This text has been circling in a holding pattern for almost the whole time of the COVID-19 crisis. In those months there have been so much that makes me think—yes, this is why: political leaders showing what they really think about the people they purport to lead, the emergence of conspiracy theories relating to the virus, the blowing up of Juukun Gorge. And, on the other hand, the powerful surge of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Actions and events like these show how the institutions and organisations in which people have traditionally emerged as leaders, making decisions that affect others, are breaking our trust and breaking down. Right when we are facing so much instability and uncertainty and opportunity for good social change, these institutions, organisations and leadership practices are showing their inadequacy and, often, how they are part of the problem.
This writing emerges from a discussion with Dr Michelle Evans back in March, right at the beginning of the lock down in the state of Victoria, Australia. I got in touch with Michelle because I wanted to hear more from her about her research into the concept and practices of leadership in Indigenous collectives, communities, and businesses.
The reason I wanted to speak with her was because of my long-standing interest in how we make decisions in situations of uncertainty.
Seeking out more information is often cited as the remedy for uncertainty. In many cases it is. More data, good analysis and the impartial advice of experts does reduce uncertainty. We know more about how things are or how they are likely to be in the future we are imagining, and so we are better able to make a decision that will play out well for us and the people, places or things that matter to us.
But sometimes the question of what matters to us is contested, or it should be. So is the question of us. Both make a difference to the types of futures we imagine and what counts as the knowledge and skills to get there.
Michelle’s work shows me something of how we, each of us, might get beyond what she calls “the edges of our knowledge” and all the assumptions that go with that about what is true and right.
Framing it in another way: how can we still steer deliberately and intelligently towards a desirable future, even when we may not be able to even describe or quantify the benefits it will bring?
Michelle observed that “the Indigenous leaders I’ve spoken to have talked about how their identity—grounded in a collective experience of history as well as specific cultural knowledges—shapes how they do the work of leadership in their communities, businesses and workplaces.”
She argues that a person whose identity is formed in cultures that emphasise collective wellbeing do the work of leadership with a strong eye for “who and what we’re doing the work for.” Leadership—the work of leadership—shaped in this way, is work where consequences are real and accountability is strong.
This phrase “the work of leadership” has popped up a few times in my reading lately, notably, in an essay by Sana Nakata and Sarah Maddison for Griffith Review 67. It runs against the grain of how it is often conceived: often a gift of unacknowledged privilege, or treated as the reward for merit, narrowly understood. Where it is conceived as an ongoing and deliberate effort, it is about getting the best ‘performance’ from workers or other kinds of extraction.
Rio Tinto recently gave us a nice demonstration of how these concepts of leadership came apart in their organisation when it decided to destroy Juukan Gorge in the Hammersley Ranges, despite the wishes of its owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. The criticism from their own board and staff and wider condemnation showed how badly the CEO misjudged who and what he was accountable to and the meaning of the 30-year relationship it claimed to have with the Traditional Owners.
Ways of doing that work
Over the decades, management has sought to become more ‘scientific’, and, of course, we see more recently how data and analytical tools like artificial intelligence are being promoted as a way to ‘decide’ what to do. Concepts like alignment and integration imagine the organisation as a machine.
In this frame, decisions about what to do are treated as objective, ethically neutral and a practical matter, arguable on technical grounds but not seriously questionable without the risk of appearing to be irrational or sentimental.
The CEO of Rio Tinto was unlucky. He was running true to the model of leadership promoted by modern management theory when, with no regrets, he blew up Juukan Gorge.
Perhaps we will look back on it as a decisive turning point. Up till now it has always taken courage to do what Indigenous leaders have been doing, which is to “use their social and cultural identities to resist the power structures that privilege the beliefs and behaviours of the ‘boss’ and label other ways as ‘subjective’,” as Michelle says.
People use this word pejoratively, but only because of a radical misunderstanding about the nature of knowledge, which just is subjective—a person, a subject, knows something. Michelle points out how Indigenous ways of knowing have not lost sight of the fact that they are embodied, shared in meaningful discourse, and vital in the life of a people.
So, what we need to understand about leadership is that it is always grounded in a specific outlook and can always be contested. In fact, it ought to be. A leader with beliefs that must not be contested is a danger to us all.
As Michelle remarked, “it’s not about more people getting a turn at being the boss. It’s about how we can get away from transactional, pseudo-objective approaches and create generative spaces from which a future can emerge.”
Where the work happens
We all need money to live, so having it, and how we make it, goes to the heart of issues of justice, equality and being able to make decisions about your own life and what matters to you. These are political and ethical issues.
In researching examples of what Indigenous leaders are doing in business, and co-founding the MURRA Indigenous Business Program, Michelle is also doing powerfully political work.
One of the things I really like about Michelle’s approach is that this is not about giving us a model of leadership that you can ‘apply’ in your organisation. The work of leadership never goes away. There are no shortcuts. For Indigenous business people, already aware of the work that is needed to take the lead in a business environment, her research gives examples that it can be done and how it might be done.
For large organisations, it demonstrates that it is worthwhile to sit down at the table with Indigenous people in good faith, rather than negotiate for what you know you have the power to get anyway. More than that, it shows that it is smart to sit down at the table with an open attitude to what might come of it and how you might get there.
Sometimes the future is not clear, but everything is telling us that we cannot go on this way. The uncertainty we face now is an opportunity to “get beyond the edges of our own knowledge”, as Michelle said. The work of leadership she describes offers a way to get beyond those boundaries, with collective action, so that we create something new, whether that is in a political space, in a process of research and development, in art, or in ways of doing business together.
My sincere thanks to Michelle for the generosity of her time and thought with so much changing around us all.