He aha te kai a te rangatira? He korerō, he korerō, he korerō.
What is the food of leaders? It is communication. – Māori proverb
Growing up, I had the usual dreams and even aspirations of becoming an All Black – despite my lack of size, speed and rugby skill. None of those constraints prevented me from imagining All Black glory when I learnt my first haka as a ten-year-old. I still get goosebumps whenever it’s performed, as I expect do many tourists and rugby followers around the world who know this fierce ceremonial dance as an iconic part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Māori culture.
The haka is both a unique call to action and a powerful celebration of Māori identity and history. It was because of its importance that I found it confronting several years ago leading a University of Auckland faculty whose own history, specifically with the haka and with Māori more generally, was all too often fraught. Decades earlier, as part of graduation celebrations, engineering students would perform haka that over the years increasingly mocked its heritage and significance in both Māori culture and New Zealand society.
These tensions escalated, resulting in a clash between these students and local Māori, which was uncomfortable and confronting at the time. The offensive haka parodies stopped, but the underlying lack of respect was left unresolved.
Like many unresolved issues it generated constant, ongoing tension, which subtly but relentlessly undermined both an important partnership and the faculty’s aspiration to be a place of respect and inclusion. What had started off with direct conflict had transitioned over 40 years into a less confronting but arguably more insidious combination of understandable resentment on the part of Māori and at best unexpressed guilt and at worst apathetic lip service on the part of Pākehā and others.
The day it dawned on me
My frustration about this uneasy truce came to a head one afternoon at a university function celebrating diversity. The main speaker was a Māori member of staff. She was compellingly describing the opportunity we had to create a genuine partnership and enhance our sense of uniqueness, belonging and community in ways that very much transcended any of the many strategic plans the university had produced.
As I listened, I noticed an eminent professor next to me gazing out the window with an expression of polite indifference. He gave the impression of merely waiting for formalities to end so he could leave with his guilt assuaged, having supported the function simply by attending. As I considered this my frustration escalated to anger: here was a white, middle-aged male who to all appearances was simply embodying lip service – playing a proverbial dead-bat not only to the challenge but also to the opportunity.
Then it occurred to me: could I be certain what my colleague was really thinking? And “playing a dead bat” – why had this metaphor sprung to my mind? I had no idea if this man had grown up playing cricket on manicured lawns surrounded by peers dressed in white.
The reason I thought of that metaphor was that cricket was my childhood activity (notwithstanding dreams of All Black glory). The uncomfortable fact was that there was not one but two white, middle-aged men standing next to each other at the function. To all observers I suspect we looked very similar.
I realised then that it was not enough just to ensure that experts had the support and resources they needed to step into the void created when (typically much less expert) leaders such as myself stepped back. Resourcing and support had to be accompanied by my own acknowledgement and celebration of the opportunity to be a student of what these colleagues had to say.
Why humility and courage are needed
The academic culture (and sometimes society at large) lauds and rewards expertise. However, this sometimes deters people from demonstrating ignorance or incompetence even if these states are necessary staging points of a learning process. As people acquire status and acknowledgement in one field, it often only increases the perceived risk of losing face by publicly participating, and possibly failing, when trying something completely different.
Once one has been cast as an expert and a leader, it can be difficult in our academic culture to adopt the humble posture of the pupil. It takes courage. Yet this humility is essential if we are ever to learn and change.
As I stood at that function, I realised this lack of courage had been my chief failing. By standing quietly in the background, despite my good intentions, I had done nothing to lower the risk for other staff to engage and make mistakes – key steps in their own development. I resolved to change how I did things.
From that point on I did engage – and I made plenty of mistakes. I asked ignorant questions that still make me blush. I stumbled over welcomes in te reo Māori – Māori language. I messed up protocols. I mispronounced names. I displayed my ignorance left and right.
But in time, and with the support of patient, generous and incredibly understanding expert colleagues, I learned. And, much more importantly, I saw others join me on that learning path.
Ultimately, that group of others became big enough for us to create and perform our own haka. This haka, with more expert help, was able to respectfully acknowledge our difficult history but also reclaim our right to move boldly into the future.
While that ten-year-old never became an All Black, he did get the opportunity – complete with goosebumps – to perform that haka to Māori leaders who were involved in that conflict 40 years earlier. I was surrounded by colleagues, many of whom had become my friends, students, many of whom had become my teachers, and that same eminent professor, who was certainly no longer gazing out the window. Those three minutes remain a highlight in my time as a university leader.