Between two worlds: the challenges of public sector Indigenous leadership

By David Donaldson

Friday October 19, 2018

An academic paper examining how Indigenous public servants navigate between Western and Aboriginal ideas of leadership has been awarded most influential article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration.

Professor Jenny Stewart and Dr James Warn from the UNSW Canberra School of Business won the 2018 Sam Richardson award for their paper ‘Between two worlds: Indigenous leaders exercising influence and work across boundaries’.

Lots of work has previously been done on Indigenous political leadership, but less is known about Aboriginal leaders working within public administration and community development, the authors note.

Based on in-depth interviews with a cohort of emerging Indigenous leaders, Stewart and Warn found these leaders are producing their own style of leadership, drawing on their Indigenous identity as a resource, while negotiating policy and other demands of white Australia.

The style of leadership emerging “has its own distinctive attributes, being more relationally based than is the norm”, they explain.

Traditional, top-down bureaucratic approaches often relate poorly to the on-the-ground realities in Aboriginal communities, and Indigenous leaders’ approaches tend to focus on being “patient and engaged” rather than attempting to exercise straight power, though the latter is often what’s expected of them by the department.

These more relational ways of working are often poorly recognised in organisational performance structures, however.

“The model of leadership encouraged in the Australian public sector may be problematic for many Indigenous leaders in terms of their career advancement,” the authors argue — and indeed, some of the study’s interviewees reported difficulty finding stable work despite their skills.

In addition, Indigenous leaders frequently face the added pressure of Indigenous communities expecting them to act as a “lobbyist” within their organisation — something that can sit at odds with their responsibilities as an employee.

The Sam Richardson Awards are presented by the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) each year to recognise the contribution made by researchers to the study and practice of public administration in Australia. They are named after Professor Sam Richardson, who was a foundational principal of the Canberra College of Advanced Education, now the University of Canberra.

Professor Peter Shergold, IPAA national president, announced the 2018 Sam Richardson Award saying “the article by Jenny and James is not just of a high academic quality but has real relevance to the administration of Indigenous affairs.”

IPAA also named 10 new national fellows for 2018 this week.

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