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Indigenous leaders navigate two worlds

Emerging Indigenous leaders working in community development and management are developing an emerging style of leadership which has its own distinctive attributes. These leaders are drawing on their Indigenous identity as a resource, while negotiating the policy and other demands of white Australia. 

At a glance

In partnership with the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre, Professor Jenny Stewart and Dr James Warn (University of New South Wales) conducted a study of emerging Indigenous leaders. They found a style of leadership is developing which is more relationally based, characterised by values, protocols and practices.

Indigenous leadership: a cross‐cultural perspective

Indigenous peoples in North America, New Zealand, and Australia have begun framing and defining the meanings of leadership. These are spiritually oriented, holistic forms of leadership.

The researchers explicitly state they do not presume to speak for Indigenous people. They suggest their value lies in their own ‘outsiderness’, understanding the contexts and demands of non‐Indigenous leadership and management.

For Indigenous Australians and other First Peoples, the cultural context of leadership is marked by the need to appreciate the impact over time of dispossession by an invading (white) culture. Differentials of power are present at every interface.

The gulf between traditional Aboriginal worldviews and those of non‐Aboriginal Australia can be enormous. Indigenous leaders must find ways to create leadership ‘two ways’ – gaining acceptance in communities on the one hand, while learning to operate effectively in non‐indigenous systems of governance.

As individuals, Indigenous Australians are facing many choices – how do they define themselves as leaders? What role does their Indigenous culture play in this emerging definition? How do they exercise influence in situations of tension and ambiguity?

The study

  • The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 10 alumni of a cohort of Indigenous students who had undertaken a Certificate IV leadership course at the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre.
  • The interviewees were not remotely based Indigenous people – they came from or had moved to urban environment. All volunteered for the study.
  • Two rounds of interviews were conducted, 18 months apart.
  • The working definition of leadership was a two‐way influence relationship between a leader and a follower aimed primarily at attaining mutual goals.

Interview themes

1. Conception of the leader and the way leadership operates

  • Being patient and letting people have time to get to know you.
  • Leading by example.
  • Helping people.
  • Listening, not going in too strongly.
  • Communicating in a straightforward but appropriate manner.
  • Acknowledging who you are: acceptance as a leader was based on knowledge of who you were and who your people were.

” They knew my surname, but they didn’t know me. People need to know who you are. Who’s your family? That’s how they place you.”

2. The leadership task

  • Being true to one’s identity was central.
  • The leadership task was not related to formal outputs or outcomes but ‘sowing a seed’ of change.
  • Gaining trust and establishing ‘buy‐in’ was difficult when communities were weary of constant ‘interventions.
  • There was reluctance by some senior managers to trust programs to Indigenous leaders. There was a need for ‘white’ bureaucracies to change.

“There’s a system in place, but if you believe in two‐way learning, it has to change at the top level. There’s a … mistrust – are they ready to let go, and let an Aboriginal person lead?”

3. Sources of personal strength

  • Spirituality – one source of spiritual belonging was links to country, of drawing strength from country, even when it was far away.
  • Support of family, mentors, and peers, particularly family members who had believed in them and inspired them.
  • Participating in the leadership course – friendships forged through the course had an enduring influence both on personal development and leadership practice.

“The main thing was working with people with like‐minded goals and ambitions, most of whom had had to deal with adversity; hearing their stories, and those of others, was inspirational.”

Leadership between two worlds

Aboriginal leaders in the study were evolving an approach to leadership founded on a sense of collective identity. It also acknowledged a lack of formal power in many of the interactions in which they found themselves.

The sense of collective identity was influenced by relationships with family, mentors, and peers. Collective identity was enhanced and expressed through peer networking, countering the loneliness of leadership.

The skill sets for dealing with mainstream organisations are learnt through education and experience working in public and private organisations. These experiences are not straightforward. They often involve reconciling the expectations and values of community members with the constraints, responsibilities and demands of public policy and bureaucratic regulations.

The leaders recognised the need to be competent in different management practices and following policy and rules. However, they saw cooperation with the rules as the outcome of a patient and engaged style of leadership rather than the outcome of the exercise of legitimate authority or pressure from a forceful leadership style.

The practice of preferred leadership style did not always proceed smoothly. In some cases, the mainstream employer expected the Aboriginal leader to be an agent of the organisation and simply enact organisational dictates within the community rather than work in an adaptive leadership role.

The emerging Australian Indigenous model reveals a specific kind of orientation in which the leader works to connect influence across the Indigenous community with the administrative mechanisms of mainstream society. However, this did not mean the leader pursued one style with the Indigenous community and a different style in the mainstream organisation. Instead, there was a preference for enacting a connected style of leadership across all groups and situations.

The bottom line

The findings in the study reveal the complexity of the leadership being practised by Indigenous leaders working between the instrumental demands of mainstream organisations and the expectations of Indigenous peoples. There is a clear implication for mainstream organisations to put in place a more diverse understanding of leadership practice and the purpose of leadership, when interacting with Indigenous communities.

Want to read more?

Between two worlds: Indigenous leaders exercising influence and working across boundaries  –  Jenny Stewart and James Warn, Australian Journal of Public Administration, Volume 76, 2017 – Issue 1

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Author Bio

Maria Katsonis

Maria Katsonis is The Mandarin's research editor and a Public Policy Fellow at the University of Melbourne. She previously worked in the Victorian Public Service as a senior executive.