Paul Callaghan: How can we design a better world with Indigenous thinking? (part 3)

Paul Callaghan: How can we design a better world with Indigenous thinking? (part 3)

Paul Callaghan: How can we design a better world with Indigenous thinking? (part 3)

Paul Callaghan: How can we design a better world with Indigenous thinking? (part 3)

Acknowledgement of Country: This interview was conducted on Gadigal and Worimi Country. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of this land, past, present and emerging. We recognise their deep connection to the land and their unique cultural heritage, which continues to enrich our shared community.

Dr Paul Callaghan is an Aboriginal man belonging to the land of the Worimi people, now called Port Stephens. He is an author, storyteller, dancer and consultant. His latest book, The Dreaming Path: Indigenous Ideas to Help Us Change the World, written with Uncle Paul Gordan, has inspired many of us. 

In this three-part series, Dr. Paul Callaghan invites us to explore the wisdom of Aboriginal culture, and how it can help design a better world:

PART 3: Leadership

Now I'm going to talk about leading, which brings this all together.

I've had a blessed career. 10 years ago, I was the most senior Aboriginal public servant in the public sector in NSW. Before then I was the first Aboriginal person to become the CEO of TAFE NSW.

Wonderful job. Learning and education, what a wonderful area to work in. But I find that Western leadership is problematic, and has a lot of detrimental aspects, when it comes to caring for our Place and all things in our Place.

Western leadership, roughly defined, is leading a group of people and other resources to achieve delineated outcomes in a given timeframe. It misses the point, because another layer is needed. Based on my time with people all over Australia, I've created an Aboriginal definition of leadership:

Leadership is fulfilling my responsibility to care for my Place and all things in my Place—and for my children's children's children's children.

Wherever I go, the old people talk about their communities since time began. The Elders never make decisions just about now. They always think about what the implications are for my children's children's children's children.

Do our leaders do that? Probably not. We're driven by election cycles. It impacts policy, inflation and all things that are impacting the corporate world all the time. While in the government sectors and NGOs, the money is handed down by politicians.

So we've got these waves of cycles that are driving all sorts of behaviours. It’s unhealthy because it doesn’t think about my children's children's children's children.

If you look at what's happening now, global warming, we would never have had that impact in the Aboriginal society. If there was a potential to do what our people would say, we need to think about what's going to be happening in 200 years time. Our children deserve better. We always need to think about the long term. 

What are my responsibilities as a leader?    

What that comes down to is another key R word is responsibilities. What are my responsibilities?

  • What are my responsibilities to share and care for?
  • What are my responsibilities in terms of doing the right thing?
  • What are my responsibilities as a leader?

My responsibilities as a leader, as an Aboriginal person, is thinking about my children's children's children’s children, my community and Country. I need to earn a living, but I'm also going to leave a footprint on this earth.  

As a leader, I sit in my office or my workplace. I'm diligent. I'm meeting outcomes, but also, how am I using my influence to support my community? Am I using my influence to support Country? How am I using my influence to support people on the other side of the world?  

Look inward, lead for the right reasons

A leader is someone who creates great stories. If you're not creating great stories, you're not fulfilling the responsibilities of a leader. In terms of leadership in design, think about how I am using my influence to create a better world.

An Elder shared with me amazing wisdom. Some time ago a young man was watching television with an Elder.

The Elder started to get agitated, really angry. And he pointed at the television. It was a politician with an Aboriginal man. The young man asked, what's wrong, Uncle? Why are you so upset?

The Elder said, see, they see you there, boy. That politician there. He's supposed to be a leader, but he's not leading anybody or anything. He's not leaving any footprints in the sand. He's not leaving anything for anyone to follow. There are no tracks.

The Elder pointed at the young fella. He said, when you grow up, you always leave footsteps for others to follow. And they've got to be good footsteps.

That's a challenge for anyone as a leader: you need to look inward and lead for the right reasons. As a designer you need to design for the right reasons.

Since I'm an author, I need to write for the right reasons. I'm also an educator and I need to teach for the right reasons. I'm also a consultant and I take on a project for the right reasons. I won't work for people who look for tokenism. I only work with people who want to create authentic change for our communities.

In conclusion, we've talked about caring for Country, relationships and leadership. Putting it all together, what we need to design a better world is:

  1. First, be there for the right reasons.
  2. Look inward and know who you are. Tap into the resources that are around you, including Country, and build relationships.
  3. Then lead for the right reasons.

This is Part 3 of the three-part interview with Dr. Paul Callaghan.
Part 1: Care for Country
Part 2: Wellbeing, relationship & sharing

Read Dr Paul Callaghan’s book, written with Uncle Paul Gordon  
The Dreaming Path: Indigenous Thinking to Change Your Life


This interview is part of ReCo Circular Sydney 2023 Series, supported by the City of Sydney Knowledge Exchange Sponsorship program. Explore more free content at:

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Interviewed by Matthew Wright-Simon. Edited by Danling Xiao.

Matthew Wright-Simon is a creative facilitator and founder of Engage Change, a specialised engagement practice that has led many strategic projects, forums and initiatives across the commercial, government and not-for-profit sectors. Matthew also runs Newday Leadership Summit. Connect with Matthew on Linkedin

Danling Xiao is the co-founder of ReCo Digital. Danling has an unwavering passion for creativity, spirituality and the pursuit of positive change in the world. Connect with Danling on Linkedin

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