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Develop your leadership
In this topic, we walk you through some key considerations when developing the skills and capacity of your leaders. We also highlight some tried and tested methods that have worked for other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, communities and nations.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- What does the word ‘capability’ or ‘capacity’ mean to you?
- What are the different ways a person or group could go about developing or building their capabilities for leadership?
- What leadership capacities do you identify as being important for your leaders?
- What kind of support do your leaders need to effectively perform their job of governing?
- How can your leaders develop the skills to engage members?
Leadership capacity development
A ‘capability’ is the combined set of skills, learnings, and behaviours that a person possesses to get a particular outcome or job done. Capacities or capabilities refer to the current ability of individuals – abilities which can be further expanded and developed. Different societies have different capabilities or capacities that they value over others.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, capacity development is ‘the process by which individuals, groups, organisations, institutions, societies and countries develop their abilities, individually and collectively, to perform functions, solve problems, set and achieve objectives, and understand and deal with their development needs in a broader context and a sustainable manner’.1Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), DAC Guidelines and Reference Series, Applying Strategic Environmental Assessment: Good Practice Guidance for Development Co-operation (OECD Publishing, 2006), 145, [link]
Capacity development, sometimes called capacity building, are strategies, processes and tools that helps people to develop their own capabilities so they can achieve their goals. It’s about giving people the chance to improve and strengthen their skills so they can perform tasks better and become more self-reliant, at the same time as contributing to collective work outcomes.
“Capacity building is about regeneration of our communities from the inside out – communities renewing themselves by identifying, appreciating and using their assets … Each individual and organisation is a resource on which to build.”
– Mick Dodson, Yawuru man and previous Chair of the Indigenous Governance Awards, 2003.2Mick Dodson (Jabiru Governance Conference, Jabiru, 2003).
Capacity building is much more than just formal training – that is, doing a structured educational course or training program. The capacity to govern needs particular kinds of knowledge, skills and experience from leaders.
One way to think about leadership learning and development is known as the 70:20:10 model. It suggests that:
- 70 per cent of learning is experiential – from experience, experiment and reflection.
- 20 per cent of learning is social – from working with others.
- 10 per cent is formal – from programs, courses and planned learning solutions.3“How to Apply the 70:20:10 Model for Learning and Development,” eLearning Industry, September 2014, [link]
This means there are many ways to strengthen the capacity of your leaders.
For First Nations people in Australia, the 70:20:10 model recognises that the foundation for their leadership capabilities comes from growing up and learning among their own families and groups, being on Country, working alongside other community members, and being taught and mentored by Elders. This is where individuals observe and learn real-life skills in practical contexts – they learn how to be and do leadership.
“My career is now focused on building the next generation of Indigenous leaders, female and male. Their challenges may differ from the challenges I have faced, or the challenges faced by the Fond du Lac Band. But developing your own personal leadership abilities will be one of the best investments you can make – not just for yourself, but for your own community.”
– Karen Diver, Chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, 2021.4Karen Diver, “‘You’re Not Just a Leader, You Are an Indigenous Leader’ Empowering Native American Women for Governing,” 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), 369.
You can explore the The 70:20:10 Learning Model on the Instructional Design Australia website.
Leadership capacities for effective governance
Leadership for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance is a specialist area of knowledge, skill and expertise.
As a leader, developing the capacity to govern is more than personal development. It is about your relationships with other people. It means building shared values, attitudes and ways of behaving. It also means acquiring the specialist abilities needed to work with others and do the collective job of governing.
It starts with developing strong cultural values and confidence:
“…imbuing young people with a strong sense of their culture and identity gives them the best chance of finding their way in the world. Embedding culture in communities and young people is a form of Indigenous investment. [First Nations] people … invest their knowledge, time and resources in young people because they know no one else, not teachers, or social workers or governments, can give what they give.”
– Mick Dodson, Yawuru man and previous Chair of the Indigenous Governance Awards, 2012.5Mick Dodson, “Indigenous governance: Self-determination in action,” Reconciliation News, no. 5, December 2012, 11.
Having a strong cultural identity and recognition as a leader must also include having the practical ability to get things done on behalf of others.
To govern their groups well, leaders need access to the right tools, skills, experience and knowledge to carry out their responsibilities.
“So, we’ve got to be able to take that step and step into that world. I think for a lot of us, that ability to understand bureaucracy and how it works, we share a lot of our culture with all these people that come into town, but they don’t share their knowledge around how bureaucracy works so that our mob become more empowered in talking in that same space, so we’re talking as equal partners.”
– Tennant Creek women, Wiyi Yani U Thangani report, 2020.6Australian Human Rights Commission, Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future Report (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020), 83.
Below is a list of important capacities for strong and effective governance. There may be many other capacities you can identify as important for your leaders. Consider customising a list that applies to your situation.
Capacity to work well with others
This means identifying who you need to work with. This might include community members, Elders and leaders, local and regional organisations, NGOs and government.
Capacity to define a vision and build consensus
This is about communicating with your members about their concerns and priorities. It includes gathering and analysing information from them and others to understand where the greatest needs are and plan effectively. You can then mobilise consensus and action around those.
Capacity to create and enforce rules and guidelines
Leaders should be able to develop rules that show the best ways of getting things done (as guidelines, policies, protocols, procedures and so on) that fit into cultural traditions and local plans.
Capacity to think and act strategically
Keep alert to the wider environment, changing conditions, opportunities, risks and new information, in order to plot a course of action that leads to desired results. This needs an understanding of the political and economic environment you work in.
Capacity to manage
This is about understanding and helping to manage cultural, economic, natural and human resources, and being accountable for them. Leaders should also be able to plan and manage basic local initiatives and services.
Capacity to assess and evaluate plans and goals
As a leader, you should understand the need to regularly assess whether plans, initiatives and actions are on track to deliver goals in the way intended. Gather and analyse information about how these are being implemented and refine processes accordingly. Feed this learning into planning for the future, so that plans and strategies can be changed to achieve greater success.
Capacity to provide and mentor strong local leadership
Ensure you are supporting the next generation of leaders by sharing your experience and skills with them. This means giving other people in your organisation, community or nation the confidence to develop and deliver results.
Five capacity-building ideas for leaders
Here are 5 ways you, or your leaders, can start to develop your leadership capacities:
- Reframe your thinking about the leader’s job from that of ‘problem solver’, to ‘moulder of consensus’ or ‘enabler of collective solutions’.
- Encourage everyone in a group to contribute to ideas and problem solving. Innovation occurs when people feel valued, trusted, connected and empowered.
- Take the time to make sure responsibilities and accountabilities are agreed upon and clear to all.
- Cultivate a learning environment rather than a dictatorial or autocratic hierarchy.
- Be a ‘both-ways’ learning space. This is a learning context where the members of an organisation, community or nation learn from each other as a reciprocal relationship for capacity building
Support leadership development
It’s important for groups to encourage and support the leadership development of their people. This includes the board, CEO, managers and staff, cultural leaders, and other emerging leaders.
By having a leadership development process, your leaders might find it easier to understand their own leadership style, develop their ability to help emerging leaders, and promote your group’s culture and vision.
Insights from IGA applicants on leadership development
A review of the methods used by the 2016 incorporated Indigenous Governance Awards (IGA) applicants shows how successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups are supporting leadership development. These insights suggest that leadership development – for organisations, communities and nations – is best achieved through the provision of daily mentoring, relational teaching, ongoing training and other opportunities for staff and future leaders.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).
Here are 5 tried and tested methods to support your leaders:
1. Governance and professional skills training
Have governing leaders and directors participate in community events and collective learning experiences related to the cultural needs of their position.
Have governing leaders and directors participate in workshops, seminars, certificate-level courses, conferences and professional networks related to the specific needs of their position.
Make sure governing leaders and directors have access to regular best-practice governance training in-house (for example, by ongoing customised leadership building into regular meetings and discussions) or through providers such as AIGI, ORIC and the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
Build leaders’ capabilities on topics such as financial literacy and financial planning, decision-making, dispute management, negotiations with external parties, implementation of strategic plans, understanding formal documents and cultural protocols (particularly for younger directors), management and leadership, having difficult conversations, being a mentor, health and wellbeing.8Australian 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), 59.
“The FPDN board regularly attends governance training both as individuals and as a collective. FPDN also receives ongoing regular advice from a major law firm based in Sydney on governance related matters that are delivered in person with FPDN board members.”
– First Peoples Disability Network (FPND), Indigenous Governance Awards, 2016.9Australian 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), 57.
2. Professional development strategies
There are different strategies that you can use to help support and encourage your leaders in governance and professional skills training. These strategies can be tailored to the needs of your leaders and might include the following:
- Supporting internal training that involves governing leaders and directors first assessing the skills required for their role and identifying training to achieve these skills.
- Encouraging governing leaders and directors to visit and learn from outside of the organisation, community or nation. For example, governance and skills training with other First Nations leaders – nationally and internationally.
- Addressing skill gaps, informed by the wishes and professional development needs and aspirations of your members.
- Reserving identified leadership positions for emerging leaders to progress their expertise and roles within the organisation, community or nation.10Australian 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), 57.
“All board members participate in governance training. Successful completion of these units will qualify each board member with a diploma level certification in governance. All board members who don’t already have this qualification are able to access our online governance program at their own convenience. A Tranby lecturer presents parts of a relevant governance unit usually before the start of a board meeting where all directors are present.”
– Tranby National Indigenous Adult Education and Training, Indigenous Governance Awards, 2016.11Australian 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), 45.
3. Informal processes
Provide on-the-job training, experiential learning and informal information sharing. Many IGA applicants describe themselves as ‘learning organisations’.
Implement action-learning, for example by having leaders come together to share common challenges and collaboratively solve problems. For instance, a rotating chair model (where the chair of board meetings rotates between directors). This can encourage more discussion and gives all the chance to learn how to lead.12Applicants reported that this model allows for more experienced directors to demonstrate effective governance, while encouraging less confident directors to develop their own leadership skills and take ownership of their role.
Refer to future leaders in inclusive terms, supporting the view that everyone can contribute as a leader. Provide identified future leaders with experiential learning opportunities through leadership positions on projects and committees. Once future leaders develop governance capacities, they can be encouraged to join the governing leaders of the organisation, community or nation.13Australian 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), 61.
“The culture of the organisation also includes a commitment to being a ‘learning organisation’. We operate in an extremely complex industry and we walk the line between two worlds, balancing cultural considerations alongside artistic goals and commercial imperatives. Due to this complexity, we recognise that we will not always ‘get it right’, but as long as we learn from it and move on, we are heading in a positive direction.”
– Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation, Indigenous Governance Awards, 2016.14Australian 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), 57.
Commence regular formalised mentoring relationships internally with emerging leaders, staff and organisational leaders. Also commence regular formalised mentoring relationships with external mentors such as industry experts, prominent community members, First Nations leaders or Elders.
Support informal mentoring relationships, such as Elders taking younger people out bush to learn about Country, sites and other cultural knowledge.
Support youth appointments, such as organisational leadership positions, youth committees or appointments on the board.
Employ permanent organisational mentors for all organisational staff.15Australian 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), 58.
“MWRC employs a permanent organisational mentor. She works across the whole organisation assisting all staff, primarily youth, in a variety of activities such as CV, letter writing etc… the purpose of the mentor, along with entire organisational ethos, is to promote self-worth and confidence to build empowerment over time.”
– Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women’s Resource Centre (MWRC), Indigenous Governance Awards, 201616Australian 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), 58.
5. Tertiary and other educational training
Support members of the board, management and staff to attend university, TAFE or a Registered Training organisation (RTO).
Support nation members and organisational staff to gain qualifications in their relevant position through accredited programs in governance and business, community services, community management and development, youth work, First Nations leadership, First Nations mentoring, cross-cultural awareness, bookkeeping, counselling and first aid.
Support leaders and staff through study leave, subsidies for courses, quiet study spaces and applying for scholarships.
“Access to flexible training is important to be able to accommodate, support and encourage involvement and participation from younger women and future leaders… The Tangentyere Women’s Safety Group members are supported to work within their strengths and to build their experience.”
– Tangentyere Family Safety Group, Indigenous Governance Awards, 2016.17Australian 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), 61.
Leadership behaviours for member engagement and voice
People often want to contribute and be involved in their governance arrangements. For your organisation, community or nation members to be engaged and have a real voice in governance, leaders need to incorporate them in communication, consultation, decision making and change processes.
It’s important to support leaders to develop behaviours and capabilities that engage their members.
The following leadership behaviours, adopted from The Australian Industry Group, are associated with high levels of engagement and learning that resonate strongly with some important Indigenous values about preferred ways to lead.18“Fundamental leadership behaviours and capabilities,” The Australian Industry Group, updated April 2021, [link]
Shaping shared meaning
To create meaning, unity and a sense of collaboration among members, leaders should:
- help build a shared vision
- encourage openness with one another
- focus on collective effort
- behave in an honest, consistent and transparent way
- share decision-making, where appropriate
- encourage connection and learning with others.
Develop capability in people
To help grow and develop the skills and knowledge of their people, leaders need to:
- support a learning culture where people feel safe to share their insights, take risks and make mistakes
- increase the levels of challenge as new skills are acquired
- give and receive constructive feedback
- encourage networking and collective learning
- discuss and resolve complex issues as a group
- enable choice about how to carry out tasks.
Encourage autonomy and resilience in people
To give their members a sense of autonomy and control, leaders should:
- recognise and encourage individual abilities to carry out a task
- acknowledge feelings, viewpoints and histories of trauma
- provide opportunities for self-direction
- encourage questioning, and individual/collective reflection
- be accessible
- decentralise and distribute decision making.
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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