ILA Oceania 2013: Complexity, Relationships, and Ethics
The inaugural International Leadership Association Oceania conference began with a Maori waka tour. We intimately experienced the four seasons over five hours, enduring both scorching heat and icy rain as the waka coiled their way around Waitemata Harbour.
Over the next two days, we continued to sail headlong into a lively showcase of presentations, plenaries, and workshops on the theme of building the research and development of leadership. We were immersed in knowledge, practice, and culture; and I returned to Melbourne carrying three indelible messages of complexity, relationships, and ethics.
A common thread running throughout several presentations at the conference was the idea that the context of leadership is increasingly complex. The definition of leadership as a single individual who holds the answers is no longer sufficient to explain practice. In an environment seemingly suffused with wicked problems, we need to recognise that leadership is fluid, emergent, contested, and often distributed. However, many speakers cautioned against the seduction of distributed leadership, and argued instead to recognise that distributed forms of leadership exist alongside popular tales of the heroic individual.
The value of relationships was deeply impressed upon me during my fleeting encounter with Maori culture. At our welcoming ceremony, the powhiri, we were marked as fellow members of the land with the hongi, a gesture of pressing our forehead and nose with each of our hosts at the New Zealand Leadership Institute. Leaders also need to demonstrate an inclusive community and forge connections with others as it is through interaction that leadership is co-created. Leaders can only exist if others choose to follow them.
Finally, we were challenged to place ethics at the forefront of our discussions during the conference. The business of leadership development has become a cyclical process where leaders find respite from their daily battles, get mended and medicated, then sent back out to the frontlines to wage war. But what are they fighting for? The discourse of profit, power, and supremacy permeates business education, resulting in students who have been socialised to stigmatise morality as a threat to the bottom line. This trend needs to be subverted with a new communitarian discourse that emphasises interconnection, care, and the well-being of the collective.
I’ll end my post with a Maori quote shared with me during the conference: “the bird that eats the miro berry, his is the forest; the bird that eats of knowledge, his is the world”. Thank you to NZLI and ILA for bringing together a community of practitioners and scholars with whom we could illuminate the complex terrain of leadership and the ever more complex processes of leading.