Leadership groups for social learning

A few years ago we started a practice of setting up leadership groups in the communities of practice that we work with. We are sharing a document we’ve produced about this practice which you can download at the end of this post.

The practice goes like this: everyone at a meeting belongs to a leadership group – and each group stewards one part of the learning process of the whole group. In this way leadership of the community meeting is distributed over the entire event.

Leadership here is seen as an act of service, that is, not leadership in terms of telling others what to do, but helping the group develop itself as a learning partnership. We’ve seen these groups lead to some transformational turn-arounds in group dynamics and the learning potential. (Notwithstanding the times they flopped – which led us to learn a great deal!)

We gave playful names to the groups in the spirit of making it a fun and inventive way of leading the process: agenda activists, community keepers, critical friends, social reporters, external messengers, value detectives.

Over the years we’ve come to see that these groups can work well in lots of different contexts including group meetings, conferences, and long-term community development. Anywhere, that is, where there is an intention for collective learning.

We’re now preparing to study the practice as it is being used on a course for owner-managers at Lancaster University Management School. Our inquiry is to find out if and how they develop the social learning capability of the cohort over this coming academic year. We’ll keep you posted.

Let us know if you use or develop the leadership groups. This chapter for download is going to be one chapter in a handbook we are producing for facilitators, conveners and coordinators of social learning. We’ll publish each chapter as we get it done and integrate feedback in the final version.


  • about leadership groups more broadly
  • practices we have developed around leadership groups
  • descriptions of each leadership group
  • facilitation tips
  • sample instructions


You can download the full text in PDF format here:

Download leadership groups (V2) 

See also

One of the roles – social reporter – is a branch from some early work (2006) that Bev did with David Wilcox on using social media and the web for capturing the content of meetings and events. At that time we wrote a social reporting toolbox. David also writes about it on his blog here.

19 thoughts on “Leadership groups for social learning”

  1. Thanks! This totally resonates with a practice I’ve used which said simply is “give people a job they can say yes to and which adds value to them and the group.” Lovely. I will spread the word!

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    1. Dear Thaisa,
      A core group are people who are passionate about the domain and whose “learning hunger” and activity more generally can inspire the community. They are usually committed to the existence of the community and are ready to take extra step to ensure that it keeps going. They are a key success factor for communities of practice.

      1. Hello Mr Wenger, I have been a member of an organization and working as a team leader. My question is that how do we build appropriate structure for this organization.

  3. Dear Etienne and Bev,

    We’ve been testing the distribution of tasks to Community members for a year now, and it’s been shown very successfull. Next step will be to implement leadership teams in pilot Communities. I will share results with you.

    Unfortunatelly we could not attend Betreat this year, but will try for 2014.


    1. Leo – nice to hear from you. We would love to hear how you’ve been distributing the tasks and more on the leadership in teams in pilot communities. They have proved a really useful development for us in our work – except in one case where the group absolutely refused to take on the leadership tasks and even started a rebellion. We could share that story with you too!

      We’ve now moved house – so if you come to BEtreat ’14, it will be in a new venue. It’s not far from the other house – and slightly closer to town. It will be great see you.

  4. Hi there, I am a Principal very interested in attempting a community of practice in my school primary school across staff. is there anything i can read that will help me consider this? I have your book ‘cultivating communities of practice’ from the library. I guess I would be considered the facilitator but would like to engage others. Thanks in advance

  5. Brian Eigelbach

    Good Morning,
    I have been a Registered Nurse for over 30 years and I am back in school working on a Masters in Adult Education. I plan to work on a Doctorate as well. I was wondering if you know of any hospitals or health care systems that may have cultivated Communities of Practice within their organization.
    Thank You

    1. Brian,

      Many health care systems have cultivated communities of practice to improve patient care, with various degrees of success. You should definitely look into the work of Michael Fung-Kee-Fung at the University Hospital of Ottawa. A recent dissertation by Igor Prysko from Strathclyde University looks at some efforts at the NHS in the UK. Also look at the work of Sue Huckson when she was at the National Institute of Clinical Studies in Australia. The list could go on, but this gives you a start.

  6. Hi, I am a resource teacher of learning and behaviour and would like to introduce your leadership groups to a CoP focusing on innovative ideas/interventions relating to behaviour concerns. I also would also like to assess the value of this CoP using your value creation framework. This is new to me, so wondered if you had any further advice (the chapter on Leadership groups was informative and very inspiring), but I wondered if you had any anecdotal stories from a ‘beginner’ who had already tried this? I have read Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework and it aligns so well with our RTLB principles of being strengths-based and ecological in our outlook. Is there anything else your could recommend I read/watch to give a beginner like me and the leadership groups a better chance of success?

    1. Hi Kylie… here are some of the things we have learned about the leadership groups:

      1. Don’t be ideological about them. Use them in ways that make sense to the community you are working with. Perhaps you call them different names, perhaps you call them “Design groups”, perhaps you only use three of the groups. Make them work for you.

      2. There is a tension about time with the leadership groups. You need to give people enough time to understand them, use them, and see how powerful they can be. But you don’t want to give them so much time that people feel like it is distracting from their focus on content.

      Re the value creation framework – here is a link to some lessons https://www.wenger-trayner.com/resources/publications/strategic-evaluation-of-network-activities/ and we have a few examples of other people who have used it in our newsletter, if you are not subscribed – http://eepurl.com/bQ32y9.

      Both of these approaches we use and help you apply in your context in our BEtreat workshops – https://www.wenger-trayner.com/betreat/. Perhaps we’ll see you at one!

  7. Hello. I’m conducting a research to understand how virtual communities of practice work, how they can impact individual employee performance, and to further the knowledge of communities of practice as an operationalized theory. Wenger’s 1998 Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, offers a detailed framework for analyzing the internal dynamics of a community of practice. The framework was extracted from his study of a single community of practice and as far as I know, has never been tested back against an existing community of practice. What are the strengths and limitations of the framework? Have there been any studies specifically on understanding CoPs rather than controlling and/or managing them?

    1. Hi Lisa

      There have been all sorts of studies of communities of practice. Have you read the book “Beyond communities of practice: language, power, and social context” edited by David Barton and Karin Tusting (Cambridge)? It contains many studies of communities of practice that might be of interest – and it’s not just about managing them.

      Hope that helps.

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