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Want a collaborative team culture. be the lead learner

I spent a few weeks in January on the beautiful little island Gili Air, just off the Lombok coast in Indonesia. Gili Air is one of the cruisiest tropical islands you could imagine. Having just suffered the devastation of the August earthquakes, the people who live and work on the island are a great example of resilience and continued optimism, even in the face of hardship and grief. Amongst the people I spent time with, one of the gems is a 57-year-old Javanese man named Ibrahim. Ibrahim is a born storyteller. One morning looking over the sea, he told me stories from his life, living through all parts of Indonesia and Papua. Stories such as coming face to face with a massive orang-utan in the jungles of Borneo, both of them looking deep into each other's eyes, before the orang-utan turned and lumbered away, leaving Ibrahim clutching his heart, yet feeling he had experienced a connection that was almost human to human. His life is full of curiosity and wonder.



Four years ago Ibrahim and his wife moved from Java and started a small warung (restaurant) on the island. They had never run a warung before, let alone built one. However, Ibrahim, undaunted, spent time ‘stealing' from other warungs - his term for learning through observation. Then he went back to his patch and built the whole thing from scratch, copying and trialling. This earliest version of learning we experience – by observation and trial and error is something we almost beat out of ourselves as professionals. We often have achievement and getting things ‘right', or ‘perfect' deeply ingrained in our persona and our culture. Yet learning from each other is often the richest form of growth.



Thriving collaborative cultures in teams and between teams have a common denominator that sets them apart from teams that sit in status quo or comfort. These teams are deep learners individually and as a group. To be deep learners, a willingness to show vulnerability and ‘not knowing' is crucial. Otherwise, we stay in the shallow end of learning and avoid our opportunities for development for fear of failure, judgement or shame. As team members work in more depth with each other, the step to co-creation is far more effortless. The exploration of new ways of working and thinking become embedded in the culture of the team. Pixar, the powerhouse of animated movies, hold post-mortems after every film, whether the movie made it to the screen or not. Every single person involved in the process attends, and they do a deep dive into what worked and what didn't work. This learning then informs future projects.



In a well known educational focus of our current context, Michael Fullan, global educational leader in collaborative cultures for deep learning, found in his research that leaders who also lead the team learning get better results. In his words "We have found that leaders must lead and learn in equal measure". He coined the term lead learner and I think we forget that displaying our own deep learning is an important thing to model to our teams.

As leaders, we have an excellent opportunity to be the Lead Learner. A leader who doesn't sit back when people are investigating the why and how of their work. One that doesn’t ride in on a white horse to save the day with the answer to everyone's problems. A lead learner steps into the learning arena with their team and pulls the issue apart as a partner. Curiosity and wonderings fuel the conversations, rather than judgement and black and white thinking, right or wrong. They create systems and structures for the learning to occur. Teams who learn from each other as part of the way they work shift the fear of ‘stuffing up' into an opportunity for collaborative inquiry and exploration. Leaders who model this approach help to cultivate a culture of trust, collaboration and support, rather than one of competition and judgement.




1. Be a leader that is LEARNING, not one that has LEARNT

Nothing worse than someone who sees themselves as an expert who doesn't learn continually. In this dynamic environment of change and revolution, an expert who has mastered their area and then stopped learning ceases to be relevant very quickly. Break down the old hierarchical thinking that leaders need to know the answers. Great leaders help their teams find even better solutions.


2. When assumptions are challenged, step into CURIOSITY, not DEFENSIVENESS

Recode your responses. Defensiveness and discomfort are significant signs that there is some juicy learning to step into. Ask questions rather than respond to defend your position. Education requires us to challenge the way we have always thought and acted.


3. See mistakes and failures as key to growth

Own your ‘stuff ups', whether your own or your team's. Talk as a group about what happened. Examine what happened and be willing to see what needs to change or strengthened in the future. Be willing to wrestle with the muckiness of learning and be aware of what the unhelpful little voice in our heads might be saying. Brené Brown's research and writing on vulnerability is fabulous self-work to do if this is a challenge for you. Her book Rising Strong is a must read for all of us wrestling with what we do when we feel we have fallen on our faces.

4. Discuss everyday learning in your team

Make it a key part of working together. Test out the beliefs that drive your approaches and behaviours, tap into excellence within your company or outside and model it, just as Ibrahim did building his warung. As a team, challenge the assumptions that guide the way you work, in a respectful and professional way. This leads to new thinking and innovation. Leadership teams that have leadership learning on their agenda are building their capacity to move with momentum.


5. Let up on being right

The need to be right drives up distrust in teams. When people feel we are not open to influence, the chance for collaboration and exploring options takes a nose dive.

Collaboration is more than getting along - it's creating something more together than we could have by ourselves. It's learning out loud together - and the more we are willling to expose ourselves as learners, and leaders, the better.

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Ibrahim - a born storyteller. One of the gems of Gili Air.