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Challenges of leadership
In this topic, we discuss the challenges many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders face in balancing multiple needs. We also look at the challenge of responding to change, crisis and conflict.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- Why can balancing multiple needs present a challenge for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders?
- Are there other challenges that you or your group’s leaders have experienced?
- What different strategies or leadership styles might help overcome these challenges?
Balancing multiple needs
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership is perhaps even more demanding than it used to be. It’s no longer only based on traditional values, knowledge, laws and extended family relations. Leaders must also operate within the contemporary environment of non-Indigenous governance, its different standards and financial requirements.
“True leaders in the Aboriginal community are often burnt out through the pressures of doing all with nothing… Leaders in the Aboriginal community have to be strong, resilient, moral and highly skilled in both Aboriginal and mainstream politics… you have to get support from both the community and government to get things done.”
– Marjorie Anderson, Leadership: An Aboriginal perspective, 2006.1Marjorie Anderson, “Leadership: An Aboriginal perspective,” (Sydney, 7 April, 2006).
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural values and leadership principles are often at odds with non-Indigenous views. The non-Indigenous view is generally that leaders are independent of the demands of family and kin.
One of the biggest challenges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders face is finding the balance between:
- ‘looking after’ and being directly accountable to their own families and mob
- fulfilling their wider responsibilities.
These wider responsibilities include working for their organisations, communities and nations, as well as with governments and other stakeholders. They must balance this with looking after their own wellbeing.
It’s not always easy for leaders to balance their responsibility to govern collectively – and in a way that benefits all group members – with their cultural responsibilities and obligations to family or kin. Those involved in landowning corporations – such as prescribed Body Corporates (PBCs) – may be particularly challenged. At the same time, they have to:
- develop membership rules according to legislation – for example, which people or groups are eligible to be members and under which class of membership
- balance multiple group needs
- follow traditional land tenure protocols.2T. Bauman, D.E. Smith, C. Keller, L. Drieberg and R. Quiggan, Indigenous Governance Building: Mapping Current and Future Research and Practical Resource Needs, Report of Workshop convened by AIATSIS and AIGI (Canberra and Sydney: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, 2014), 14.
Sometimes leaders say they have two-way accountability. Today, they often need to be accountable in several different directions.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders may not always be able to make decisions on the spot. The timeframes for consensus decision-making may seem slow to government officials or commercial companies, but rushed processes can undermine the legitimacy of leadership and governance.
Generally, there’s a small pool of leaders in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, communities and nations. That means individual leaders have huge workloads. They must wear many different hats. They have multiple responsibilities and obligations. On one hand, they can be harshly criticised for speaking out if they’re not seen to have the cultural right to do so. On the other, they can be held accountable for issues out of their control.
Change, crisis and conflict
Perhaps the biggest pressure for leaders is the ability to adapt and respond daily to the ‘three Cs’ – change, crises and conflict – while ensuring the ongoing resilience and self-determination of their group.
Covid-19 is an example of a crisis that has had varied impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. Leaders needed to adapt and develop specific strategies to manage the distinct challenges of this pandemic.
“Indigenous leadership can be challenging, but it also offers qualities for challenging dominant ideas about what leadership means and looks like, to influence, and advance such ideas.”
– Rachel Wolfgramm, Chellie Spiller and Cora Voyageur, Indigenous leadership, 2016.3Rachel Wolfgramm, Chellie Spiller and Cora Voyageur, “Indigenous leadership – Editors’ introduction,” Leadership 12, no. 3 (2016): 263, [link]
Leaders who recognise the need to adapt and change can better manage external influences and take opportunities. But they also need to be able to protect cherished values and stability.
Effective governance is about working out the balance between the need for both:
- continuity and consolidation
- renewal and innovation.
The balance is different at different stages of a group’s life.
Ultimately, many leadership challenges will be unique to your or your group’s circumstances. To prepare, take time to reflect on your particular needs, aspirations and the different leadership styles you may need.
The Institute for Urban Indigenous Health (IUIH) is a great example of an organisation adapting to a servant leadership style to complement their shared governance approach. Shared governance is about partnership, shared decision-making and the distribution of leadership. It gives decision-making authority and autonomy to the people who will implement the decision. The aim is for group members to have the responsibility, authority and accountability to determine what goals to pursue. Leaders set guidelines, and team or group leaders make independent decisions that fit within these guidelines.1Gen Guanci, “Shared Governance: What it is and is not,” Creative Health Care Management,[link]
IUIH was a Finalist in Category A of the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. Here CEO Adrian Carson and Jody Currie, Director of Operations and Communications discuss some of the complications of shared governance and how they tackled challenges that arose in bringing together four health services.
“…Leadership is actually about building consensus, not seeking it.”
– Adrian Carson, CEO.
We’ve translated our extensive research on Indigenous governance into helpful resources and tools to help you strengthen your governance practices.
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