (2005) introduce action research as a sequence of events that “comprises iterative cycles of gathering data, feeding it back to those concerned, analyzing the data, planning action, taking action and evaluating, leading to further data gather” and as an approach to problem-solving by means of scientific methods and experimentation (4). To put it differently, the concept of action research implies that the consistent process of processing information retrieved in the course of observations or experiments should be carried out (Ellis & Wright 2013). There are other ways of looking at the subject matter, however. As a rule, several types of action research are identified; these include diagnostic, participant, experimental, empirical ones, etc. (Stringer & Baldwin 2013). Diagnostic action research is aimed at identifying the issue underlying a particular situation, whereas participant ones involve the use of experimental groups or any other form of participants’ involvement for further data gathering and analysis. As the name suggests, experimental action research requires carrying out an experiment aimed at proving a particular hypothesis. Similarly, empirical action research denotes the study of a certain scenario; however, the given action research typically involves the use of a set case that needs a solution. Studies also point to the fact that action research often implies that the service-user relationships should be analyzed in the process and that a connection between the unique characteristics of the end customer (e. g, race, ethnicity, culture, etc.) (Ellis & Wright 2013). By using the principles of action research, one will be able to promote the concept of action learning among the target audience. In other words, the outcomes of action research not only inform the target audience and the author but also incite a further analysis of the situation, thus, prompting the design of an original model for addressing the issue (Chipchase et al. 2014). Therefore, the given research type is bound to help locate the emergent issues and the tools for addressing them in an appropriate manner.

The promotion of learning among the leaders of family organizations is not an easy task that requires a sufficient combination of theory and practice. Still, there is a considerable gap that exists between the theoretical perspective, practice, and research that has to be conducted. Action research is one of the possible solutions to filling in the gap between what has to be studied and done in a learning process (Parkin 2009). It should help to comprehend how managers and leaders may choose and conduct inquiries in order to achieve their goal and improve their practices that can improve the working environment considerably (Koshy 2005).

Ontological / Epistemological Positioning

There are two types of foundations that may be applied to action research. On the one hand, there is epistemology, the power of knowledge. On the other hand, there is ontology, the nature of the world as it is. Epistemological and ontological perspectives identify specific ways that can be used in research for the validation, generation, and development of knowledge. The ontological positioning of action research touches upon the questions like what the researcher wants to know when they decide to use action research. The ontology of this research is based on the idea that family firm leaders are in need of special programs that help them to learn and develop their skills so that they can perform their duties at a high level. The epistemological positioning deals with the relations between the idea of leadership in family firms and the level of knowledge that has been established. From the epistemological point of view, action research aims at knowing something on the subject and intervening in real situations to promote some changes.


The success of action research depends on how well all stages of the process are understood and taken. Koshy (2005) offers to consider action research as the process of generating knowledge that is based on the inquiries conducted within a specific context. It is necessary to plan a change first. Then, it is better to observe how the change is implemented and analyze the consequences. Finally, the reflection of the process and its consequences is required. If necessary, the same actions may be repeated to achieve some other results. There are several stages that can be offered to a researcher and the participants to take in order to understand how a learning program can be introduced to the leaders of family firms:

  • The identification of what should be improved (weak points in the system or poor approaches that do not solve a problem);
  • The introduction of the reasons for concerns and doubts (why family firms’ leaders want to use a new learning program);
  • The description of the implementations that can be offered (leaders and managers should be interested in a new initiative);
  • The collection of information should help to understand why leaders can benefit from a learning program (cooperation of colleagues and their personal opinions may be used as the background of research);
  • The choice of action research methods should be explained (interviews and observations are used to clarify what makes leaders improve their level of knowledge) (Coghlan & Brannick 2005);
  • The evaluation of the information found has to be properly introduced in the project (the use of tables or graphs is appreciated).

Taking into consideration the goals of research and the necessity to use action research as the only possibility to promote learning in order to develop and support leaders in family firms, several challenges can be observed. First, it is necessary to talk with potential participants of research and explain their duties and guarantees properly. All participants should realize their roles in the project and share their opinions clearly. Second, action research requires direct communication with leaders, managers, and educators. The conditions for communication (time, place, and duration) have to be identified and discussed beforehand (Buchanan & Bryman 2007). Finally, the offered action research method helps to find many different pieces of information that have to be generated, analyzed, and reported in regards to the already determined ethical and theoretical standards (Parkin 2009).

Action research is a longitudinal process that has to be planned thoroughly. As soon as the crucial theoretical aspects are covered and the professional and educational needs are clarified, the time of practical steps comes. Interviews can help to clarify why leaders want to participate in learning programs and what they expect to get. Observations can be used to identify what actions and reactions may be expected on the basis of the offered learning program. The tables can be used to generate the research data. The identification of the categories (personal evaluation of knowledge, expectations from the program, participation in research, and new skills) is necessary. Still, the adjustments of the results are possible because the researcher cannot predict all of them in the interviews. It may happen that some new boundaries are discovered during action research (Coghlan & Brannick 2005). Graphs can help to identify the effectiveness of suggestions in the project.

Data Collection

This study will be based on semi-structured interviews with 30 participants from different organizations. This group of people will be divided into those, who believe that their leadership skills and approaches are successful, and who want to make some improvements in their leadership activities as they understand that better achievements can be observed in their organizations. The interviews will be organized via Skype during the periods discussed with the participants beforehand. As a result of interviews, it is expected to discuss the possibilities to observe the activities that take place in some organizations. It is planned to visit two organizations with the leaders, who believe that their styles are successful, and two organizations the leaders of which want to learn more.


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