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Be a clever leader, not just an intelligent one, says Maori Development boss Michelle Hippolite

Often asked what it’s like being a Maori woman leader, Michelle Hippolite discusses connecting the head and heart, Maori ideas about leadership, and commitment to the public service.

There’s a big difference between being intelligent and being clever, says Michelle Hippolite, chief executive of New Zealand’s Te Puni Kokiri (Ministry of Maori Development).

“I don’t doubt that we’re all intellectually able,” she told last week’s ANZSOG conference on Indigenous affairs.

“I hope that we’re all clever. And clever for me means you combine not only what you learn in your head, but you do bring that heart and that spiritual dimension to your engagement in your work.”

Government is full of smart people, but the evidence is often ignored in favour of received wisdom.

“Not a surprise, but even intelligent people aren’t clever,” she said.

“When I worked in the health sector I worked alongside all the professionals: doctors, researchers, you name it. And the epidemiology, the evidence—they all talk about this evidence-based decision-making—the evidence said put all your effort into community health, primary health.”

“Where did the money go? To tertiary health, the hospitals. And I thought: ‘Gee this is really intelligent, but not very clever.'”

But Hippolite, who recently announced she’ll soon be leaving the job after six years, has been pleasantly surprised at how easy it’s been to introduce other NZ department heads to Maori culture.

It’s even helped build trust within the group.

“I’ve got all our chief executives singing together,” she explained.

“We have retreats. We start off with a prayer or a thought to the almighty, whoever that might be, whatever philosophy you might come from. And I get us to sing. We’re not singing because—I don’t really want to hear them sing, they’re terrible. But what comes through culture and the place of song is unity.

“So after three years we now have a cohort that feels like they can talk about things that are hard, frank, difficult. It surprised me it didn’t take that long to get them there.”

Leadership across cultures

People often ask Hippolite what it’s like being a female Maori leader.

The experience is very different between the public service and the Maori community, she says.

“When I’m in government settings it doesn’t seem to matter, because your intelligence and level of influence is what gets you across the line.

“When I’m with community, it doesn’t matter how clever you are, it’s about who you’re connected to, and how you influence what’s going on in those communities.”

Maori society is “very patriarchal”, so she often finds herself saying “mate, it can’t just be all about what the men want to say”.

“We have to find ways in our culture to enable women to have their say.”

But government has only recently made serious progress with the place of women in leadership, she adds. “It’s only in the last five years that we now have, I think, 30-35% of chief executives in New Zealand are women.”

Maori bring different perspectives to leadership, she thinks.

Having grown up with a strong awareness of her ancestors, one of those differences for Hippolite is how she thinks about her own legacy.

“If we don’t do a good job, songs will be written about us,” she says.

“Maori in the public sector are worried about the future in a way that is very connected to who is going to come after them. Because they are going to tell the stories about whether nanny or koro did a good job while they were in that role.”

Distributed leadership is another feature. Hippolite’s predecessor ran the agency on a command-and-control model, but she is keen not to present herself as the fount of all knowledge.

“Give credit where credit’s due, and not have it all come back to the fountain at the top,” she says.

The result of that approach has been a greater effort by staff, who know they’ll be recognised for their own initiatives rather than see the plaudits going to the agency’s leaders.

Then there’s the pay gap—but she’s working to address that.

“I think there’s a gap between Maori and non-Maori. I think there’s a gap between men and women. And then between Maori and other women. And Maori women and the rest of the public sector,” she says.

“I’ve been privately coaching other people when they’re getting ready to go into negotiations for their pay arrangements, saying ‘ask for this’. And there’s the classic ‘I don’t think I’m worth that’. And I say ‘yes you are, just keep pushing’.

“… Big issues, I believe, get tackled one at a time. One issue at a time, one agency at a time.”

Walking in two worlds

The challenge of balancing Indigenous identity and responsibilities as a public servant came up a few times at the conference.

But public servants shouldn’t doubt their Indigenous colleagues’ professionalism.

“Do I think my integrity is tested all the time? Absolutely,” Hippolite says.

“I can usually anticipate when it’s going to come, saying: ‘Can I trust her with the information about what government’s going to do when she will analyse that it’s going to have an impact on this community?’

“Of course the answer is that we live to the code of conduct, that we understand the roles we’re in and we’re not going to bugger it up.”

She gave the example of one time when matters within her own tribe came up in a department she was working at.

“They said, ‘Michelle you can’t be involved’. I said, ‘Oh I can’t be involved, but when you want to fix the problem I am involved. So I’m going to be involved from start to finish, and I work here and this is what I do’,” she explained.

“Pushing back just to say, let’s put things into context, if you have a blood relation does that mean it’s so different to other perspectives? I’d argue no, but the maturity is still coming.”

She looks forward to a broader reimagining of the narratives around government and Indigenous people.

“All of us live in this narrative of the socio-economic demise of our people. I call it the Misery Story. I’m intolerant of it.

“I think, ‘Let’s talk about the Possibility Story, what the potential looks like.’ But we don’t measure potential, we measure misery.”

MORE FROM ANZSOG’s ‘Reimagining public administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms’
+ Marcia Langton: Government accelerating Indigenous people into ‘permanent poverty’
+ We need to talk about ministerial control: Glyn Davis

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.