Issue 2.11 | July 2011

In this Article: what your leadership is built on will dictate how long it can last and what legacy it will leave.

by Jonathan Wilson 

In the course of human history fifty years is a fleeting moment, but for each of us it is a considerable portion of the time we have to steward.  This May the Yali tribe of Papua celebrated fifty years since their first encounter with the outside world.  There are remote tribes for whom first encounter is annihilation, assimilation or simply a long withering dissolution into nothing.  In the minds of the Yali, their first encounter ushered in a transformation that eliminated chronic warfare, radically improved health conditions, elevated the social status of women and improved their education (beginning with the putting of their language into written form).  Today, the Yali, whose recent celebrations were astonishing in energy and scale, maintain a profound sense of their own worth and dignity as a people but value what they have gained from others in the years following the astonishing arrival of two missionaries in their northern-most valley.

A look back over those fifty years provides some insight into the things that give longevity to leadership and its influence; or that leave it a fruitless, wasted effort – a loss to one where there could have been gain for many.

In Papuan tribes, leadership is typically earned, not inherited.  When I was a teenager there was a Big Man (as their leaders are often called) in the neighbouring Hupla tribe whose influence was seemingly complete.  He had risen to leadership through his charisma and social management skills, which he employed manipulatively and coercively.  He used social obligations and his increasing power to intimidate and to eliminate those he opposed, including by murder.  Ikabura was greatly feared.  I remember a tense night among the Hupla when a quiet leader by the name of Yan Kabak was hidden away and men took up posts in the village to protect him – Ikabura was coming for Yan.

What your leadership is built on will dictate how long it can last and what legacy it will leave.  Self-service, exploitation and manipulation form extraordinarily shallow foundations.  These are, after all, erosive and destructive forces, and can only ever contribute accordingly to one’s leadership base.  Even institutional and financial power, which can seem inviolable, are subject to larger, systemic dynamics that can’t be controlled: witness the demise of business leaders in the 2008 recession, or government leaders in the ongoing Arab Spring.  In 1989 a devastating earthquake struck the Yali and Hupla region.  It wiped out Ikabura’s garden lands and many of his pigs, which represented his wealth.  He was, instantaneously, a neutered leader.  He never regained even a shadow of his former power.  Yan Kabak, on the other hand, served and led his people with a steady hand through this time of tremendous hardship.  In time he was regarded as one of the most significant leaders in the tribe.

When Stan Dale and Bruno de Leeuw made first contact with the Yali and set up home among them, they encountered stiff opposition from both political and religious leaders in the community.  Dongla Kobak was the son of one of the most powerful of these leaders (and was himself being groomed for a similar role).  Like Ikabura, Dongla had all the leadership traits admired by most Papuan tribes – social management skills, problem-solving acumen and rhetorical skills.  But Dongla’s leadership story forms a stark contrast to Ikabura’s.  In the 1960s, while he was a rising star, he became convinced that the work of Stan and Bruno was a good thing for his people, not harmful.  They were to be welcomed and aided.  This introduced considerable vulnerability to Dongla’s place among his people.  When in 1968 Yali warriors killed Stan, along with a visiting colleague, Phil Masters, Dongla may have further questioned the viability of his position.  When his own father drew an arrow to shoot another missionary, Dongla threw himself in the way of the shot and deflected the arrow, saving the man’s life.  While Dongla sustained a minor flesh wound, the greater price he paid that day was familial and political.

When your leadership convictions enter into full conflict with your leadership function and status – when what you believe in most is not possible to pursue because of the expectations or demands attached to the title you have – the ultimate leadership test has made its sharp entry into your world.  The most insidious temptation at this moment is to believe that the influence is worth holding onto, even if via compromise: that if you retain your power and influence you can later wield it for what really is good.  The question to ask oneself at this stage is, what foundation am I laying in this choice – one built on things corrosive and therefore ultimately unstable, or one built on things deeply edifying to the human condition, and therefore possessed of longevity?  If we fail to ask this question of ourselves, it won’t be long before the demands of stakeholders, opportunities for quick influence and threats to our well-being will each take their turn to test just how deep our own leadership foundation lies.

Bruno, my parents, Yan Kabak, Dongla Kobak and many others joined the Yali in May’s amazing celebrations of fifty years of transformation.  That transformation came at a price. Nevertheless, notable by their absence, both physically and in the stories recalled, were those leaders whose commitment was to themselves, and therefore to leadership by expedience.  Time had issued them the reward that comes with a leadership built on the fragile foundation of self-interest.  For leadership that lasts – in effect, in influence – is leadership that serves.

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