She was born in 1958 in the outback at Longreach in central western Queensland and has been described by the author of her soon-to-be published memoir as “a survivor of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, a veteran of Aboriginal policy and a whistleblower who stood trial a decade back for leaking about the Howard government’s Northern Territory intervention”.
She has worked as an academic researcher, a teacher, a psychotherapist, an artist, a community development worker, a senior policy director at the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet and a corporate transformational leadership consultant.
Currently Tjanara is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at ANU and has this year completed her PhD entitled ‘The Road to Eldership – How Sacred and Visionary leaders are created’ which utilises both Western and Indigenous Leadership research.
The genesis for the research was triggered back in the mid 2000s when Goreng Goreng was working as a leadership consultant and was focused on what made leaders.
“I began to think about some of the research and work we were using about sacred leadership and some of the qualities were qualities that I recognised from people of my cultural background,” Goreng Goreng says.
She wondered whether there was something in it but it wasn’t until years later when she began working at ANU and needed to complete a PhD that she delved into it. After initially casting the net wide to examine elders with vision she decided to focus on how elders became scared leaders, and compares it with theories of visionary and sacred leadership.
Her research builds on the work of a Harvard Professor, Robert Kegan, who developed leadership thinking based on the stages of human emotional intuitive development. Kegan found that only 1% of the world reaches the highest levels of thinking and ‘Being’ which makes them ‘sacred leaders’.
Tjanara explored this work in the context of the ancient development process of Eldership training.
“The full findings are that Aboriginal culture has its own form of education and development within cultural traditions, where engaging in the sacred spiritual life can create indivdiuals who become sacred and visionary leaders,” she says. “And, where the Aboriginal cultural process has been disrupted there is a pathway back by cross clan mentoring with other leaders and teachers to heal and recover from arrested development.”
Each of the four elders Tjanara profiles in her PhD experienced some form of trauma capable of arresting development and yet manage to live as empathic and loving leaders, seemingly free from anger. She examined their experiences through the lens of leadership theory and personal development.
“One of these elders had been stolen as a 7 year old. He had navigated life to age 7 very well in his culture and he was then taken into western culture and didn’t find his family for another 40 years,” Goreng Goreng says. “He was 88 years and I wanted to understand how he faced and overcame the trauma.”
Through her research she discovered that Aboriginal culture has the capacity to heal and to enable a person to go back and fix arrested development and move forward into scared leadership according to Kegan’s theory.
“If you move beyond being ego-centric you can reach a higher level of consciousness and thinking,” she says. “I discovered a number of things that were unique to Aboriginal culture so that a person can navigate to that higher level.”
It isn’t a subject that has been explored widely academically: she is only aware of one other PhD exploring aboriginal culture and leadership.
“An anthropologist looked at a group of Aboriginal men who live to the west of Darwin and he examined the cultural practices to develop men into spiritual leaders.”
Goreng Goreng describes her own leadership style as “very Aboriginal”.
“I had my first leadership role at age 31 and I was very much into creating a flat structure with a combined integrated team – like a circle,” she says. “I had a job in a hierarchical university system and I didn’t know anything about leadership theory but it was successful in lots of ways.”
It was simply the cultural model she understood and it works.
In National Reconciliation Week what are Tjanara’s observations?
“I think we can do better. I miss that amazing decade when the Reconciliation Council was in existence,” she says. “Ten years of the council had a hugely transformational effect on mainstream Australia. Aboriginal people could talk and people listened. There was healing and recovery. It was high profile and there was really strong community engagement – particularly in schools – that started a really strong people based movement for change.”
Since then any progress towards reconciliation has been far less coordinated.
“The governments always stop at doing the most transformative thing they could do,” she says. “If the government can say – after all of the money and work that went into the Uluru statement – ‘No we’re not going to do it’ – what was the point?”
A government brave enough to do something bold and transformative that recognises the sovereignty of Indigenous Australians, whether it’s through a treaty, a constitutional amendment or a parliamentary body, wouldn’t simply be just.
“That would be sacred leadership,” Tjanara says.
Tjanara Goreng Goreng will be presenting at a TalkPoint event on Sacred Leadership in Sydney on June 19th.