Leadership: Whale Rider — Niki Caro’s magnificent movie about leadership

How do you identify and developleadership? The question has spawned shelfloads of new management literature and exercised the lungs of countless speakers in recent years as the business value of good leadership has become increasingly evident.

Any enterprise with sense of its own future must recognise that those running today’s show won’t be around forever. Like baton, leadership must pass safely and surely, into the hands of the next generation.

But what if there are, or appear to be, no safe hands to carry the baton forward?

Or if the best hands go unrecognised because they don’t fit traditional notions of leadership?

The issues are explored with poignant force in recently released New Zealand film.

“Whale Rider is essentially about leadership and the fact that leadership presents itself in an unexpected form, that of young girl,” explains director and screenwriter Niki Caro.

For those who like their leadership to come in more traditional ‘strong man’ packages, this presents something of challenge. It also highlights today’s reality that leaders must be flexible and open-minded to successfully adapt to changing social or workplace needs.

The film is based on 1000-year-old legend which has its home in the Maori settlement of Whangara on the East Coast. Ngati Kanohi, the people of Whangara, believe their ancestor Paikea arrived not by canoe, but on the back of whale which rescued him after his canoe capsized.

Caro places this myth in modern times and uses it to explore themes that are as relevant to all society as they are to the small coastal community in which the film is set.

Can traditions from the past inform the present without restricting the poss-ibility of adaptation to social change? Are leaders born or made? Is compassion more potent catalyst for change than force of personality?

The questions are explored through two characters who represent two very different styles of leadership.

The community’s old chief, Koro, represents the older command-and-control style of leadership strength. He has clear idea of how leader should be, is unable to hear or handle any opposition or alternative ideas, and is ruthlessly dismissive of those who don’t measure up to his standards.

His granddaughter Pai on the other hand, exercises more compassionate, intuitive and empowering style of leadership.

Where Koro tries to bend circumstances to his will; her strength is in being able to bend without breaking when her will is vigorously opposed. In the end, she shows herself capable of putting the needs of community ahead of her own needs, or even her survival.

Caro relates easily the concept of the “leader-as-servant” to bigger cause. It is reflected both in the film script and the way she works as director.

Whale Rider depicts community that has lost its sense of purpose and vision. Like many small rural settlements, its people are drifting away to the city, leaving it to face leadership crisis.

By tradition, the mantle of chief has always passed down the male line to the first-born son but tragedy has intervened. Koro’s eldest son Porourangi fathers twins, but the boy and his mother die in childbirth. The grief-stricken father heads off overseas, leaving the remaining girl twin to be brought up by her grandparents.

When he realises his son will not be returning, Koro decides to train up new leader from among the commun-ity’s boys. He deliberately and harshly excludes his now 12-year-old granddaughter because he is too blinkered by tradition to recognise her leadership potential.

Pai is not bitter about her exclusion. Instead, she keeps showing Koro how much she loves him while continuing to prepare herself, against his wishes, for her own future leadership role.

The story highlights the potential destructiveness of clinging too strongly to preconception of how things should be, says Caro.

“It suggests existing cultures may need to bend little to embrace something that, while different, is valuable. What Pai represents is new way. She will take all the strengths of the past into the future.”

The story treads fairly delicate cultural ground given that women’s role in Maoridom is often circumscribed by tradition. Acknowledging this, Caro prefaces any comments as to whether culture defines leadership with the statement that she knows very little beyond her own experience as pakeha New Zealander.

“I do think there’s lot of interesting things to say about leadership of women in New Zealand and I’m personally thrilled that our prime minister, chief justice and governor general are all women.

“In making this film, I’ve also had the privilege of gaining some experience in the Maori world and that has really shifted my perspective on leadership. Because Maori are tribal, they feel sense of responsibility toward the whole community, not just to their own hapu or iwi. That is something I’m drawn to because in my culture, we can be so individualistic, so self-serving.”

Based on the book by Witi Ihimaera, the film was shot in Whangara with lot of input from locals who hosted the film crew and have strong presence on screen. Caro is emphatic the film could not have been shot anywhere else.

“The legend of the Whale Rider is theirs. It was our privilege to make it into film. And without their confidence, we wouldn’t have had any extras! But it’s so much more than that. The people on screen are literally the dework humbles me because they’re so present, so involved.”

Directing the film has prompted Caro to examine her own leadership style.

“My way of understanding the story has been to look at the way I work and to acknowledge those parts of me that were like Pai which is lovely and the parts that are like Koro which is more confrontational.”

Her inspiration for Pai’s leadership style didn’t come exclusively from Maoridom.

“Certainly when I was writing Pai, it was not to Maori male leaders that I looked for inspiration as to how this child behaved. In fact it was more to the Dalai Lama….

“Although Pai is just child, her instinct is to empower those around her. And although harshly treated, she responds with love and compassion. So in way the film is about the compassion of children but it is also about compassionate leadership.

“That’s because for me, leadership is about service – it’s not about being the guy up front shouting and getting all the glory.

“My understanding [of the servant-leader concept] is that leadership involves acknowledging that the work you are doing is lot bigger than yourself and your own ego.”

Her role as director/leader, for instance, is to both hold the vision and serve the best interests of the story.

“In the end, the director is the only person at any given time who can see the film from start to finish, who has the vision for it. And it’s important that the vision is clear so that when any one of the 100 people you’re working with on any day comes to you with questions, you can answer them. They work with the parts. I have to see the whole.”

Serving the story involves choosing the best people possible for the job, then providing them with an environment that enables them to do their best work.

“To get good work, you don’t have to treat people badly. That appals me. To get great work, you need to have great people who feel an ownership for what they’re doing and can feel free to make valid and important contribution to it.”

That is as true in the real world of organisational life as it is in the make-believe world of film.

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