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Ōtākou Marae, Ōtepoti (Photo: Alice Webb-Liddall)
Ōtākou Marae, Ōtepoti (Photo: Alice Webb-Liddall)

ĀteaJune 13, 2022

Bringing tikanga to the board table: an indigenous approach to governance

Ōtākou Marae, Ōtepoti (Photo: Alice Webb-Liddall)
Ōtākou Marae, Ōtepoti (Photo: Alice Webb-Liddall)

More and more New Zealand organisations are finding success through embracing tikanga Māori.

Māori women’s and land rights activist Eva Rickard once said: “Somewhere in my past is my destiny”. Now, as tikanga Māori guides us towards a strong, uniquely “New Zealand” future, this decades-old whakatauāki still rings true. With the Māori economy moving from strength to strength, tikanga and mātauranga Māori are beginning to find their way into boardrooms that historically have not held space for them and more organisations are now realising the benefits of a tikanga Māori approach to governance.

Executive director of Te Pūtea Whakatupu, Te Pūoho Kātene (Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Whātua, Ngāti Tama) says the term “Māori governance” refers to those who are entrusted with the leadership of organisations that carry a mandate on behalf of their Māori trust, organisation, authority, iwi or hapū. The term also includes Māori governors applying their leadership lens around non-Māori board tables.

“Before colonisation, tikanga was the supreme system of governance in Aotearoa. Māori had a sense of identity and connection with our culture and we operated autonomously in kinship groups. If leaders were challenged, problems were often solved transparently, with input from the collective,” says Kātene.

But tikanga quickly took a back seat as the British instilled their own governance systems in Aotearoa. Before long, the majority of Māori had been urbanised, many of whom were disconnected from their lands, culture and language in the process, and forced to participate in this new Westminster system of governance.

Te Pūoho Kātene, kaihautū (executive director) of Te Pūtea Whakatupu Trust (Image: Supplied)

Since the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975, a number of Māori organisations have taken control of assets as part of the compensation and redress process. Now, the Māori economy is estimated to be valued at around $68bn, and is composed of a mixture of Māori authorities such as whānau trusts, hapū and iwi organisations, as well as Māori self-employed and SMEs. 

Māori authorities are also growing at a faster rate than New Zealand businesses overall. The number of people employed by Māori authorities increased 25% over the last five years, compared with a 13% increase for all New Zealand businesses. This growth is a signpost of the huge growth of the Māori economy over the last decade with many pointing to the strength of tikanga as a causal factor. But it’s important that Māori governance and leadership extends beyond these specific Māori spaces and Kātene is eager to see more organisations able to confidently straddle both te ao Pākehā and te ao Māori.

“We are seeing the emergence of organisations that are as comfortable on the marae ātea as on Wall Street, because that’s completely possible in our realms of being. And it’s when the rest of the country sees us doing that – autonomous in our rangatiratanga – that they may see Māori leadership not as a matter of obligation or division, but one of opportunity and authenticity,” Kātene says.

Wākatu Incorporation board member, Jeremy Banks (Ngāti Rārua, Rangitāne, and Ngāti Kuia) also believes the benefits of a tikanga approach to governance can scale a business economically in addition to practising cultural competency.

“I do feel like we’re starting to realise that collectively, the way that Māori do stuff is a competitive advantage that can be used in a commercial sense as well. Tikanga doesn’t have to be separated from making money.”

Register now for the Aotearoa’s first-ever National Māori in Governance Summit being held June 16, 2022 and hear inspiring kōrero from across the Māori governance sector through a mix of TEDx style kōrero, interactive panels, and plenary sessions.

As the world moves toward purpose-led organisations, conscious consumers and responsible investors, tikanga and mātauranga Māori continue to gain prominence in boardrooms around the country, says Ngāti Koata Trustee, Kyle Edmonds (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Toa).

“Māori governance is so aligned with this purpose-led, socially responsible model of conducting business because tikanga is inherently grounded in those values.

“The genesis of tikanga Māori and Māori governance is whakapapa – our connectedness and relationship with our whenua, maunga, moana, awa, whānau. Knowing this organically drives behaviours of mana motuhake, kaitiakitanga, , and kotahitanga.”

While Pākehā business models have traditionally focused on the bottom line, there are so many more layers that an embrace of tikanga forces businesses and entities to focus on.

“Embracing tikanga Māori and Māori governance in business inherently satisfies corporate social responsibility norms and other modern social expectations, obligations and policies like ESG, diversity, inclusion, and others. Through a Māori lens a business can have multiple bottom lines beyond simply pūtea,” says Edmonds.

Members of Te Pūtea Whakatupu’s alumni network, Ngā Auahitūroa (Image: Supplied)

Kātene believes that Māori governance encapsulates the shift towards purpose-led, socially responsible business models – something the rest of the business world is catching up on.

“Purpose and principle are no longer subservient to profit. As we approach, on a global scale, the greatest wealth transfer in history – some $50tn going from Boomers to Generation X and Millennials – we know that values-based decision making is hugely important to these younger generations,” says Kātene. 

But there has been a mass of misinformation circulating that has stoked fears about what adopting and integrating Māori governance means and looks like, practically. Kātene says the weaponisation of the term “co-governance” has become a tool for people wanting to cause divides and masks the principles that underpin Māori governance – the importance of the collective, adopting intergenerational horizons, and operating within our environmental limits. Having informed conversations about the importance and value of these principles in a co-governance setting is essential to bridge those divides, he says, but they won’t always be comfortable conversations to have.

“Change is inherently uncomfortable and we need to reconcile ourselves to that – the only place where we’re going to make transformative change is where we are uncomfortable,” says Kātene.

Māori are already leading national conversations around issues important to Māoritanga; climate change, biodiversity loss, data sovereignty, biases in artificial intelligence, domestic and international politics, and the country’s constitution. More non-Māori organisations are now turning to tikanga and mātauranga Māori for guidance, but it’s important that guidance is informed by a genuine Māori presence in these discussions.

“As Māori, we naturally want to be ahead of the curve. We don’t necessarily want to have others come and help define what being good kaitiaki is, for example,” says Banks.

Wākatu Incorporation board member, Jeremy Banks (Image: Supplied)

The fear of an uncertain future, especially given the current global climate, presents a unique challenge to those leading the way. While looking to the past for guidance, the ability of those in governance roles – Māori and non-Māori – to be bold in their approach to the future will also be crucial.

“We have to be constantly evolving. What got us here won’t get us to the next step. If things don’t feel right, then call it out. If you feel like a karakia is just a token gesture, then say so,” says Te Ara Taura member Maxine Graham (Waikato, Hauraki).

Issues such as climate change, global supply chain issues and geopolitical events will continue to cast uncertainty on board tables throughout Aotearoa. Adapting and paving the way forward won’t be without friction, but leaning into uncertainty for the collective good is not a new fight. Acknowledging that many veterans of that fight are those Māori in governance positions today, Kātene quotes a whakatauki he believes is fitting for this moment.

“Werohia te rua, kia puta mai ai te tuna – reach into uncertainty so that opportunities may emerge. Being comfortable in uncertainty so that we can be courageous in our leadership, that’s going to be the key.”

There is also clear acknowledgement that Māori governance must continue to evolve to meet the leadership needs of the future. “It is incumbent on us that we continue to grow the new wave of leaders, confident in their tikanga and highly skilled to meet new challenges,” says Kātene.

The emergence of these governance opportunities has also created a space where rangatahi with comprehensive grasps on tikanga and the commercial world can be fostered in their pathways towards governance.

“Importantly, coupled with tikanga is the advancement of our rangatahi and new age Māori governors who are now equipped with commercial astuteness and opportunities to develop in both a te ao Māori context, as well as te ao Pākeha,” says Edmonds.

As we move towards a future where tikanga and Māori governance is more widely embraced for its many strengths, there is an imperative to ensure the people around the table are well-equipped to lead their organisations into that future.

“For any board in any organisation, one of the key jobs is to look at succession planning, and look at what that process is for maintaining appropriate people around the table,” says Graham. While progress has been made to address this, she believes more can, and should be done to ensure the best outcomes for Māori, and for businesses.

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