Questions of leadership – Australia Hui

Leadership Network member James Burford reflects on the network's recent Australia Hui, which brought together network members living in Australia to reconnect with the network and discuss questions of leadership.
Leadership Network members chatting around a table

Fourteen network members living in Australia took part in the hui

Beginnings matter. They teach us about expectations and possibilities.

The Australia hui began with reflection on the soil beneath our feet. We started by recognising that we were assembled on the lands of the Wurundjeri people who have been custodians of this place for thousands of years, and we paid our respects to their elders past, present, and emerging.

This ritual demonstrates that meeting zones require thoughtfulness and acknowledgment. It is a reminder that we are particular people who are meeting in a particular place. It presented an invitation to reflect on the deep accountabilities we have to one another.

Following this beginning, it was our chance to build connections among us.

Seated around a semi-circle were 14 other members of the leadership network based in Australia, as well as our hosts Adam and Adele.

We began to tell stories about who we are, why we joined the Leadership Network, and to trace what our connections to Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and the nations of Asia might be.

As each person spoke it was as if a thin web of connections began to form in front of us.

There were family stories, career stories, educational stories, travel stories, love stories.

There were mutual interests in contexts or industries, or core philosophies that seemed to underpin who we are and what we do.

There were intentions to stay in Australia, intentions to go, and intentions to see what happens.

There was also levity. As each person stood up to introduce themselves, they also offered their pick for bird of the year. So, added to this web of connection was a fondness for: tui or lyrebirds or penguins or peacocks. Fittingly, to close the activity we sang in unison.

Next, we got started on the formal program. The goals of the hui were to deepen our connections with each other, to build on our knowledge and awareness of Asia, and grow our confidence as leaders in our various fields.

After lunch, we listened to a panel of presenters: Dr. Bryce Wakefield (National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs), Adele Mason (Deputy Director Asia New Zealand Foundation) and Melissa Conley Tyler (Director Diplomacy Asialink).

The topics covered in this panel ranged from broad geopolitical questions that frame debates in the region, to personal stories of professional development and leadership.

The questions that have lingered with me were ones of perception: how do various publics view their regional neighbours?

Assurances that Australia and Aotearoa have de facto ‘good neighbour’ status were rightly interrogated.

I came away thinking about how the idea of ‘Australia’ or ‘New Zealand’ travel in the Asian region, and what we (as individuals, and perhaps members of institutions) can do to subvert stereotypes and show up as good neighbours.

In our final formal session we explored meanings of leadership, and how these meanings might be distributed across cultural contexts.

In some ways this tested the limits of possibility with regard to categorising leadership.

Can we say a particular region, or country context is characterised by particular leadership archetypes? How do we account for the diversity that exists within countries and world regions? What do we do with the fact that leadership practices are often debated and contested within a given country?

There seemed to be so many words that leadership could be associated with. And yet many of these words seemed to be sites of common ground: for example, kindness, or courage or generosity.

Perhaps the message here is that if we look we can find examples of inspiring leadership in every context.  

Of course, the thoughts I’ve scribbled down can’t do justice to the fullness of our time together. Let me end by expressing gratitude to all the organisers and participants in the hui – thank you for the opportunity to learn, tell stories and for taking the risk of thinking together.