Home Blog

Māori Leadership: The Change Maker of Our Futures

Mārama Stewart
Mārama Stewart

by Mārama Stewart, ākonga in the 2021 cohort of the Masters of Māori and Indigenous Leadership programme

My first year as a primary school principal was in 2010. I was an optimistic 29 year old who was absolutely clueless about the complexities of leadership. During that time, the Ministry of Education had invested heavily into creating The First Time Principals Programme (FTPP). The programme would educate new principals in the “leadership practices that have the greatest impact on student outcomes” (Robinson et al., 2009).

The FTPP conference gathered over 200 first time principals from across Aotearoaapryll parata.  Conference speakers included the Minister for Education the Honorable Anne Tolley, Alice Apryll Parata noted principal, and Dr Viviane Robinson, co-author of the Best Evidence Synthesis [BES] – School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why. The speakers shared the same key message, Māori were disproportionately represented in the long tail of student underachievement. We, as school leadership, were the key to changing the statistics and we needed to do better for our Māori students.

A defining moment for me occurred as Apryll Parata spoke about Māori drop-out rates in schools. My neighbour (a middle-aged Pākehā woman) leaned over and asked “Well, what worked for you?” I replied, “Nothing, I dropped out too”. I remember her look of shock and non-comprehension as she responded,“Oh, I thought you would have been one of the ones that did well at school.” I pretended not to hear her as I wondered if I was classed as a member of the long tail. I looked up at Parata, before casting my eyes wide and surveyed the 95% non-Māori new principals sitting in that room, and thought… “Well nothing’s going to get any better from this room while we (Māori) are excluded from the supposed solution.”

A heartbreaking revelation to have so early in my career. The combined potential influence in that room could have made a critical positive difference in the achievement and well-being of thousands of Māori students (Robinson et al., 2009). Yet less than half a dozen of the attendees knew what it was like to be Māori in a school in Aotearoa. My experiences there left me with the feeling that Māori Educational Leadership is not valued as an effective resource to challenge disproportionate underachievement in our schools. All the more frustrating when the Ministry of Education’s own literature specifically referred to Māori Educational Leaders as change agents capable of challenging existing power structures and becoming strong advocates for Māori students in their schools (Robinson et al., 2009).

As I look back, I wonder what kind of effect could have been achieved if even half of those first time principals had been Māori like me. This thought saddens me. Not once, since my pale inauguration into the world of principalship, have I seen evidence that the Ministry of Education has acknowledged the imbalance of non-Māori leadership versus Māori leadership in our schools today.

While the article I have chosen is not specifically situated within the education space, it is a tale of leadership, founded within Te Ao Māori. It spoke to me as it perfectly illustrated the potential for positive change which was lost in that room back in 2010. It answers the question; what would happen if Māori were empowered to lead as Māori, while facing the contemporary challenges found within today’s society?

The article from The Spinoff, entitled The story behind the fight to save Ihumātao is a retrospective interview by Justin Latif (2020) with Qiane Matata-Sipu. Matata-Sipu and her group of local cousins stopped a housing project, due to be developed on land which had been stolen from the local indigenous community in 1865. Their efforts as Māori leaders restored that land, Ihumātoa to tangata whenua in 2021 (Latif, 2020).

Latif (2020) provides the reader with intimate insight into Matata-Sipu and her cousins’ development into a uniquely Māori style of leadership. Through their leadership, the Save Our Unique Landscape campaign (S.O.U.L.) would grow to include thousands of members globally and lead to the occupation of Ihumātao. Historians, archaeologists, and academics, both Māori and non-Māori, supported the cause that would take the group to the United Nations, twice (Latif, 2020).

To understand how Matata-Sipu and her five cousins[1] came to lead this group, it is important to understand the epistemology of Māori Leadership. In his paper, Māori Leadership in Governance, Professor Hirini Mead (2006) synthesises and modernises two lists of eight traditional leadership qualities by Te Rangikahake of Ngati Rangiwewehi, Te Arawa and Himiona Tikitu of Ngati Awa. He refers to these qualities as The Eight Talents for Today or Pūmanawa (Mead et al., 2006).

The Eight Talents for Today:

  1. Manage, mediate and settle disputes to uphold the unity of the group.
  2. Ensure every member of the group is provided base needs and ensures their growth.
  3. Bravery and courage to uphold the rights of hapū and the iwi.
  4. Leading the community forward, improving its economic base and its mana.
  5. Need for a wider vision and a more general education than is required for every day matters.
  6. Value manaakitanga.
  7. Lead and successfully complete big projects.
  8. Know the traditions and culture of their people, and the wider community (p.10 ). (Katene, 2010, p.11)

Mead (1997) states that Māori Leadership must not only lie within one’s whakapapa, but also in the mandate given to them by the leader’s people. Matata-Sipu grew up on the at the feet of her grandparents surrounded by political conversations and governance decisions her grandparents made for her hapū (Latif, 2020). Through whakapapa and Mead’s (2006) pūmanawa, Matata-Sipu and her cousins created a leadership network which gained the mandate to lead their people. The alliance they formed around S.O.U.L, became the key to creating momentum in the outside world. The leadership partnerships they formed strengthened their campaign to its eventual acknowledgement and concessions by The Crown (Latif, 2020).

In Latif’s article, each of the pūmanawa organically appears as Matata-Sipu recollects the story of Ihumātoa and the networked leadership roles each of her cousins took upon themselves. We experience first hand the cousins’ growth into the mantle of leadership until we reach the climax of the occupation, the attempted eviction of the rightful owners of the stolen lands. The uniqueness and power of Māori Leadership can be seen in Matata-Sipu’s recollection of the day the New Zealand Police came to evict them.

“It was really emotional. Everyone was so upset, and as the sun set behind the police, I just fucking cried my eyes out. I was thinking about all the kids, and what they had to see and then also thinking about our grandparents, and all they had done for this place. I was mourning for everything we had lost over generations, for our tūpuna, for our whenua.

“And I thought about my grandfather and how he wouldn’t have let this happen, and as I looked at the sunset, and the maunga, and my nieces singing, I cried out to my tūpuna, saying to them, ‘we need you to be here right now, if we ever needed you – we need you right now’.”

And in that moment Matata-Sipu found the strength she needed (Latif, 2020).

Crisis surrounded Matata-Sipu and her cousins. It was from that moment and her connection with her tīpuna that she was able to find the courage and commitment to succeed. The article When Leadership Spells Danger, Heifetz and Linsky (2004) discusses the contemporary theory of leadership which forms around to two different types of leadership challenges – technical challenges and adaptive challenges (Heifetz & Linsky, 2004).

Technical challenges prescribe to the common misconception that the sole requirement of leadership is expertise to resolve the problems we face, not unlike a mechanic fixing a car (Heifetz & Linsky, 2004, p.35). Technical challenges are an easy managerial fix, they involve seeing a simple problem such as a gap in communication and a simple fix such as forming a Facebook group to reach a global audience. In fact, the entire campaign for Ihumātoa was founded via a clear and concise Facebook post written by Matata-Sipu in 2015 (Latif, 2020).

The challenge which Matata-Sipu faced as she stood in defiance of the police eviction was anything but a simple technical fix. The incredibly complex problems Matata-Sipu and her cousins beheld that day were born out of the same colonising tools the crown had designed to subjugate Māori since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 (Walker, 2016). The tools which allowed the theft of mana whenua and subsequent vilification of Matata-Sipu and S.O.U.L. for fighting for return of that mana whenua (Muru-Lanning, 2020) are the same tools which are still manipulated by those in power “to maintain an unjust social order between Māori and Pakeha” (Walker, 2016, p.20).

Heifetz and Linsky (2004) call these kinds of incredibly complex problems adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges often involve leadership living up to their convictions; “to closing the gap between their espoused values and their actual behaviour” (Heifetz & Linsky, 2004, p.33). What we see in Latif’s article is that Matata-Sipu and her cousins understood instinctively that the “solutions to adaptive challenges lie not in technical answers, but rather in people themselves” (Heifetz & Linsky, 2004, p.35).

Colonisation and its effect on the lives of Māori through multiple generations has been compounded by successive systemically racist government policies which have created a problem so complicated that the adaptive leadership capabilities needed to solve them seem almost insurmountable (Walker, 2016). Since the 1960 Hunn Report on Māori Affairs, subsequent investigations have frequently found that the gaps between Māori and European health, education, wealth, employment and economic development have all deteriorated (Walker, 2016).

Yet within the story of Ihumātao we see contemporary Māori Leadership force one of Aotearoa’s largest listed companies (Fletcher Building, n.d.) to backing off from their lucrative deal, and a once resistant government buying out that building giant. In fact, Matata-Sipu and her cousins are just one iteration of Māori Leadership successfully counteracting the colonial tools of subjugation created by the crown (Walker, 2016). Sir Apirana Ngata, Sir Peter Buck, Dame Whina Cooper, Ranginui Walker, Sir Mason Durie, Sir Tipene O’Regan, Hana O’Regan and Dame Tariana Turia to name just a few are all incredibly successful people, facing complicated, adaptive challenges, and meeting those challenges using Mead’s (2006) eight pūmanawa.

I have been a primary school principal for twelve years now a Leading Principal according to the career structure in my collective agreement. Last week I attended the Whakatane Principals’ Association meeting. Not all 25 members were in attendance, but it was my pleasure to help welcome the fifth Māori member to our association. I am still the minority Māori in the room.

Twelve years on from my conference nothing has changed for Māori. According to Education Counts[2] 2019 data shows that over a third of Māori students are leaving school without Level Two NCEA. Retention rates for Māori are 12% behind the total number of students at 69.6%. In Term Two 2020 attendance rates for Māori dropped to 47.5%, while COVID-19 is a factor which should not be discounted, it is still 21.2% behind European students.

Schools are still not serving the needs of Māori students despite the millions of dollars spent on Māori achievement strategies in schools over the last 16 years.  The 2013 – 2017 Māori Education Strategy Ka Hikitia – Accelerating Success (Ka Hikitia) focused on teaching the teachers how to support Māori students to enjoy and achieve educational success as Māori (The Māori Education Strategy, 2013).

Ka Hikitia has five guiding principles. One of which states the following:

Māori students are more likely to achieve when they see themselves, and their experiences and knowledge reflected in teaching and learning (The Māori Education Strategy, 2013, p.3).

Of the 61,000 teachers working in this country, only 7,403 identify as Māori. These strategies have not worked, and nor will they ever work because a non-Māori teacher, principal, educator will never understand what it is like to be Māori. Just like how that middle-aged white woman could not comprehend that the first time principal seated next to her was a high school drop-out. A non-Māori will never have the same connection to whakapapa nor understand that our connection to our tīpuna is not of the past but very much present in our now.

Further evidence of the positive effect of Māori students seeing themselves as normal in the classroom is provided in Dr Viviane Robinson’s BES (2009) where she describes the challenges faced by educational leaders in tackling wide spread disparity amongst students:

A second challenge is to markedly improve educational provision for, and realise the potential of, Māori students. Recent national data suggest that Māori-medium schools are better serving Māori than English-medium … (Robinson et al., 2009, p.36)

Within this context it is important for the reader to know that the ethnicity of over 95% of Māori Medium teachers is Māori. Within Māori Medium schools Māori students see themselves as normal, and their normality as Māori reflected back at them through their teachers.

Until our tamariki can see that reflection surrounding them and nurturing them and staring right back at them kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) they will never enjoy and achieve educational success as Māori. This barrier has been created because 7,403 Māori teachers spread between 2,563 schools is only an average 2.8 teachers per school. That’s not many for the 200,000+ Māori students enrolled in 2020.

Matata-Sipu and her cousins changed the course of a multi-billion dollar company versus a tiny iwi south of Auckland in less than half the time that it took for all of our current Māori achievement strategies to fail. Matata-Sipu and her cousins proved that Māori Leadership that is deeply rooted in Te Ao Māori enabled them to be strong, connected and innovative, and ultimately to achieve success. Their ability to create a uniquely Māori network of leadership where responsibility was shared and talents strengthened by that network reinvigorates my own personal approach to leadership.

If the Ministry of Education was genuinely committed to its espoused values found within its own Māori Education Strategy (2013) then they must enact these values in its actual behaviour. The Ministry must follow the above clearly stated and well researched phenomenon of Māori Leadership. It can not continue to ignore the knowledge and evidence and refuse to act upon that evidence when forming policy. Our tamariki have been disadvantaged for far too long.


Heifetz, R. A., & Linsky, M. (2004, April). When Leadership Spells Danger. Educational Leadership, 61(Leading Tough Times), 33-37. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr04/vol61/num07/When-Leadership-Spells-Danger.aspx

Walker, R. (2016) Reclaiming Māori Education. In Hutchings, J., & Lee-Morgan, J. (Eds.), Decolonisation in Aotearoa: Education, Research and Practice (pp. 19 – 39). NZCER Press.

Katene, S. (2010). Modelling Māori leadership: What makes for good leadership? MAI Review, 2010(2), 1 – 16. http://www.review.mai.ac.nz/mrindex/MR/article/view/334.html

Latif, J. (2020, December 18). The story behind the fight to save Ihumātao. The Spinoff. https://thespinoff.co.nz/atea/18-12-2020/the-story-behind-the-fight-to-save-ihumatao

The Māori Education Strategy. (2013). Summary of Ka Hikitia: Accelerating Success 2013 – 2017. The Ministry of Education.

Mead, H., (1997). Landmarks, bridges and visions: Aspects of Māori culture. Wellington: Victoria University Press.

Mead, H. M.,(2006). Hui Taumata Leadership in Governance Scoping Paper. Wellington: Victoria University. Retrieved March 5, 2021, from https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/27440364/maori-leadership-in-governance-unitec.

Muru-Lanning, C. (2020, December 19). The truth about Ihumātao: All the false claims and misinformation, corrected. The Spinoff. https://thespinoff.co.nz/atea/19-12-2020/the-truth-about-ihumatao-all-the-false-claims-and-misinformation-corrected/

Robinson, V., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. (2009). School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why. The University of Auckland.

[1] Haki Wilson, Bobbi-Jo Pihema, Waimarie Rakena McFarland, Moana Waa, and Pania Newton

[2] Is the Ministry of Education online “doorway” to statistical data, quantitative information, and research on education and education services in New Zealand. https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/home

Boys don’t cry…

Matt Brown introducing Phil at the mens meeting. Photo courtesy of Jared Yeoward Photography

What does it mean to be a man?

This is in many ways a rhetorical and, intentionally, loaded question. A question that I ask because I have some ideas, not necessarily because I have answers.

In recent years I have been engaging in research which has attempted to make sense of the evolution of Polynesian masculinity. While this will contribute to my position in this piece, I also want to write of a recent experience that has assisted in my own personal, not so much academic, understanding of what it means to be a man. So, if you don’t mind indulging me, I would like to speak first of this experience.

Last month I was privileged enough to be an invited speaker at a monthly men’s collective hosted by a dear friend of mine, Matt Brown (owner and founder of My Fathers Barber; co-founder of the She Is Not Your Rehab movement; social advocate; author; motivator; and barber to many). Matt has been running this men’s group each month, out of his barber shop, primarily to provide space for men to find support and assistance in their lives, but also in an effort to reconfigure the way in which we understand masculinity and what it means to be a man.

I was invited to share my story with these men. So, in a room of 45 other men, I shared. I shared many things ranging from love, loss, abandonment, grief, pain and guilt; and these were all interwoven with a subtle attack at perceptions of masculinity. This attack was not an overt one.  More of an underlying challenge to existing paradigms of what society expects men to be.

In questioning what society expects of men, it is probably timely to speak a little bit about perceptions of masculinity. Masculinity at a loose definition is a set of attributes or qualities, behaviours and roles associated with boys and men. For many of us this has included things such as the repression of emotion, physical strength, or attaining positions in the, more-often-than-not gender imbalanced, hierarchies of society.

For Polynesian men, our masculine identity has long been associated with physicality, violence, notions of warriorhood, and athleticism (Beasley, 2008; Borell, 2015; Chen, 2014; Hawkes, 2018; Henderson, 2011; Hokowhitu, 2004; Ryan, 2005; Tengen and Markham, 2009).  However the perpetuation of a Polynesian masculinity that is dependent on physicality, strength and size, relies on the models established, initially by Victorian manliness during the colonial era of New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific. Let’s call this the coloniality of Polynesian masculinity.

It is important to note here that masculinity was, and is, very much a Western construct; Hokowhitu (2004) reminds us that “masculinity is a historical construction and cannot simply be analysed from a contemporary snapshot.” (p. 264). To pre-contact Māori the traits that defined “masculinity” would have differed significantly from those of the Victorian era European. Māori masculinities were, prior to the introduction of external knowledge systems and perceptions, foremost developed as a result of our ability to provide and nurture (Borell, 2015).

Professor Anne Salmond (2016) wrote an article discussing the role of Māori men as fathers. Fatherhood, or parenting, is likely to have been an integral part of a Māori masculinity. However, it is often absent from discussions around Māori men and their masculinities today. In fact, the stereotype of Māori fathers is usually more closely aligned with Jake the Muss, than the rangatira who holds council with a baby on his hip. Salmond utilised excerpts from journal entries dating around the early 19th Century and although it is a brief piece, she manages to dispel some of the more common misconceptions around Māori masculinity; particularly those of violence towards women and children. Citing from missionary Samuel Marsden’s personal journal, Salmond (2016) reveals that “They are kind to their women and children. I never observed either with a mark of violence upon them, nor did I ever see a child struck.” (p. 1).

With this in mind, it is evident that our masculine identity has undergone significant change since our pre-contact time. And, it could be easy to simply cast blame on external depictions of our masculinity during the colonial project. However, there must come a time when we also hold ourselves accountable in the reclaiming of our masculine identity.

Allow me to return now to the men’s group with whom I had the pleasure of speaking with. I mentioned earlier that I shared this room with 45 other men. These men represented many different walks of life from active gang members and recovering substance abusers, to self-employed entrepreneurs and suit wearing corporate types. Contemporary masculinities do not have a one-size-fits-all approach. From what I could see, there were two things that held a connection between all of these men. The first thing was that they were all once boys. Perhaps many of us still are. The other common thread was that they were all willing to listen and engage with conversations about what it means to be a man. To me this demonstrates the ability to transcend beyond the prescribed limitations of ‘masculinity’ into self-determining who we want to be as men; as fathers; as sons; and as husbands and partners.

In recent research (currently in publication) I have been articulating that a contemporary Polynesian masculinity is actually far more closely aligned to our traditional practices as we shift toward our innate tendencies as nurturers, carers and men who are less afraid to embrace emotion. Through initiatives such as the one I was involved in last month, I can see that it extends beyond the realm of academic scholarship deep into the real world.

For a long time we have said boys don’t cry, but I think it would be better if they did.


Whānau first?

Pita Hiku (left) and Ken Maumalo (right) following their loss to Melbourne last weekend

What price do we put on family?

In a season already compromised by the enduring impacts of COVID-19, the New Zealand Warriors now face further uncertainty with regard to the health and wellbeing of their players. While a contact sport such as rugby league always has potential for injuries to impact a season, 2020 has thrown more curve balls at players’ mental health, particularly for the Warriors, than any other season in memory.

Pesky statues where ghosts reside and hide

Garrick Cooper takes a selfie in front of a statue beside Notre Dame, Paris

Slave traders, confederate leaders, and statues of old colonials are tumbling on the back of the groundswell of opposition to police brutality and anti-black racism that are the George Floyd protests.

Valuing te reo


If I didn’t already know that te reo has international saliency I certainly was reminded of it when my visiting Scottish niece and her friend took themselves off to the tattoo parlour the day after they arrived at my place.

Say my name

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 22: (L-R) Sam Thaiday, Erin Molan, Jonathan Thurston and Darren Lockyer of the channel nine commentary team are seen during the pre-game telecast before the round two NRL match between the Brisbane Broncos and the North Queensland Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium on March 22, 2019 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

In a climate where racism is being scrutinized, perhaps, more than ever, rugby league is still making headlines for the wrong reasons. 

Te tohu o te rangatira, he manaaki

Images from Te Kōhanga Reo o Matai Whetū

The beating heart of most organisations is often the person that activity, relational knowledge (er, gossip) and getting stuff done tends to centre around. Seldom is that person the most hierarchically senior. One of the greatest organisational influencers is often in a pivotal front-facing role.

A hybrid reo?

Excerpt from an email ...

The Comms team at UC passed on a query to me the other day from an overseas expat reader of one of our regular university newsletters who was concerned about the possibility of a “hybrid” language evolving in New Zealand. That is, a language which is a mix of Māori and English, rather than two separate languages.

Kia tū ki te tahi – Stand as one

Tūhuru - Arahura marae

Although we’re being asked to keep our social distance, this shouldn’t stop us from being socially engaged.  The whakataukī, “Waiho i te toipoto, kaua i te toiroa” exhorts us to be close together and not far apart.  This is particularly poignant now in this era of Covid-19.  As a nation and as a people we must pull together, our collective voices must be heard and our responses united for the wellbeing of future generations. 

Whose values? What narrative?

From left: Luke Veikoso, Fatai Latu, Sione Fataua and in the front row, from left, Tevita Siola'a, Kolo Fekitoa, Mano Totau. Photo: Rutger Bregman/Twitter

Recently, the Guardian website featured an article titled ‘The real Lord of the Flies : what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months’. In 1965 six Tongan youths, Tevita (David) Siola’a, Sione Fataua, Luke Veikoso, Fatai (Stephen) Latu, Kolo Fekitoa and Sione Totau (now known as Mano) became stranded on ‘Ata Island, at the southern end of the Tonga archipelago. They remained there, in good health and spirits, for fifteen months before Australian Peter Warner came upon the island, returning the young men to their homes, and later employing them.

Skip to toolbar