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Finding the Clay: A challenge to transformative leadership

I silently wait for the karanga. Invited to cross the atea, we make our way forward. Leaving my shoes by the door, reminders of the need to humble myself, I take my place. Whakairo look on at this palagi, pakeha boy. Our school has a special relationship with this place, Te Noho Kotahitanga Marae. It begins to feel familiar, as the powhiri continues and the stories begin. I keep coming back here and every time I do I am challenged. I am challenged to listen, to be humble, to try to understand and to shift my practice.

We’re split into groups, given pieces of paper with descriptions on them. Transactional, transformational and transformative leadership. I look down at my paper and read that this style of leadership is about maintaining the status quo, about increasing the efficiency of a school (Shields, 2013). Productivity and performance are at its heart. It’s easy to spot. It looks like schools I’ve visited, been at. It’s the neoliberal model that feels all too familiar. It’s transactional. Raising achievement and reinforcing the narrative - that’s the business of the New Zealand education system.

Another group discusses transformational leadership - seeking to inspire others and build relationships of trust. A model that fosters innovation and teamwork, inspiring people to work together to carry out a school's vision (Shields, 2013). I want to join this group. It sounds like the kind of school I could be a part of, the kind of leader I aspire to be. Relationship focused and innovative.

Finally, we come to the group with transformative leadership. They tell us that leaders under this model use their power to promote social justice and aim to benefit not just their communities but society as a whole. They start with disruption. They understand how power and privilege have been used to subjugate. They seek to change the status quo (Shields, 2013). I’m challenged once more. This is the leadership model we need. It’s the leadership our akonga deserve.

Later on, the wero is thrown out: “How do we create mana enhancing classrooms?” I speak up. The facilitator makes note of the fact that the first three people to answer are Pakeha. I think of my shoes sitting at the waharoa - had my pride really been left at the door? I’m reminded that the transactional model of education is my comfort zone. That I am a product of the status quo. But I know that I long to be a leader that’s transformative…

Listen, I tell myself. Learn to be okay with discomfort, to sit in the unknown. I scribble something on my notepad.

As Pakeha I am drawn back to the reinforced narrative of my own schooling - to transaction, to the status quo. It’s comfortable, it is what I know. But change comes through relationships. Maybe the nature of a mana enhancing leader is one who listens for change, who seeks discomfort and sits in the unknown.

“E kore e piri te uku ki te rino” (Clay Does Not Stick To Steel) - Te Whiti o Rongomai.

I am challenged by this whakatauki (Maori proverb). The steel represents the colonial structures imposed on this land. (Simon, 2021) The structures I am a part of. An education system that reinforces inequity. Maybe transactional schools and transactional leadership are just another part of the colonist narrative. The clay, however, represents the natural elements, those that belong to Te Waipounamu/Te Waka a Maui and Te Ika a Maui. (Simon, 2021) It’s indigenous ways of being and knowing, it is matauranga Maori, it is leadership that is mana enhancing and transformative. The clay will not stick to steel. We cannot have transformation if we continue to measure success if we continue to produce the same outcomes. We need leadership that listens, that challenges the status quo and that steps into the unknown.

Maybe it’s time to begin letting go of the steel and to feel the clay beneath our feet.


Simon, Hemopereki. 2021. “The Importance of Settler/Invader Responsibilities to Decolonisation and The Collective Future as Highlighted in Ngoi Pewhairangi’s ‘Whakarongo.’” Journal of Global Indigeneity 5 (3).

Shields, C. M., (2013). Transformative leadership in education: Equitable change in an uncertain and complex world. New York, NY: Routledge.

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