Mai i te ao tawhito ki te ao tūroa: Education leaders as cultural advocates

Professor Angus Macfarlane and Melissa Derby, University of Canterbury

A quick google search of ‘thoughts on leadership’ reveals a plethora of inspirational quotes and silver bullets on how to be an effective leader. Gems include “People follow the leader first and the leader’s vision second”, “A leader brings out the best within others by sharing the best within themselves”, and – a personal favourite – “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership”.

In Te Ao Māori (the Māori world and worldview), there is a rich history of noted leaders who have cemented their places in the broader context of New Zealand’s recent past – Sir Apirana Ngata, Dame Whina Cooper, Dr Maharaia Winiata, Dr Ranginui Walker, and Makereti Papakura to name but a few. These people were learned in genealogy, customs, history, te reo (language) and tikanga (values and practices), and were at ease in two worlds but always ratified their thoughts by drawing from their learnings in Te Ao Māori.

But what of today’s generations? Who are our leaders and how are they leading? And what would successful educational leadership that advocates for Māori student success look like?

The roles and responsibilities of education leaders

There is a copious amount of research on the critical role education leaders play in influencing the experiences and outcomes of learners, including Māori (for example, see here and here). We have high expectations of these education leaders – they are expected to develop learning communities, build the professional capabilities of teachers, engage in consultative decision-making, lever knowledge within a team, and resolve conflicts.

We expect our education leaders to project the ‘lifeworlds’ that exist in our requirement of them to operate within organisations – that is, we expect them to be cognisant of the experiences, activities, culture and contacts that make up the world of an individual. We also expect our education leaders to be capable of operating under a ‘systemsworld’ – in other words, a management system that aims to help schools effectively and efficiently achieve their goals and objectives. However, in reality, the ‘systemsworld’ may often present as a set of complex and uncertain conditions. The ideal, it is suggested, is that the lifeworlds and the systemsworld engage each other in a symbiotic relationship, with each strengthening the other in a mutually beneficial manner.

Education leaders are responsible for achieving success, and – perhaps most importantly – we expect these leaders to attend respectfully, immediately, and appropriately to the needs and requests of diverse cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In other words, we expect an education leader to be a cultural advocate who gives life to Sir Mason Durie’s simple yet lofty vision where Māori are able to:

“live as Māori; to participate as global citizens; and, to enjoy good health and a high standard of living”.

Simple, right?

A new ‘cultural advocate’ theory for education leadership

Like any good practice, there is an abundance of theory to assist today’s educational leaders in their numerous quests – a selection includes charismatic leadership theory, transformational leadership theory, visionary leadership theory, democratic-oriented leadership theory, and Indigenous leadership theory.

But what about a ‘cultural advocate’ leadership theory? How might turning such a theory into practice support transformation in our increasingly diverse classrooms and engage learners from different cultural backgrounds? How might practices like opening doorways to whānau (families), seeking synchronicity among staff, and engendering care in a learning community make a difference to the experiences and outcomes of Māori learners?

These questions are food for thought, but thought on its own is not enough – we have to act. With this in mind, there is a significant opportunity to consolidate the key messages of the aforementioned theories with the aim of a new theory and practice emerging – one that:

  • grows out of the past and functions in the present;
  • is responsive to Māori learners;
  • is cognisant of the lifeworlds in the learning environment while operating harmoniously in the systemsworld; and
  • has the ultimate goal of fostering success for Māori learners.

This blog post is a think piece that offers a new ‘cultural advocate’ leadership theory as a platform from which to commence the exploration into uncharted theoretical territory in search of answers to the questions posed above. The journey is in its early days but is guided by the contributions and actions of great leaders and navigators of Te Ao Māori who pioneered unknown terrains in search of greater outcomes and better places for Te Iwi Māori (Māori people).

The role of a ‘cultural advocate’ leadership theory is relatively unknown at this stage but, like any new exploration, it begins with a single step – the initial depiction of a leadership schema for cultural advocates (shown below). Hikairo schema.JPG

The next step, in the coming months, will involve further research towards the expansion of this existing theoretical model that is itself based on a Te Arawa leader, Hikairo, whose qualities, it is argued, grow out of the past but have the potential to be functional for leaders in the present.

A recurring question in education in Aotearoa is how to influence the improvement of the contexts in which Māori learn, and thus their potential opportunity to achieve. For education leaders, one important factor in this effort is striving to connect with culture so that there is meaningful awareness, understanding, and application of culturally responsive teaching and learning practices, and creating culturally acceptable links to the community.  How education leaders respond to this challenge, and whether they become effective cultural advocates, will seriously affect the extent to which disparities are reduced for Māori students and transformations in learning experiences and outcomes transpire.

Angus Macfarlane.jpgAngus Hikairo Macfarlane (Ngāti Whakaue) is Professor of Māori Research at the University of Canterbury and Director of Te Rū Rangahau: The Māori Research Laboratory. His research focuses on exploring Indigenous and sociocultural imperatives that influence education and psychology. Avid about Māori advancement, he has pioneered several theoretical frameworks associated with culturally-responsive approaches for professionals working in these disciplines. In 2010, he was awarded the Te Tohu Pae Tawhiti award by the New Zealand Association for Research in Education, acknowledging Angus’s significant contribution to Māori education by conducting high quality research over a sustained period of time.

Melissa Derby.pngMelissa Derby (Ngāti Ranginui) is a researcher at Te Rū Rangahau: The Māori Research Laboratory. She is a University of Canterbury doctoral scholar whose thesis will contribute to the Literacy strand of A Better Start: E Tipu e Rea National Science Challenge. Melissa has a Bachelor of Arts from Victoria University of Wellington, a Master of Arts (First Class Honours) in Māori Development from AUT, and a Graduate Certificate in Indigenous Studies from Columbia University in New York.



  1. maybe some of the reasoning for our whanau emigrating is sot they don’t have guilt about leaving their culture . we have been blindsided into living a life that has destroyed much of what our culture held dear to us . the world is being corrupted and nobody has found the perfect solution . time to chill and learn from our tupuna .TOITU TE WHENUA TOITU TE TANGATA


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