I spent time yesterday writing my speech for today after contemplating and seeking feedback from trusted friends about the theme I had carefully selected to concentrate on – collaboration. I was happy with my efforts. On my quick 5 minute drive home, listening to the radio, I was stunned by the announcement our Prime Minister made – that he had decided to take the proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act off the table, that this decision and action was a “leadership call”, as was his simultaneous announcement about the most significant changes to national security since 9/11. Abbott described his decision to withdraw his government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act as a demonstration of his leadership, he said “Leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this position.”

This quote has given me pause to think what it is about the Racial Discrimination Act that is essential to the very nature of being Australian? Perhaps he is saying that privileging rights of citizenship over the responsibilities of Australian citizenship actively works against essential Australian Values we all hold dear like those featured in the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 “…a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces fair play, mutual respect, tolerance, compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good.” (Commonwealth of Australia, 2007: 1).

Effectively, the campaign I, and perhaps many of you, certainly many of my friends, have been working solidly on has ultimately been successful. The campaign to stop proposed amendments to the RDA, most notably the repel of 18B, 18C, 18D, 18E of the act to be replaced by a weakened section that would have watered down the key provisions of the Act, how extraordinary. It was also reported yesterday that 76% of the 4100 submissions to the proposed review of the Racial Discrimination Act were opposed to the draft bill. So in a bow to the majority, the leader of the Australian Government backed down, he withdrew. He did not enjoy a collective endorsement of his leadership on this important legal change.

This follows three years on from the successful prosecution of Andrew Bolt under 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Bolt claimed that the applicants named in the federal court case were not genuinely Aboriginal; that they had made claim to a small part of their ancestry and set aside their Whiteness and other cultural heritage to uphold their Aboriginality. Two of the successful applicants are friends of mine. I watched them both endure the pressure and pain of having to stand up in court and account for your cultural identity and family history as well as the collateral damage my friends faced of being stalked, harassed and physically threatened because they stood up proud of who they are as Aboriginal women.

I would like to propose that the identity work I described above can be framed as an act of leadership. The work of Indigenous artists like my friends Antia Heiss and Bindi Cole, who stood up in Federal Court on behalf of all us fair skinned Koori’s proudly asserting their identity; the work Indigenous people do to tell and retell the stories of our communities, as well as how they demonstrate distinct, coherent, resistant, innovative images of Aboriginal identity speaks back to the power relations in the mainstream society that continues to frame and contain Aboriginal identities as mythologised or stigmatised.

I research and teach leadership, I find it completely fascinating. We are here today to celebrate the leadership and practice of excellence of these individuals and teams who have each sort to change, adapt, create and build new ways/offerings to make the work of CSU better, smarter, and more accessible. So what is this complex socially constructed phenomenon and why are we so fascinated by it?

Leadership is an iconic idea. When asked to think about leadership, you are likely to have many images or thoughts fill your mind – you may think about your parents or elders; for some it is Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi or Nelson Mandela; or it may be the idea of a boss or CEO. The ideas most associated with leadership are that the leader is male, that they are great orators, and that leadership is about inspiring people with a vision that is big enough to bring many together in a united action (Jackson & Parry, 2008). However, in leadership studies, scholars do not always agree on a single, unified definition of what leadership is. In fact some scholars say that when we study leadership, get up close and personal with it, it disappears or is difficult to capture (Alvesson & Svenningson, 2003).

Leadership is a contested concept, so studying leadership requires us to explore by listening and noticing when, where, how and why leadership arises. Those we celebrate today were noticed for they’re personal and team excellence in innovation, sustainability, performance, research, and teaching. Their excellence was noticed, they were nominated and today celebrated and they each accepted this accolade. According to scholars DeRue & Ashford (2010), the leadership identity comprises three elements: individual internalization of the leader identity; relational recognition of the mantle of leader; and collective endorsement of the individual’s leadership. They argue that there is this three-stage process of claiming, granting and being collectively endorsed for your leadership. All three of those stages have been enacted today.

Let’s consider another example where all three-stages are not agreed. On Monday’s episode of Q and A on ABC 1 broadcast from the Garma Festival in Gulkala, North East Arnhem Land, there was also a discussion about what leadership looks like. One of the most interesting expositions was between Gälpu clan elder and business owner Dhanggal Gurruwiwi and the host Tony Jones. Dhanggal said “I am no leader but…” Tony Jones interjects: “People are laughing at that. I think you probably are, whether you know it or not.” To which Gurruwiwi responds “If you say so. Yeah.”

Gurruwiwi acknowledges that despite efforts to frame her as a leader, she does not pick it up because she has a different perspective about what leadership looks like. On that same episode Djawa Yunipingu, senior member of the Gumatj clan, said “When we look for the next leadership, we don’t normally appoint one. We tend to not judge the person first. We advise them to be the next leader in your own group.” From this quote we can hear that granting the title of leader to a person is not the role of the Elder. Instead he describes the role as advising, noticing, encouraging, teaching individuals and providing the context for that person to step forward.

These actions Yunipingu describes sound familiar to the work we do here at Charles Sturt University, the work these wonderful colleagues we are celebrating today do. Like the Students at Risk team who identified a problem and went about designing an intervention, a safety net for students at risk of dropping out of study; like Judy who harnessed her passion for living a more sustainable life and provided the education and context for great changes across the CSU footprint; like our Advertising team Jennifer and Kerrie who created a campaign to encourage curiosity from potential students as well as establishing a benchmark for future campaign development; and like Dr Dryer who advises and scaffolds the learning of her students to enter the psychology profession. Excellence is a behavior that we can nurture by practicing it. Your individual and collective excellence raises the tide for all of us.


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