Listen to them leadership

Jigalong, a remote Aboriginal community in the Eastern Pilbara

I’m afraid my leadership will disappoint you. At least, if I am being effective, it should. 

I am a doctor, working mainly in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. So you can now assume some things about me: I studied for a long time and got better than average marks. I have an impressive set of letters after my name. I am pretty busy, not short of work, and not struggling for money. 

I may also be your only point of contact for hearing about what is happening in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. 

It’s a potent brew. 

But how much insight can I give you into how to solve some of the problems relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs? 

Well, that’s where I have to disappoint you. 

I can’t give you answers. It’s not that I don’t have opinions, or that I don’t have an inkling of what works or what doesn’t work. It’s that you’re asking the wrong person. But I know the best thing I can do to lead in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health is to say “Well, you need to listen to them.” 

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people I know are very good at leadership. They run over 150 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services across Australia and get excellent results in a group we keep saying is ‘difficult’ and ‘hard to reach’. They have deep knowledge about the sorts of things that will work in their communities. They have for a long time. It’s just that for over 200 years now the rest of us haven’t bothered asking. 

The problem is a lack of cultural awareness. But not necessarily a lack of awareness of Aboriginal culture. We need to be aware of our own cultures, the unexamined set of attitudes and languages that we all bring with us. Otherwise we can fall in to the trap of just thinking what 'we' do is reality, and what 'they' do needs to be changed. 

Working across cultures in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health has made me more aware of my own cultures—English, Yorkshire, Methodist, Medical, Middle class, White. Knowing that these all bring cultural ways of thinking means I can examine them to see where they help, and where they hinder, and I can choose to try another way. 

I love to base medical decisions and policy decisions on the best available evidence of what works. That’s marvellous but it also demonstrates a cultural belief that decisions are transferrable, that what works in one place will work elsewhere. But this may not be true in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. 

Non-Indigenous Australia is obsessed with problem-solving. We are 'outcomes focussed.' We see this in politicians’ desire to come up with solutions—it’s what we pay them to do. That’s not a bad thing. We do want solutions. But we are not culturally geared to sitting in silence, listening, taking time, allowing others to make decisions for themselves. We’ve tried for over 200 years to go in and make decisions for people, to do things to people, and it hasn’t worked yet. 

It’s time for another approach.

That’s not to say that 'Listen to them leadership' means stepping back from doing anything—that would be neglecting our responsibility. It means recognising the power we have, and sharing it around. It means allowing and supporting people to make decisions for themselves, even if we have other ideas we prefer. It means using our own authority to bring along people who would listen to us, but not to those we work with. And it means taking some of the heat when those we are working with are criticised.

I am fortunate to work in health, which has made significant strides in the way black and white Australia can lead together. Health employs the largest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the country. We have over 150 Community Controlled Health Services, owned and run co-operatively by local Aboriginal communities. We have the National Health Leadership Forum of the Close the Gap Steering Committee, and the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. There is still plenty of work to be done, but the patterns of shared leadership are established. 

People working in other sectors may find it harder to practice something as strange as 'Listen to them Leadership.'

As I write this, I noticed that as I’ve described the way I work in this field, I have fallen into the trap of describing problems and difficulties. Leadership can be hard. But, in this space, it is also rewarding, fulfilling and fun. So, even as I tell you that my leadership will disappoint you, the satisfaction of what can be achieved together will not be disappointing. There’s work to be done. Go and do it together. 

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Leading Together - Not another Indigenous leadership program

NEW PROGRAM starting May 2014! 

In 2014 Social Leadership Australia has created a new initiative to build the capability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australian leaders to work together. Applications for Leading Together close on 4 April 2014.