The powerful truth about Māori leadership

Last week, we had the pleasure of co-hosting a digital discussion on the power of Maori leadership together with BOMA Global. As we celebrate Te Wiki O Te Reo Maori this week, we’re diving deep on the mana that underpins Te Reo: that is Te Ao Maori

So what is Te Ao Maori and how can we understand, embrace, harness ourselves and transform communities with it? Sacha McMeeking, along with Kaila Colbin, unpack just that in this insightful discussion — using the compelling and prosperous example of the Maori Response Network in Aotearoa’s Covid response to illustrate. 


Covid lockdowns = the role model for strength-based change

2020 was cited as the year that Maori were reported to have better social outcomes than non-Maori, bucking every trend we’re all too familiar with. In terms of direct effect of the outbreak, Maori — a group that was at risk of only a devastating possibility of being likely to experience health impacts — accounted for 8% of the infection rate, which is half that of the rest of the population. 

Why? Sacha McMeeking shares that it’s to do with going beyond the mainstream.

“Mainstream responses don’t generate those outcomes. They tend to generate varying degrees of inequitable outcomes. We need to look at what else was going on.”

In the case of the Maori Response Network, this included promulgating cultural adaptation mechanisms and communication strategies that wouldn’t otherwise reach groups by government communication, in language and in ways that specifically resonates with communities. Responses that were agile, resourceful, looked at a holistic set of dimensions in the response. It involved connecting into resource channels that weren’t otherwise accessible (such as hauora concepts or iwi) and leveraging the resources of their own networks. Distributing resources that reach communities that would otherwise not have been reached. 

“The Maori Response Network had a dual legitimacy: in that they had strong and trusting relationships within the Maori community, as well as appropriate accreditation, to provide some of these services on behalf of the government as well.”

As to what powered the response network? Sacha says that the drivers to act were “foremost a sense of necessity and fear. Because we’ve had these experiences of inequity.” She says it was met by a sense of aroha and responsibility — both drivers that have a “wider applicability to how we think about social transformation.” This meant that the people involved were there because of their broader human capabilities, not the job titles. “People who have the relationships, trust, unique abilities wherever they might have been gathered and developed from, to do what needed to be done.”


The importance of trust-based leadership

“We know within our own spheres about how important trust is to enable any transformation to occur,”
says Sacha. So, we need to work that into the equation when it comes to policy and frameworks. Doing things with the community to serve the community is at the heart of that — and this approach can be replicated in our organisations. 

Manaakitanga, the deep knowledge of the community, is cited as a principle that underpins the effectiveness of the Maori Response Network and the power of trust-based leadership. Because of manaakitanga, the response had the “unique ability to know the community deeply about the needs within the community, about the mechanisms to reach the community, and a really important practical sense to know the people who could serve the community, and the way that the community needed.”


What insights can we take from Te Ao Maori to make better decisions for our community? 

“I think the Maori Response Network has got insights for how we think about social transformation, and New Zealand,”
says Sacha McMeeking. We know what we want in terms of outcome, but we struggle with how exactly to achieve that change. Sacha suggests we take this leadership in our stride, and challenge three of our dominant approaches to how we create social change. These are:

  • Adding to our advocacy:
    We need to start seeing advocacy as something that has an implementation partner. Our nation has a long and proud history of advocacy for many things: women’s rights, union, maori. We’re comfortable with the concept as a mechanism to lead to normative and then regulatory change. However, it still often leads to a performance gap between “the things that we aspire to, and the realities that we experience inside communities.
  • The prevailing straight line, causal approach between problem and solution:
    Programmatic and ‘done-to, done-for’ solutions don’t change the deeply embedded inequities in our societies. We have to look to trusting responsibility and aroha as a driver for durable social change.
  • How much we trust and assume the validity of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
    The Maori Response Network shows that an inversion of the needs has great results.  It shows that aroha and responsibility to communities needs to be the starting point in order to deliver on those physiological and security needs within communities. 


The power of women


Also acknowledged in Sacha’s reflections on how te ao Maori made the Maori Response Network strong, is the important role of women. While men might be at the front of advocacy or leadership, we’re seeing that Maori women are the engines and the drivers of the social transformation that we are seeing within our communities: they’re the ones “designing and activating those solutions.”

While some might point to the fact that women aren’t traditionally allowed to speak at maraes, Sacha has this pearl of wisdom for the matter: and that’s that there’s a distinction between difference and disadvantage. Gender roles in these protocols don’t necessarily silence voices inside communities: wahine maori have the first voice, “the controlling voice if tane talk too long—we just stand up and sing,” and once those protocols have opened up the spaces for dialogue, the voices are equal and able to be passionately discussing matters that matter to the community. 

“I think outside of Maori communities, we have lots of examples where there is ‘difference’ that doesn’t amount to disadvantage. The more carefully we can think about difference vs disadvantage, the more clearly we can move forward together.

“The trigger of responsibility is embedded and that if they’ve got mana wahine leadership, I think.“ Sacha’s McMeekin.  



About the speakers: 

Sacha McMeeking
(Ngāi Tahu) brings a serial entrepreneur’s approach to working with and for Iwi Māori. From instigating United Nations proceedings to architecting a Māori social enterprise fund and leading commercial negotiations, she is known for solution-building that meets Iwi Māori aspirations.

Sacha is co-founder of Tū Māia, co-director of Māori Futures Academy (Tokona Te Raki), co-director and partner of Maui Lab, and head of Aotahi — University of Canterbury’s School of Māori and Indigenous Studies where she leads research, lecturing and publishing in the areas of indigenous development.

Recognised as an emerging New Zealand leader, Sacha won the inaugural Fulbright Harkness Fellowship in 2010. She is a change agent who believes in our collective ability to create, shape and build the futures we aspire to, and a desire to support and grow the next generation of Māori scholars.

Kaila Colbin is a co-founder of Boma Global, CEO of Boma New Zealand and a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator. She is a renowned and sought after international public speaker, having presented to more than 20,000 people about the exponential technological trends coming our way and how we can be more intentional and intelligent about the future we’re creating.