Inbox: Leading beyond the binary

Can we as New Zealanders escape the old, frozen binary oppositions between town and country, nature and culture, men and women, young and old, Maori and Pakeha, left and right?
Is it possible to explore the creative spaces in between? Could we use collaborative decision-making based on impartial, reliable evidence to move towards shared interests?
Yes, yes and yes, according to Dame Anne Salmond who challenged her audience at the inaugural Sir Paul Reeves Memorial Lecture recently to unlock the new ways of thinking that are required to shape our future as people.
In talk which spanned the legacy of the Enlightenment, Rogernomics, Maori philosophy and the science of self-organising systems, Dame Anne examined the potential of relational thinking for politics, economic life, environmental questions and identity in New Zealand.
She urged people to move “beyond the binary” with new styles of leadership and decision-making that are needed in world where we can explore the fertile spaces between locked-in oppositions.
A distinguished professor in Maori studies and anthropology at the University of Auckland, Dame Anne was delivering her lecture at Auckland’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell, in honour of the late Sir Paul Reeves.
She described Sir Paul – longstanding supporter of the lecture’s sponsors Leadership NZ and AUT University – as “thoughtful, robust and astute” great New Zealander.
“He lived passionate life, inspired by quest for the shared good and the common ground, and deep and abiding sense of justice,” she said.
Such sense of justice, she said, led both herself and Sir Paul in their own ways to voice their concerns that over the past 30 years we have been “busily recreating” stratified society in this beautiful land.
“With rising indicators of disparity and distress, many people fear and detest the widening chasms in our society, and yearn for greater amity and cohesion.”
Genuine differences do exist between Maori and Pakeha, men and women, left and right, she said.
“But so do interlocking relations, shared values and mutual dependency. Rather than excluding the middle ground, the challenge is to get the networks of relations across it working in ways that are mutually positive and creative, not hostile and destructive. This, I think, is the task that Sir Paul set himself, and why his life mattered so much to us all.”
Kiwis collectively set aside “the divisions that haunt us”, said Dame Anne, and were seized by collective euphoria for the Rugby World Cup.
“Fuelled by love of the sport and sense that we were on show to the world, there were moments when our country did seem like ‘stadium of four million people’. Black flags with silver ferns fluttered off car aerials, people’s houses in the cities, and across rural landscapes. When the Cup was won, almost everyone celebrated. It felt fantastic.
“I know that most New Zealanders would love to feel this way more often. It will require new styles of leadership and decision-making, however, which I for one, would find refreshing.”
Dame Anne said the world is changing “in ways that challenge the old sharp-edged silos: nation states, government departments, ethnic groups, the disciplines”.
She urged that, in our small, intimate society, the tyranny of distance may at last be cancelled.
“If we are smart and agile, the legacies of our ancestors can help us to make the most of new global exchanges, and thrive and prosper. While other, older societies remain trapped in non-adaptive rigidities, we can organise ourselves flexibly and quickly, and in ways that give us joy, contributing to greater equity and prosperity.
“In order to achieve this, it is possible to draw on Maori and Pacific philosophies as well as the best of contemporary science.”
In places, inclusive, relational styles of governance are already emerging that work across the ramparts, she said. The Land and Water Forum, for example, is an “exciting experiment with collaborative styles of decision-making”, used to tackle the vexed question of water use in New Zealand.
“Instead of fighting each other in the courts, key players [have] decided to come together. Rather than resorting to ‘end runs’ to the law or Government, they agreed to engage with the facts of the matter, and work towards optimal policies for water use based on shared values as well as divergent interests.
“As model of smart, flexible, evidence-based decision-making for small country, this is terrific. One can see how in this process, different values and ways of understanding the environment might converge.”
So, too, could this approach be applied to other contentious areas in our national life: “superannuation, maybe, and land use regimes, for example”, she said.
“The outcomes are likely to be infinitely superior to those achieved by the old, bipolar arm wrestling. Such flexible, nimble approach, based on fostering collaboration across various networks of relations, would be major step towards new kind of democracy in New Zealand.” M

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