Power and culture are stirring

Project Big Bang - The Epics of Yin and Yang #3 by Lightmash CC BY NC SA 2.0

It's time for a game-changer in how black and white Australians relate.


Over the last few years, in our work at Social Leadership Australia, we’ve noticed something different happening whenever we have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians in the room.

Regardless of the sector—government, business or community—at some point in most groups  of leaders, we start talking about how we work across culture. The discomfort in the room is always palpable. People fidget, shuffle, look at their shoes, change the subject, or make general platitudes and speeches… then we move on.

We get so far, but time and again, when we start to touch the edges of our different opinions or views, we back away. We get close to the edge. We begin to say the things we haven’t been able to say before. We think about listening to each other in a new way that’s braver and ‘bigger’.  And then we retreat back to what we know—to the place where we feel comfortable.

But the comfort zone is not a place where change happens.

At Social Leadership Australia, we see the difficulties black and white Australia have in talking and leading together as core to our challenge to reconcile, as a country.

We’ve made a lot of progress. But we aren’t going to get any further if we see the solutions lying in money, in policy or projects.

Nor is it a problem of motivation, or will, or commitment to change.  It’s a problem of skills—skills that aren’t taught, skills that we didn’t even realise we needed. And the time to work on it is now.

It’s time to build our muscle—our skills—in working across difference.

One of our partners, Reconciliation Australia, agrees. As their CEO, Leah Armstrong, said, “We believe this is a critical step towards achieving equity in partnerships and collaboration between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians,” she said. “It’s a game-changer in terms of developing real confidence that both sides are bringing real value to a partnership.”

Social Leadership Australia has taken the step of creating a new initiative for black and white people to learn the skills they need to lead change together. Called Leading Together, and designed for a small group of people working in Aboriginal affairs, this is the first ever attempt to directly address this core leadership skill of working across culture.

Reconciliation Australia has joined us as a key partner. As CEO, Leah Armstrong said, “we believe Leading Together is more than a leadership program but rather an opportunity to develop true and equitable engagement opportunities; two-way engagement where both sides benefit and both sides learn.”

We have found people’s response this idea is mainly relief—relief to recognise that this is about a need to take on new skills and capability.

It’s not that we’re not smart enough, it’s not that we don’t have good intentions, it’s not that we’re ignorant, or racist; we just haven’t got the skills. 

Think about it as a relationship. If a marriage isn’t working, you don’t throw money at it, or new measures like policy changes, you work on the relationship. Black and white Australians need new skills in how they relate. It’s the essential component in any successful partnership or collaboration.

And because it’s a skill—like all aspects of leadership—it can be learned. The skills to lead are not innate. They have to be developed. But not in theory, it has to be in practice. It has to be hands-on, and we have to allow enough ‘room’ for it to happen—enough time, the right space and the opportunity to work on it, to experiment, to fail and to come up with something different.

As we announce this new initiative, we also want to sound a note of caution. Because the reason this skill—the skill to lead together, across our cultural differences—hasn’t been taught so far is because it’s hard work. It's important to recognise that we need to be able to experiment, fail and learn, constantly and together.

But we see there’s a ‘ripeness’, a readiness to take the next step on from cultural awareness. The conversations we are having now with people who are working at the forefront to create social equity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a new level of frankness and honesty. Power and culture are stirring. There is a readiness now perhaps that we haven’t had before.

So let’s come together, have the courage to see ourselves as leaders, from across both cultures, and start to talk and walk together in a new way.

As Leah Armstrong says, “New times mean new opportunities and new tools for collaboration.”



PostscriptLost ConversationsFinding new ways for black and white Australians to lead together, the new book by nine authors with experience working in the Indigenous cross-cultural space, has now been published and is available for download FREE. Find out more here.