Collective leadership with power symmetry: Lessons from Aboriginal prehistory

Published: 2012

The inspiration for this article comes from a mystery: that of leadership in Australian forager bands. The first mystified person to go on record was the British captain of the marines, Watkin Tench, who, on February 1, 1789, came across a group of Aboriginal men walking on the beach.

This article draws upon Australian Aboriginal knowledge in traditional law stories and anthropological studies of contemporary African bands. It applies the DAC ontology (Drath et al., 2008) to analyse two collective leadership models developed by forager peoples: one egalitarian ‘upsidedown hierarchy’ and one power-symmetric model. Their existence has several implications for leadership research. Firstly, it encourages shared/distributed leadership scholars to shift their current reactive stage toward building theory of collective leadership on its own terms. This may require exploration of alternatives outside the mainstream both in terms of ontology and cases, and this article attempts to show the value in doing so. Secondly, it highlights the importance of power; the concept needs to be considered more explicitly in collective leadership theory. Finally, it shows that collective leadership is not a recent phenomenon confined to modern organizations – but rather a form for achieving conjoint action in human groups, developed by the first peoples on Earth, and still practised.