4.1 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership
4.1.1 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concepts and leadership structures
The English terms ‘leadership’ and ‘leader’ are foreign or unknown in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. There is often no precisely equivalent word.
There are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders—men and women—but their leadership is exercised according to different values and criteria than it is in the wider Australian society.
The Indigenous language of governance
“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’, Ngiya: Talk The Law, Vol. 1)
“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, 1986, Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics Among Western Desert Aborigines, AIATSIS, Canberra)
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘leaders’ have had a role in traditional systems of governance in Australia for tens of thousands of years, undertaking responsibilities for maintaining and protecting ancient laws, traditions, systems of knowledge, and jurisdictional rights and interests.
Leadership is complex because:
- it is shared amongst people who have different responsibilities for different matters
- there are important age and gender dimensions
- it is hierarchical, based on accumulating valued knowledge and experience
- not all leaders are equally powerful—some are more influential than others.
Senior women often have significant authority within their own groups, providing valued social support, and having recognised expertise and knowledge in areas of restricted women’s ceremony. But their leadership may not always be as visible as men who often are the ones working on the governing bodies of incorporated organisations and interacting with external stakeholders.
The individual authority of leaders is based on their cultural knowledge and reputation, personal qualities, recognised expertise and their ability to look after others—not only their family and group, but also the land, its resources, and related systems of knowledge and law.
Strong relationships with family and close kin, and values of demand sharing and mutual responsibility are at the very heart and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership practices.
4.1.2 Networks of leaders
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership is networked leadership.
There are networks of leaders who are closely related to each other through shared responsibilities and interconnected roles. For example, today 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 are holders of restricted knowledge, and separate leaders for men’s and women’s ‘business’.
Today, there are also leaders of organisations. The traditional forms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership are not as easily recognisable to outsiders as the more ‘visible’ leaders in organisations.
Together, these leaders form the governing backbone of social groups. They activate their strong relationships in order to get things done.
This means that a network of influential people, not just one individual, makes up the leadership of a nation, community, extended family or clan group.
You can see these networks in formal and informal governance models across the country. They are also often drawn in dot and bark paintings.
4.1.3 Representation and accountability
Definition: To represent means to act as a recognised delegate or spokesperson for somebody else’s interests, wishes, rights or welfare.
Definition: To be accountable means to answer for your actions and take responsibility for your mistakes, to be responsible to another, to be able to explain what happened.
An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leader’s representation and accountability operates in multiple directions, across the layers of their networks.
There are strong culturally-based rules and values that stress the need for leaders to only speak on behalf of (i.e. to represent) the ‘right’ people (their own mob or land-owing group), about the ‘right’ issue (i.e. their own country and own business).
The strongest expectation then is that a leader should, first and foremost, ‘look after’ and be accountable to their own family and local group.
Leaders are also expected to go back to their fellow group members to discuss information, ideas and decisions with them. This means their legitimacy has to be continuously earned and proven through their actions and communication in that social arena.
Leaders should also act on the basis of consensus.
In resolving issues and making decisions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘leaders’ usually spend a lot of time hearing from everyone. It is considered important in maintaining harmonious relationships and allows people to share thoughts about the issue. The result is that decisions are often open to ongoing negotiation.
This is called consensus decision making.
“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),
‘Yarnin’ Up: Aboriginal People’s Careers in the NSW Public Sector’, NSW Government)
Before you start making changes to your leadership, it will help to identify the different layers involved in who you represent and are accountable to, and how well you are doing your job in those areas.
Indigenous leadership at the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre
Indigenous leaders and participants in the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre (AILC) talk about Indigenous leadership. The Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre (AILC) is the only provider of accredited Indigenous leadership training courses in Australia, offering leadership and Indigenous mentoring courses across the country. Founded in 2001, the AILC is a non-profit organisation predominately run by Indigenous people for all Australians.
4.1.4 Stepping up: your leadership values and qualities
A leader’s style—that is, the way they put their values, personal qualities, vision and sense of purpose into action—can make a difference to their own and other people’s performance and accomplishments.
It’s important to understand your own values and qualities as a leader, and to find out from the members of your community or nation how they might judge the success and legitimacy of your leadership.
Definition: Values are a set of beliefs, standards or qualities about what is right, good and appropriate. There are many different types of values—such as financial, social, spiritual, natural, moral or ethical—and they can vary greatly between cultures.
Before you start making changes to your leadership, it will help to identify the leadership values that you support and want to strengthen.
“Integrity, strength and fairness. Integrity is an important quality for leaders to have.
We need leaders we can respect and who are able to lead by example … A leader also needs to be strong. And they don’t just need to be strong talkers who are able to speak up and be heard …
You need to be strong enough to make decisions that may not make you very popular but are fair.
Which leads us into the last important quality of good leadership: the ability to be fair.
Leaders need to be willing to consider the needs of everyone and represent the views of everyone … I’m not saying that these qualities are the only qualities Indigenous leaders should possess, but I believe they are the basic ingredients of a good leader.”
(Nicole Kilgour, ‘The leadership challenge for young Indigenous women’,Indigenous Governance—Challenges, Opportunities and Outcomes seminar series, 6 July 2005)
Many qualities and skills have been identified by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as being important in their leaders.
These qualities and skills include:
- respect for culture
- self-awareness and confidence
- integrity and wisdom
- support for all your people
- clear communication and direction
- good mediation and negotiation skills
- enthusiasm and ability to inspire
- adaptability and humility
- a sense of humour.
Check-up: The qualities of effective Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders
This resource lists the qualities and skills that participants in the national Indigenous Governance Awards and the Indigenous Community Governance Project see as being important for strong leaders to have. What are the strengths of your leaders?