Indigenous culture relies on knowledge sharing. We need new leaders to reflect that

In Uncategorised by IndigenousX

Author: Carla McGrath

Originally posted on The Guardian on Monday 19 October 2015 12.38 AEDT.

Indigenous culture relies on knowledge sharing. We need new leaders to reflect that

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A field of poppies is harder to cut down than a single tall one. @IndigenousX host Carla McGrath reflects on planting the seeds for a new generation of collaborative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership
  • The friction between individualism and collectivism is a contributor to the culture of shame that can pervade Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and negatively impact our young people. The term “shame”, as we use it, extends beyond the general definition to a feeling of humiliation at receiving attention or being singled out. Fear of standing up in case others cut you down.

    The use of shame in the context of an individualistic society is something akin to tall poppy syndrome.

    A few years ago I was fortunate to be invited by Philanthropy Australia to present on social investment in the Indigenous youth sector. I presented alongside two other younger Aboriginal people, both friends, Adam Ridgeway and Tim Goodwin.

    It was a special experience. We shared our work and our personal journeys. We connected with each other as speakers and friends, and we shared this with the audience.

    During the event, an audience member asked about shame. I’ve been told in years since, that my response resonated with a number of people in the room.

    I talked about the comparison between shame and tall poppy syndrome. How shame can be a barrier. How we need to cultivate support around our next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, our young people, to stand up and play their important role in guiding our future.


I recollect being in school and being given an exercise that required you to match images to well-known sayings. One image was of a light bulb with lines radiating from it to indicate it had been turned on, with a number of hands stretched up towards it.

Many hands make light work.

Collaboration has long been a feature of human behaviour. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, collaborative and collective governance and decision-making has been at the heart of our societal structures since the beginning.

However, for a number of years our ways of doing and being, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, have been influenced by quite the opposite. Competition, individualism and, at times, egomania have dominated the hierarchical structures of our institutions, organisations and governments, and sometimes even our relationships with each other.

Positions of influence are based on individual success; what qualifications someone has, how many letters they have after their name and what other positions of influence they hold. Individualism and competition have become a distinct feature of, and even requirement for, success in many societies. This has created an obsession with knowing all and being the individual keepers of that knowledge in order to attain personal success.

This behaviour drives a wedge between us. It hinders us seeking information and advice from each other, blocks us leveraging our collective expertise and prevents us from learning from one another. It diminishes our personal and collective capacity to develop and advance.

For us, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it threatens to damage the longest chain of unbroken human history on this planet.

I likened the work Adam, Tim and I do in our respective fields of expertise to growing a field of poppies.

Many, many of us are working collaboratively to provide opportunities to foster the growth of our young people. Young people who work together and are supported by each other. Connected generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who respect and see strength and value in their diversity of perspectives and opinions.

A field of poppies.

As a saltwater person, I feel within my heart that the tide is turning.

We are experiencing a resurgence of collaboration. Terms like co-working, co-design and co-creation are being readily used in a variety of corporate and community contexts alike. Spaces specifically dedicated to collaborative ways of working are springing up across the country.

In and around the Indigenous sector there are many people and organisations who work tirelessly and who work collaboratively to foster the growth of our people. So we can reap the benefits of the collective knowledge and experience of all, for the greatest social and economic good.

And for me, that’s it. We need to collaborate, to harness our collective expertise and work together to grow up the next generation of young people to be connected, supported and proud. So when their time comes to stand up, they stand together. And together they are stronger.

What will ensure we are collectively making the most of the 60,000 plus years of experience and knowledge in our communities?

A field of poppies.

What will diminish the aversion to “leadership” expressed by many of our people, as too often they see those who stand up get cut down?

A field of poppies.


What is the answer to divisive, individualistic ways of working?

A field of poppies.

What is the best response to hand-picked or self-appointed leadership?

A field of poppies.

What will grow our collective capacity from a few to many?

A field of poppies.

Many hands make light work. And a field of poppies is hard to cut down. Let’s all start planting seeds.

“Our stories, our way” – each week, a new guest hosts the @IndigenousX Twitter account to discuss topics of interest to them as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. Produced with assistance of Guardian Australia staff.

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