(Image: ASHLEIGH WALKER/ ALICE WEBB-LIDDALL)

How indigenous leadership offers a new way of looking at a changed world

Don Rowe meets the post-graduate students putting tikanga and kaupapa Māori at the centre of learning how to lead. 

The planet is in trouble. Since the time of the industrial revolution, the Western world has become increasingly enthralled and enchanted by the pursuit of economic and individualistic success. Power, prestige, and the perks and trappings of a commodified life have been sold to us as a panacea to the deep-felt contradictions inherent in a solipsistic existence. And, as self-defeating as this isolation is on a personal level, it is equally as fruitless on an organisational level. New models are necessary. 

But, it turns out, these leadership models may not need to be created from scratch, only rediscovered. There is a wealth of indigenous knowledge in New Zealand, developed over hundreds of years, informed by tikanga and kaupapa. And now a new initiative seeks to integrate indigenous forms of leadership with the modern demands facing leaders in the workplace.

For Scott Crickett, a former creative director at an Auckland digital advertising agency, indigenous leadership has proven a welcome counterbalance to the cutthroat world of commercial digital media. Crickett, who is part of the first intake in The Mind Lab’s Leading Change for Good postgraduate certificate, began searching for a more intentional mode of living after his son was diagnosed with significant health and developmental issues.

Scott Crickett (Photo: supplied)

“I was enjoying my work in a way, but once you’ve got real stuff going on, it very quickly shines a different light on life,” he says over Zoom, connecting from the back of a van on the Coromandel Peninsula. 

“I was confronted with the question of what am I really interested in, and it just wasn’t that.” 

Crickett and his family sold up, leaving Auckland behind for a bush plot near Whangarei. They began building off the knowledge acquired during a year-long obsession with permaculture, learning to live lightly and at a more sustainable, slower pace. There was satisfaction and a sense of peace. But, Crickett says, true community is about shared values, and shared experience. The skills he had developed in the world of commerce had real worth, and they could be adapted to the NGO space.

“It was great, but I enjoyed the creative side of my work, and so I was still thinking ‘what do I do with this experience that I’ve got in leadership in the creative industries?’ Leading Change for Good seemed like just the shot in the arm that I needed to get that whole process started.”

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis the world has been forced to imagine new ways to live, work and lead. The virus moves through society indiscriminately. It cannot be outmuscled, as evident in the US, where political elites have attempted to maintain normalcy through brute force, assuring the public that the battle will be won through strength and force of will. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a post cabinet press conference at Parliament on June 08, 2020 in Wellington. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In countries like New Zealand, however, a different style of leadership has prevailed in the response to the challenges brought of Coronavirus. Solidarity, the “team of five million”, a reminder to be kind – the hallmark of Jacinda Ardern’s response has been a call for collectivism, manaakitanga and considerate compassion for the community as a whole. It’s a style of leadership familiar to Joni Gordon, Mātauranga Māori at The Mind Lab.

“When we talk about indigeneous leadership at The Mind Lab, it’s underpinned by a certain set of values. It’s a sense of tikanga Māori but then on top of that you have a sense of service and servant leadership models. It’s about manaakitanga, whakawhanaungatanga and a sense of humility. These are altruistic values where we’re working towards the greater good. It’s a collectivity that we know as a really important aspect of kaupapa Māori, and which underpins a Māori or indigenous idea of leadership.”

The Mind Lab’s Leading Change for Good course is a postgraduate certificate which empowers people from corporates, iwi, charities, NGOs, community groups and government organisations to put community and purpose at the centre of their work. It’s targeted at what Gordon says is a growing demand for collaborative models, drawing together professionals from a diverse range of industries to apply contemporary and indigenous leadership principles to affect social change. It’s about showing the potential of profit and purpose to coexist, and the power of indigenous values to lead that mission. 

“These indigenous models of leadership are held up by those values, and people are drawn to them in these post-Covid times. We’re working through these issues and we’re understanding that we need to find new ways to connect. We’re being drawn back to these fundamental values that we can find in indigenous wisdom.”

Joni Gordon, Mātauranga Māori at The Mind Lab (Photo: supplied)

Effective leadership begins by making space for people to succeed, Crickett says. Service to the people beneath you is the key function of a leader, and a model based on mutuality and collectivism means creating the conditions necessary for change without a focus on the aspirations of the individual at the top. This is something he found in the course’s emphasis of indigenous knowledge.   

“The thing that I’ve always loved about kaupapa Māori, and what’s really emphasised at The Mind Lab, is the idea of reciprocity and the connection that threads through everything. That is the underlying fabric the whole thing is built on. It’s not about what’s good for me and what can I get out of this, but what can I bring to the table? The strength of your connections is your whole existence, basically. It’s so crucial.”

These connections rely on a starting point of authenticity, says Crickett. Change on an individual or organisational level can be an uncomfortable process. A leader with a mandate for change needs the trust of the people around them, and that requires a form of authenticity that reflects legitimate self-knowledge rather than a cynical sales-pitch.

“Coming from the commercial sector we use words like authenticity and values a lot, but not in the correct way it turns out. Why should anyone believe what you say, or care what you say?”

Indigenous leadership is about bringing people along, Crickett says. There is no room for coercion, strong-arming or manipulation. At its core, it relies on an individual’s mana. True authenticity is not something that can be worn like a dress shirt at a client pitch.

“It’s becoming so clear every time we get together and talk or hear from a speaker – it’s incredible how that is being hammered home. The meaning of those words has completely been rewritten for me. It’s not a moral authority, it just gives you this level of credibility that holding pure facts doesn’t quite have.”

Ella Falakoa, kaiwhakamana for whanau resilience at the charitable rehabilitation organisation PARS, agrees. PARS provide tools of empowerment to meet the needs of prisoners, the recently released, at-risk youth and their wider whanau units. Their kaupapa seeks not to ‘fix’ clients, but to support a restoration of mana, self-worth and community standing. The majority of Falakoa’s clients are Māori and Pasifika, and effective change in their lives demands both an authentic desire to do so, and authenticity from the service providers they interact with. Leading Change for Good has allowed Falakoa to frame the concept internally, creating a space in which to do more effective work.

Ella Falakoa, is kaiwhakamana for whanau resilience at PARS (Photo: supplied)

“What does it truly mean to be authentic? What does that mean to you? Am I the same person that I am with my friends when I’m at a meeting? It got me thinking, if so, why? And if not, why not? When you dig deep into that it really gives you a deeper understanding of the work we’re doing.”

Falakoa says that the kaupapa Māori model of shared power has huge applications in the NGO space. Starting from a point of prioritising purpose over power means that making room for collaboration is a critical step in the mahi. 

“I’ve learned at The Mind Lab that when you think of co-design within NGOs and government contracts, it’s entirely based on being in a collective. Co-design is about shared power – it’s about having balanced power throughout organisations from the CEO all the way to your grass root workers.”

The skills she’s learned on the course have been transferable too – into her everyday life. 

“The balance of power in a marriage is really interesting. I feel like it’s made me really think about how I apply myself in spaces, how I apply myself within my family context, and how I can take these learnings and apply it in my own household.”

Leadership for good goes far beyond the workplace, The Mind Lab’s Joni Gordon says. Leadership isn’t always visible. Leading doesn’t always have to be done from the most prominent position. On the marae, for example, the most respected roles are often in the kitchen – it takes an almost military level of organisation just to feed everyone at some of the most important social events. 

“Leadership is evident in everything. Sometimes we think of leadership as elite jobs but it’s our everyday work. We know it’s a lot harder to cater for 200 people than it is to stand up and do a little mihi. But all of those jobs are really important and that’s highlighted when we see Māori society operate in those spaces,” she says.  

“It’s every day, it’s the way that we lead our families, it’s the way that we hold space, it’s the way that we teach classrooms – you’re a leader within your context and we all have a capacity to lead.    

Traditional Māori knowledge has a new role to play as New Zealand recovers from the effects of Covid-19 (Getty Images).

But that’s not to downplay the benefits to a professional life. Now more than ever, says Gordon, there is a huge commercial demand for leaders fluent in kaupapa Māori and indigenous leadership methodology.

“Cultural intelligence, cultural sustainability, actually serves you. The job market is flooded with opportunities for executive Māori leaders, so we know that’s the case. There’s a great benefit in learning these skills, in most positions in New Zealand it’s a real advantage – anything in government, medicine, wellness. It’s a great benefit.”

For commercially-minded students like Crickett, the skill exchange works both ways. A familiarity with the boardroom, financial motivations and the client-business relationship are powerful tools to advance a purpose-driven operation. And, with an honest and self-aware approach to learning kaupapa Māori, no barrier to entry is insurmountable. 

“I think coming into this, especially for people like me coming from this commercial background who are desperate to use our skills that we’ve got, particularly in leadership to do something more purpose driven – nobody is expecting you to come in as an expert. You come in from where you come in from, and the whole idea about the course is about you being honest and authentic about yourself, first.

“I’m not Māori and I’m really conscious of cultural appropriation and coming from an authentic place where I am who I am, and so it’s a very careful balance of being influenced by these things and seeing the validity, understanding how I can practice kaupapa Māori, but not changing my own story to meet that. I need to work out where I fit in around all of that, and that’s what this course is great for.”




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