Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Leadership and Aboriginal Reconciliation

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Leadership and Aboriginal Reconciliation

Article excerpt

The call for Australian politicians to demonstrate "leadership" on the issue of indigenous (1) reconciliation has been a standard critique over the past decade--particularly from those on the left of the political spectrum. Yet what might leadership mean in this context? Would it mean providing more funding for Aboriginal health, education and housing? Would it be devising an effective strategy for reconciliation? Would it involve providing the vision of a reconciled Australia, a goal towards which the nation can move?

One theory of leadership, initiated by Ronald Heifetz (1994), suggests that leadership entails not persuasion or vision-setting, but mobilizing people to deal with difficult problems on their own terms. Heifetz calls this process "adaptive work". He emphasizes that leadership is an activity, not an outcome. Instead of imposing answers, leadership involves making people take ownership of a problem, and devise a solution themselves.

This paper argues that adaptive leadership offers valuable insights to help understand Aboriginal reconciliation in Australia. The adaptive work of reconciliation is not the responsibility of elected politicians and senior members of the Aboriginal community--although these people may help. More controversially, it contends that the core work of reconciliation is not improving the standard of living of Aboriginal people, but changing the attitudes of white Australia. (2) Remedying the appalling disparities in health and education may prove an important precondition for reconciliation, and may also be an outcome of the reconciliation process. But it should not be mistaken for the adaptive work of reconciliation, which involves forging stronger interpersonal relations and creating a better sense of understanding between black and white Australians.

The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. Section I outlines the theory of adaptive leadership. Section 2 provides a brief history of reconciliation. Section 3 addresses what adaptive leadership might mean in the context of reconciliation. Section 4 concludes.

1. The Theory of Adaptive Leadership

The past two decades have seen an explosion of books on the topic of leadership, yet surprisingly little discussion about what constitutes leadership. According to Rost (1991), around two-thirds of the books published on leadership in the 1980s had no definition of leadership whatsoever--either on the basis that leadership was so important that it did not need to be stated, or that leadership was impossible to define.

Of those scholars who have sought to define leadership, most have focused on the notions of leadership as influence, leadership as management, and leadership as achieving the goals of an organization. Typical definitions of leadership include the following:

* "Leadership is the behaviour of an individual when he is directing the activities of a group toward a shared goal." (Hemphill & Coons 1957, 7)

* "Leadership is the process of influencing the activities of an organized group toward goal achievement" (Rauch & Behling 1984, 46)

* "Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes" (Rost 1991, 102)

* "The leader is one who mobilizes others to a goal shared by leader and followers ... [Leadership is] mobilization toward a common good" (Wills 1994)

* "A leader is an individual (or, rarely, a set of individuals) who significantly affects the thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviours of a significant number." (Gardner 1995)

Common debates in the leadership literature are whether management and leadership ought to be distinguished, how leaders influence followers, and what traits are required to be a leader. Heifetz, however, offers a completely different paradigm. In his view, leadership-as-influence "implicitly promotes influence as an orienting value, perpetuating a confusion between means and ends" (1994, 18). …

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