The wisdom of "wayfinding" leadership

17 August 2016

Traditional Polynesian navigators have much to teach us about effective leadership, says Chellie Spiller.

Long before European ships entered the Pacific, Polynesian voyagers were finding their way around 25 million-square-kilometres of it without the help of magnetic compasses, sextants, or maps. Over time they discovered, settled, and travelled amongst a vast number of widely scattered islands, including Aotearoa New Zealand, using techniques handed down through generations. It was an impressive achievement.

"The feats of Polynesian navigators have been likened, relative to the technology and knowledge of the times, to the modern moon missions," says Business School researcher Associate Professor Chellie Spiller.

"The double-hulled sailing waka that were built to survive rough, ocean-going expeditions have been the inspiration for today's America's Cup racing catamarans. And our GPS systems echo the methods employed by wayfinders to judge position in relation to place markers," she says.

But there is more to that seafaring legacy than technology. Over the past decade, Spiller has studied what leadership lessons can be learned from the wayfinding tradition of Polynesian navigators. Her conclusion: it offers a powerful approach to leading people in an uncertain, complex world.

"Wayfinding leaders are able to more effectively release the potential in others and in situations. Wayfinding deepens discernment about what is really going on and enables leaders to be more responsive to subtle shifts and nuances."

She says the approach develops integrative thinking and perceptiveness, with the result that such leaders adapt more naturally to change and experience greater calm in the face of adversity.

Spiller has mapped the lessons in a new book, Wayfinding Leadership, written in collaboration with master navigator Hoturoa Barclay Kerr and his Waka Quest business partner John Panoho. She says the home-grown leadership programme presented in the book builds bridges to cutting-edge leadership ideas from around the world while challenging many imported notions.

Among the insights:

  • "Purpose" is not a slogan for the boardroom wall or annual report, it is something people are willing to share in and embody. A key role of leaders is to foster this shared sense of becoming. Māori call this process tupu, which means "to unfold one's nature". In an organisational context, this means developing people so they express their true nature and fulfil their potential, individually and collectively. Arriving at the destination is not as important as who we become on the journey.
  • Central to the wayfinding purpose of becoming is enabling everyone in an organisation to learn and apply the practice of 'calling the island to you'. Traditional wayfinding conceives the waka as staying still in a moving universe. The task of the wayfinder is to be in communion with the unfolding processes of the world around them and by acting from a position of stillness to draw the island to them, rather than constantly striving to conquer goals in a narrow, linear fashion, which can lead to missing important signals in the environment.
  • Leaders who cultivate stillness possess a steadfast calm and are better able to read the signs, make clear decisions, act with purposefulness, and build mental toughness. Being relaxed, they are also more likely to find creative solutions to pressing situations.

"Exploration is a defining part of who we are, and to fully develop our potential we must apply practices such as 'fostering a purpose of becoming', 'calling the island to you', and 'moving from stillness'," says Spiller.

"If we accept this challenge, we position ourselves and our organisations as wayfinding leaders, able to reap the benefits from the world of potential into what Māori call Te Ao Mārama – the world of light."

Spiller says the book has generated a great deal of interest from organisations keen to take people through the Wayfinding Leadership programme, which is run in partnership with the University of Auckland Business School's Executive Education unit. Participants begin with a workshop at the Business School before stepping aboard a waka to gain practical experience on the water.

A cohort from the California-based Drucker School of Management's Global Immersion Course recently completed the workshop, and one student now plans to apply the leadership principles in a research project on US environmental policy.

Learn more on the Wayfinding Leadership website

Chellie Spiller

Chellie Spiller is an Associate Professor in the University of Auckland Business School's Department of Management and International Business and is the School's Associate Dean Māori and Pacific.

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