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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership
In this topic, we reflect on what strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership looks like today, and why it matters. We explore Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives of leaders and leadership. We also look at what organisations, communities and nations expect from their leaders.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- Who has governing power and authority in your group? Who gets to make decisions?
- Are there differences in the way you understand leadership compared to other non-Indigenous or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership?
- Why is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership often considered to be ‘networked’ leadership?
- What kind of leadership qualities, skills, experience and expertise best suit your group’s vision, purpose and governance needs?
- What kind of leadership contributes to effective, legitimate governance? Is that the kind of leadership you have at the moment?
- What are some of the expectations your group has for your leaders?
Understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership
Leadership is the art of motivating people towards a common goal or to ‘get things done’. It’s about providing guidance and direction. It doesn’t always have to be done from the front. It’s not an easy thing to achieve.
Leadership is a key ingredient for achieving and maintaining effective governance. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, strong leadership is particularly important for achieving positive social, economic and cultural outcomes.
“Someone has to lead the way. It may be an individual, it may be a group. It may come from senior leadership, or from local communities, or from schools, or from organisations. Leadership can be found anywhere. What’s needed is some set of people who realise that fundamental change is needed, and are willing to take the lead.”
– Manley Begay, citizen of the Navajo Nation and co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, 2003.1Manley Begay, “The responsibilities and challenges of indigenous leaders: insights from American Indian Nations,” (presentation, Building Effective Indigenous Governance conference, Jabiru, Northern Territory, 4–7 November, 2003).
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership has different values and criteria than in wider Australian society. Sometimes, the English terms ‘leadership’ and ‘leader’ are unknown in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. As a result, there’s often no equivalent word.
For example, in Arnhem Land:
“Ultimately a Yolngu leader is someone to whom other people listen, a person who can create consensus… Thus, leadership is only conferred conditionally, and has to be constantly earned. It is a process rather than an ascribed position in a hierarchy. Clan leaders in Yolngu society are not called mulkurr ‘head’: they are not the ‘heads’ of their clans. Rather, they are called ngurru, ‘nose’, and in ngurru-X, ‘leader of clan X’… the English metaphor implies a view of the leader as the apex of a vertical hierarchy, the Yolngu metaphor characterises a leader as being on the same horizontal plane as those who confer authority on him through consensus.”
– Frances Morphy, The language of governance in a cross-cultural cultural context: what can and can’t be translated, 2007.2Frances Morphy, The language of governance in a cross-cultural cultural context: what can and can ‘t be translated, Ngiya: Talk the Law, vol. 1 (Canberra: Australian National University, 2007), 4.
In the Western Desert:
“Amongst the Pintupi, the closest equivalents to the term ‘leader’ are mayutju (boss), tjila (big one) and ngurrakartu (custodian). These are people who are described as ‘holding’ or ‘looking after’ (kanyininpa) their family, kin, subordinates and country… A boss is yungkupayi, someone ‘who freely gives’, a ‘generous one’. They will ‘look after’ (kanyilku) people and country.”
– Fred Myers, Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics Among Western Desert Aborigines, 1986.3Fred Myers, Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics Among Western Desert Aborigines (Canberra: AIATSIS, 1986).
These comments highlight an important expectation of leaders by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – they are expected to lead for the collective good of their organisation, community or nation. They should not use their authority to pursue personal goals, and they don’t place themselves at the top of a hierarchy, over other members of their group.
Approaches to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership can be complex and exercised in subtle ways. This is because often:
- it’s shared among people with different responsibilities for different matters
- age and gender are important
- it is not hierarchical in the non-Indigenous sense, but rather based on accumulating valued knowledge and experience
- different leaders and kinds of leadership are called upon in different circumstances
- not all leaders are equally powerful – some are more influential than others.
There’s a common thread in traditional systems of governance across Australia. For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have been responsible for maintaining and protecting ancient laws, traditions, systems of knowledge, and jurisdictional rights and interests.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, governing effectively involves honouring family and community responsibilities. This can be a delicate balance of managing their own rights and obligations to family, while making decisions that are best for the whole community. These strong relationships with family and close kin are at the heart of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership practices.
Leadership and management are not the same thing. Leaders set the strategic direction and future goals, make plans and create guiding rules. Managers put those into practice by coordinating people, resources and actions.
Not all good leaders are good managers and not all managers are good leaders. Organisations, communities and nations need both.
Networks of leaders
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership is often considered networked leadership. In other words, every leader is tightly linked into surrounding webs of relationships to family, extended kin, other groups and other leaders, and to Country. You can read more about the importance of these networks for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in networked governance.
There are often particular networks of leaders closely related to each other through shared responsibilities and interconnected roles. Within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance systems, there are many different cultural leaders and leadership roles. For example, there are leaders of extended families, clan groups, kinship groups and nations. There are leaders of ceremony, ritual, sacred sites, songlines and Dreaming tracks. There are leaders who hold restricted knowledge. There are separate leaders for men’s and women’s business.
Today, there are also leaders of organisations. These leaders may be more visible to non-Indigenous people than traditional forms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership.
Together, these leaders form the governing backbone of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social groups. They activate strong relationships to get things done.
A network of leaders, not just one individual, makes up the leadership of a group. It means leaders working in incorporated organisations are not isolated, but are tied into these wider, powerful leadership networks as well.
You can see these networks in formal and informal governance models across Australia. They’re also often drawn in dot and bark paintings.
“The individual authority of leaders is influenced by their cultural knowledge, reputation, and their ability to ‘look after’ others — not only their community, but also the land, its resources, and related systems of knowledge and law. This means that leadership in Indigenous Nations is not just about people at the top. Building the collective capacity of citizens for leadership is therefore an important aspect of nation building and governance resurgence.”
– Diane Smith, Governing as Transformative Leadership, 2021.4Diane Smith, “Governing as Transformative Leadership, Thematic Introduction: Concepts, Issues and Trends,” in Developing Governance and Governing Development: International Case Studies of Indigenous Futures, eds. Diane Smith, Alice Wighton, Stephen Cornell and Adam Vai Delaney (Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield, 2021), 331.
Cultural leadership roles
Culture is at the heart of all effective Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership. Cultural leaders play an integral role in sharing and strengthening cultural knowledge.
There can be different cultural leaders for different cultural purposes and strong gender and age distinctions in leadership responsibilities. Cultural leaders are acknowledged when they earn the respect of their community for their ability and values in a particular area.
Importantly, their roles and responsibilities are not separate from other forms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance – cultural leaders continue to play a vital role in the operation of organisational governance, in peak and national representative bodies, in Land Councils and native title PBCs, in heritage protection, land management and Ranger programs, and so on.
Cultural leaders may be:
- cultural and ceremonial bosses
- knowledge holders about men and women’s law, sacred sites and natural resources on Country
- Elders and senior initiated men and women
- traditional healers – for example, medicine men and women.
Their responsibilities may include:
- transmitting knowledge and expertise to young men and women
- revival of languages
- mentoring new generations of leaders
- healing people and Country
- speaking on behalf of, and advocating for, group rights and interests in Country
- providing cultural leadership advice to organisational, community or nation governing bodies
- leading initiatives for nation rebuilding.
Below are examples of First Nations-led programs that support the work of cultural leaders in their communities.
The Ngangkari Program was developed in 1998 by the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council (NPYWC). The program supports ngangkari, Anangu traditional healers of the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara lands, to practice their healing traditions in communities, clinics, hospitals and other healthcare settings.
Ngangkari healers have cultural authority and traditional healing knowledge passed down from generation to generation. They have looked after people’s physical and emotional health for thousands of years.
The Ngangkari Program:
- provides Anangu from the NPY region with traditional healing
- promotes the value of the work and skills of ngangkari to make sure their work is respected in the mainstream mental health and public health system
- educates health and mental health workers about the role and work of ngangkari
- provides direction for the development of culturally appropriate mental health services in the region.
The Yiriman Project was developed by the Elders of 4 Kimberly language groups; Nyikina, Mangala, Karajarri and Walmajarri. The Elders were concerned about their young people and issues of self-harm and substance abuse. They saw the need for a place where young people could separate themselves from negative influences, and reconnect with their culture in a remote and culturally significant place.
Yiriman cultural bosses are Elders who maintain seniority within their community. They take young people ‘back to Country’ to help them reconnect with culture and separate from negative social influences. The cultural bosses identify where on Country these trips are, who attends and what the young people do. They guide the activities, such as traditional fire management practices or other practical activities about taking care of Country and reconnecting with culture.
It’s unlike a board of directors that needs the approval of members. Decisions are based on community and cultural knowledge and discussions between Elders and cultural bosses. This keeps the focus on helping the young people, without worrying about the logistics of the project.
Effective and legitimate leadership
Effective leadership is about the wise use of power. It’s particularly important that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders are seen as legitimate by their people. Effective and legitimate leadership leads to more effective governance.
Nearly two-thirds of applicants in the 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards identified the depth of a leader’s cultural understanding as an important factor for effective governance.5Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Strong Governance Supporting Success: Stories and Analysis from the 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Canberra: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, 2018, Prepared by A. Wighton), 20. This included a strong knowledge of local culture and community, as well as acting in a culturally legitimate way.
To be effective and legitimate, leaders need to:
- act in a public-spirited way that aligns with shared cultural values and standards of behaviour
- be accountable, fair and inclusive in representing all the members of their organisation, community or nation
- understand and carry out the responsibilities given to them
- inspire people to work together
- recognise their weaknesses and strengths
- understand the limitations of their role
- possess a foundation of cultural and other knowledge
- know when to seek further knowledge or expertise, from themselves or others
- help their community, organisation or nation reach its goals.6Diane Smith, “Governing as Transformative Leadership, Thematic Introduction: Concepts, Issues and Trends,” in Developing Governance and Governing Development: International Case Studies of Indigenous Futures, eds. Diane Smith, Alice Wighton, Stephen Cornell and Adam Vai Delaney (Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield, 2021), 331.
This kind of leadership better enables groups to achieve the things that matter to them.
These leadership behaviours demonstrate certain values. Increasingly, groups involved in governance building or rebuilding are putting these values down as written Governance Charters or Vision Statements. Organisations are embedding these values and behaviours into their written policies and procedures. This helps ensure that the leadership values and standards of behaviour agreed upon by a group or organisation are put into practice.
Expectations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders
Applicants in the Indigenous Governance Awards (IGAs) provide useful insight into the characteristics valued in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership today. They make clear that being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is an important starting point, but leaders must be doing a good job.
Leaders must also have a solid range of skills and experience.7Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Strong Governance Supporting Success: Stories and Analysis from the 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Canberra: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, 2018, Prepared by A. Wighton), 20. This includes:
- a high level of cultural understanding
- being respected in their local and wider community
- the ability to fairly represent, ‘work for’ and communicate widely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members in a way that is seen to be culturally proper.
These views fit with the idea that the legitimacy of governance is stronger and more sustainable when leaders gain the respect and trust of their members, and when there is regular, open communication between them. With visionary and accountable leaders, governance is effective and credible. This means your group’s goals and aspirations are more likely to be met.
Representation and accountability
According to applicants in the IGAs, representation and accountability are the biggest expectations that people have for their leaders.
An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leader’s representation and accountability operates in multiple directions, across the layers of their networks.
Strong, culturally based rules and values stress the need for leaders to only speak on behalf of (not represent) the ‘right’ people (their own mob or land-owning group), about the ‘right’ issue (their own Country and own business).
The strongest expectation is that a leader should, first and foremost, ‘look after’ and be accountable to their own family and community.
Leaders are also expected to go back to their family and community to discuss information, ideas and decisions. This means their legitimacy must be continuously earned and proven through their actions and communication within their group.
Finally, leaders are expected to act based on consensus. In resolving issues and making decisions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders usually spend a lot of time hearing from everyone. This allows people to share their thoughts and information about the issue. The result is that decisions are made after collective consideration of many varying perspectives. Acting on consensus is seen as important in maintaining harmony and making sure decisions truly represent the community.
“Leadership in an Aboriginal cultural context is not given or measured by how much media you get or if you earn big money. True Aboriginal leadership does not come from high-level appointments or board membership. It doesn’t come from and cannot be given by white constructs. Leadership is earned; it is given when you have proven you can deal with responsibility and you understand that responsibility.”
– The Hon. Linda Burney MP, first Aboriginal politician to be elected to the NSW Parliament, 2001.8Linda Burney, Yarnin’ Up: Aboriginal People’s Careers in the NSW Public Sector, (New South Wales: Office of the Director of Equal Opportunity in Public Employment, 2001).
In 2019, Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly (MPRA) published a document on their ‘lessons learned’ in community-led governance. On leadership, they state:
“Unity, loyalty and respect are the fundamental governing principles for the Assembly. In its Charter of Governance, the Assembly has articulated the following values for the conduct of delegates:
- accountability to communities
These values underpin MPRA’s Code of Conduct. More broadly, the Charter, and all MPRA’s plans and strategies, embody a number of strategic collective values around shared responsibility, good governance, community at the centre, regional autonomy and jurisdiction, and relationships.
As individual delegates, Assembly members place great emphasis on several behavioural traits and choices and have taken to heart the personal values listed above.
In particular, delegates prize voluntarism, vision, inclusivity, rigour and commitment, and are willing to be available to meet the needs of their communities at all times.”1Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly, Community-Led Governance, Lessons Learned (Murdi Paaki, 2019), [link]
“We’re 24/7, we’re not Dolly Parton, not nine till five; and it’s important to look at what that says about our leadership.”
– Pam Handy, Wentworth/Dareton CWP Chair and MPRA Delegate, 2019.
“We don’t get a rest – we get the police knocking on our doors dropping someone off, we’re getting phone calls from the hospital to go up there… we’re doing everything; we’re not paid. But – we’re looking after the community.”
– Monica Kerwin, Wilcannia CWP Chair and MPRA Delegate, 2019.
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