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Leadership | Indigenous

Ancestral Leadership: Place-based intergenerational leadership copy

Honouring and engaging our ancestors and is part of the human condition. Different cultures do it in a variety of ways, but we are all familiar with the idea of someone talking to a tombstone or a photo of a loved one while they organize their thoughts, formulate a plan, or seek guidance from the deceased. Often, these acts of reverence are only tangentially related to place, in that it is done in the physical location of a cemetery or before a shrine.

In Aotearoa-New Zealand, Māori Indigenous people’s ties to their ancestors are deeply related to place, and nurtured through the continuous relationship between ancestors and descendants – a relationship which transcends space and time.

How are human ties to place carried across generations and sustained through the continuous relationship between ancestors and their descendants? The overlapping of ancestors’ and descendants’ voices reveals a story of both continuity and change within each new generation. At the heart of this ancient dynamic is a complex environment where tradition and heritage interact with innovation and opportunity, with the implications of the participant’s actions rippling into the future.

This centuries-long engagement is possible due to oral traditions that Māori have maintained over time, alongside the adoption of written record-keeping. The perpetual sharing of oral histories retains legacies and brings ancestors and their values to life as part of a philosophy of the eternal present for future generations.

Leadership knowledge is thus passed down through thousands of years of “deep ancestry” through a long-standing connection to place. For Māori, knowledge of and from place emerges through kinship ties. These ties come to life through the power of storied places. This epistemological relationship allows Māori to have access to ancient knowledge due to the diverse ways that places hold knowledge.

For Māori, place carries mauri, or the spirit or life force of a community. This is often embodied in wharenui (communal houses), which are often seen as ancestors and sacred beings in and of themselves. The design of wharenui includes artworks and photographs that represent ancestors and are thus imbued with sacred power, which allows their stories to continue through the material experience of understanding a place by being in it. These artifacts act as conduits through which descendants interact with their ancestors to remind themselves of their lineage from both the human and cosmological perspective.

This has interesting relevance to the business world. For example, these legacies of leadership permeate contemporary realities for Māori today. Ancestral leadership provides templates for action grounded in ancient wisdom, and the traces of leadership call upon the past to inform both present, and future generations.

In one example, a Māori business leader recalls learning from her aunties who she thought were tough on her at the time, but in hindsight, she honours their wisdom in preparing her for a male-dominated corporate world. She is part of a continuous system of leadership that honours womens’ contributions. Her role is to learn from those that came before her, and enact that leadership daily so that she can pass that knowledge to the next generation.

The notion of ancestral leadership applies not only to literal kinship and blood ties, but points to lineages as structures of knowledge transmission that allow leadership to pass through generations from ancestors to descendants.