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Aboriginal leadership and making a long-term difference: Ian Hamm

4 July 2019

News and media


image of Ian Hamm standing and smiling at the camera.

Ian Hamm is a Yorta Yorta man and, until 2018, spent more than three decades in the public sector, across a variety of roles at federal and state levels, including Executive Director of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria. Most recently, Hamm served as the Director of Aboriginal Economic Development at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources in the Victorian government. From January to August 2018, he was CEO of VACCHO, the peak body for Aboriginal health in Victoria. He has been (and continues to be) a board member and chair of a number of not-for-profit organisations since 2000.

Mr Hamm shared his reflections and insights, particularly in relation to Aboriginal concepts of leadership and how they might find broader application. The following article is an edited transcript of his comments.

Who are Aboriginal leaders?

The first thing to understand is that ideas about leadership stem from ideas about identity. We think of ourselves and our social structure as a community.

There’s that whole thing of community first, family and clan second, individual third. The notion of leadership in a sense is built within that. So, it’s completely at right angles to the European notion of leadership.

You could almost say “lead from behind” or “first amongst equals” as it were. Consequently, leaders are expected, ‘to do right by the community, whether it’s the community you live in or the community that you work in…It cannot be just about you or your views. You can’t do it solely for your own benefit.’

Another feature of Aboriginal leadership is that it tends to be context dependent. It’s often asked, ‘Who’s the leader of the Aboriginal community?’ and there’s no titular head as it were. At a local level, tribal or traditional owner level, at a state level and certainly at a national level, this notion of Aboriginal Australia is a very vexed one to start with.

There is no single leader. You’re part of a collective – a network of people who interact with each other around different subjects and different things. Discussions around Treaty, the Uluru statement, they’re classic examples of people congregating around a particular issue who probably wouldn’t have connected with each other in any other format from a community perspective. Instead, a better question to ask is: ‘Who are the people with knowledge about a specific matter or have the credibility to speak on behalf of others?’

Non-indigenous Australians may be familiar with the concept of Elders as community leaders but a common misconception is that all Aboriginal seniors are Elders.

In reality, Eldership status is reserved for those who have done a lot, have wisdom to impart, have led or lead and evolved their position in the community over time. It’s also not a position that one assumes but instead is conferred by the group.

The limits of job titles and hierarchy

Once you break down the concept of Eldership, you start to understand that the Aboriginal notion of leadership isn’t about hierarchy but it’s about what you do and how you bring people with you. And you bring them along, not by the chain of command, but by having people having a connection with you beyond a structured one. I’ve seen those who do it well and those who don’t. You have to be able to read the people you work with and for and understand what works for them and what doesn’t.

The real positive to this style is that as a leader it very much puts you in the place of: ‘I have to lead by right of these people believing in me’ as opposed to: ‘I lead because I’ve been appointed to Position X’.

It’s a fundamental conceptual difference. Because these people know me beyond this setting, I have to get them to follow me because they want to, not because they have to. Which is the difference between they do what they’re paid to do, versus going that extra step. It’s not just about me delivering, it’s about how I bring these people with me and, in fact, be a part of them so we all deliver this.

One of the ministers I worked for when I was Head of Aboriginal Affairs asked me one day, ‘Who wrote this speech?’ and I said: ‘Well that depends,’ and he said, ‘What on?’ ‘Whether you like it or not.’

‘How do you mean Ian?’ he said.

‘Well, if you like it, it was a shared piece of work and I’ll tell you who contributed to it. If you don’t like it, I’m responsible for it so I wrote it,’ was my answer. Part of that leadership role is also supporting your people when they need it. That’s an intrinsic social obligation you have as well.

Organisational charts versus family trees

Because we are a small community, you can’t really separate the social from the professional. There are so many interconnections. You might know people before you start working at a place or before you become CEO. In any case, if you don’t know them, you know their family, or they know you. You can be out sometimes and introduced to people who know all about you despite never having met you. That adds a dimension that you don’t switch off from. You’re almost an entity almost within a bigger construct. The notion of leadership within that for a person is that you have to balance and judge things that others don’t.

When you’re in an Aboriginal context, of course you see people after work. Trying to maintain that distance is extraordinarily hard – especially given that it didn’t exist in the first place – when you’ve stepped into a role where you’re supposed to artificially project something.

When there’s a fallout, it’s a big fallout. Moreover, once you’ve lost people, you’ve lost them. If you ask me what’s the biggest thing at risk for me, it’s not about not delivering, it’s my reputation with my people. That above all things. There’s a constant process of ensuring that you do everything and do it right. The stakes are so high, people don’t realise until they fall. Then you realise you’re still falling and don’t know when you’re going to hit the bottom. There can be a huge personal cost to Aboriginal leadership because the politics are so personal.

It’s also a challenge and a necessity for leaders to ensure their individual needs and identity aren’t completely subsumed by the communities and causes they serve.

Being in two places at once

You have a foot in both camps, but stand in neither, and you have to do it all day, every day. That’s actually really hard. You have to be across both [worlds] knowing full well that a cultural assumption you might make can get blown out of the water at any stage. Trying to find a way forward and making those two fit. That is the biggest challenge.

Even in Aboriginal organisations, we discuss culture all the time but we still have to operate according to the rules of corporate governance. This includes a growing emphasis on formal qualifications and processes, but it’s still true that the most relevant qualification is the regard you are held in by the community.

You have to build your credibility. Say you get elected chair of a community organisation. The biggest mistake people make is thinking that getting themselves elected is the hard part. That’s the easy bit. The hardest bit is what comes the next day.

The social construct in how leadership works in the Aboriginal community doesn’t naturally fit with the Western ideal of democratic process through an electoral function.

Thinking big (and wide)

We are far more used to looking globally or at the bigger picture. Because we are a smaller and tight-knit community, you do actually see how this bit connects with this bit and this bit. Having said that, if your mind can think in that frame, it’s not that hard to scale up to the whole state of Victoria, or Australia as a nation.

When you have that common mantra for everyone in the government: ‘my minister wants.’ Your minister is usually focused on what’s relevant to him or her, which, while perfectly valid, can be limiting.

In terms of the bureaucracy, that’s actually a fundamental structural problem we have. It’s the way it’s built, it’s the way it operates, it’s the culture within it, and it’s almost the cognitive construct of the people who work in it. Which I know is probably the most contentious thing I’ll ever say, but I sometimes question the capacity of people to think differently to that which they’ve always thought. And that’s a big thing – it’s the foundation of how cultures and societies operate, but it may about time that some of the fundamentals and understandings of the public service are challenged and changed.

People with highly specific qualifications can lack an ability to see the big picture. In leadership positions, people with general grounding in the humanities and social sciences often perform best.

[The Victorian Secretaries Group on Aboriginal Affairs] is the only time where they get to look at a whole population and everything for that population – not just a bit here and a bit there. They not only look at their portfolios but they try to understand the whole of Aboriginal Victoria because a lot of Aboriginal Victoria exists outside the intersection with government. That’s the bit they’re getting used to, and the bureaucracy is doing its best to get its head around it, but I think would be a struggle anywhere else.

I look at departmental secretaries and think: ‘How powerful are they?’. They’re constrained by ministers, the responsibility of managing large departments, and the many challenges competing for their attention every day. By contrast, sitting outside the direct reporting line often enables people to make things happen far more effectively. If it’s a choice between being ‘in charge’ or making a difference, I prefer the latter, and I think it’s a question that emerging public sector leaders need to seriously consider.

If it’s a choice between being “in charge” or making a difference, Mr Hamm is clear about is preference for the latter. And it’s a question he thinks emerging public sector leaders need to seriously consider.

Leading ‘on purpose’

What sort of leadership do we want and need for the challenges of the 21st century, given that political parties aren’t what they used to be? Leadership is an empty vessel. It’s what you fill it up with that counts. I’m a leader in what? What do I believe in?

When was the last time we really had an ‘I had a dream’ moment or a ‘light on the hill’ moment in government as opposed to ‘freeway here, rail tunnel there’ or ‘more jails’?

It’s not that these should be ignored, it’s just that if this is the sum total of our capacity to imagine what our world might be, then we are in serious trouble. Can we afford to have an invisible public service anymore? That’s a real question. Should elements of the public service be engaged in the policy debate?

If you’re going to be a leader, you’ve got to lead, but in order to lead you have to know the destination you’re trying to get to, not just a set of problems you’re trying to fix. If that’s all you’re doing you’re not a leader, you’re a manager.

That is actually a big challenge – trying to get people to think long term. A lot of leadership is built upon the here and now. When people talk about strategic plans, even then it’s kind a of long business implementation plan.

I’ve always been driven by asking ‘what does Aboriginal Victoria look like in a generation?’ That’s an enormously different way of contemplating ‘what am I doing here and why am I doing it?’ Then I think about what the building blocks are towards that over time. It’s not about immediate deliverables but constructing different bits and, before you know it, we’re on the path.

When you’re on country and you’re not at work, you can just stand there and you’re in the moment but the moment stretches into eternity in both directions. I do this when I go home up Yorta Yorta country, particularly at the Murray where I grew up. There’s a real sense of continuity. You can actually think about how things might look tomorrow, next year, next generation, 1000 years from now. I can see myself in the middle of something – I’m building on the work of those who came before me and I need to think about those who are following after me.

There are days where I think the easiest thing to do would be to walk away from all this, but every so often there’s a win that makes the struggle worthwhile. I am energised by the imminent Treaty with the Victorian Government and I believe it will create a momentum that the other states will find difficult to resist.

Most blackfellas are hugely optimistic. We have to be!


The big one is to ask yourself: “Why am I doing this?”
Remember that as a leader you are one of the people, not separate to them – I talk about people who work with me, not for me.
Slow things down – this is marathon, not a sprint. It can help you think more clearly beyond the immediate problem. Sure, you might have, say, a minister’s advisor on the phone, but they’re going to run out of breath eventually and the problem will move on. The bigger objective that you’re aiming to get to will still be there, and this immediate problem is just a pothole in the road.


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