Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Tauhi Vā Māfana: Tongan leadership and culture in the New Zealand Public Service

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Version 2 2023-09-26, 01:34
Version 1 2021-11-15, 13:40
posted on 2021-11-15, 13:40 authored by Paea, Mele Katea

How does knowledge of cultural practices help us think differently about how leadership is understood and practised in a particular context? This thesis presents a Tongan leadership model from a Tongan perspective. It is based on a study of cultural practices that shape the ways in which Tongans perceive and experience leadership differently. The location of the study is the New Zealand Public Service, and the approach taken here is to reflect on Tongan leadership from a strength-based perspective, promoting the leadership capabilities that Tongans bring with them into another cultural context.  The core of this thesis is a deep empirical study of Tongan leadership based on Tongan public servants’ perceptions and experiences of Tongan identity and Tongan leadership practices in New Zealand. The theoretical framework is based primarily on a Tauhi Vā (nurturing relationships) approach that draws on sources, which explore and discuss the key conceptual foundations of Tongan culture. It draws on the central value of māfana (warm love/inner warm passion) as the driver for leadership as Tauhi Vā Māfana (nurturing warm relationships).  The thesis also argues that the methodology for exploring leadership as cultural practice should be located in the cultural practices being studied. It further explores the research question, what is the most culturally appropriate way to study leadership as cultural practice? In this case, the methodology for this study is therefore grounded in a Tongan perspective called Talanoa Māfana (talking about the truth in love/warm relationships). This is based on a type of ‘oral communication’, carried out in both group and individual contexts. The thesis set out to build on existing talanoa methodology to develop Talanoa Māfana providing new insights into cultural practice as methodology alongside cultural practice as the topic of study.  The study first asked participants what ‘being Tongan’ meant to them and what their experiences of leadership were. Moving into the public service context, it asked how their Tongan identities shaped their work in the New Zealand Public Service, and how they would like to see their leadership practices supported in this context. Drawing on the findings, this study conceptualises Tongan leadership as Tauhi Vā Māfana. It is based on the dynamic interplay between fāmili (familial relationships), māfana, fua fatongia (fulfilling obligations), and faka`apa`apa (sacred wisdom) within a given socio-cultural context. Tauhi Vā Māfana presents leadership as a cultural practice of nurturing warm relationships, in which people are influenced to change in a given context. This concept describes the types of leadership capabilities that Tongan participants bring to the New Zealand Public Service and goes on to explore the challenges that they face in trying to act on these capabilities in a non-Tongan cultural context.  This thesis presents a Tongan model of leadership, and so brings to the wider leadership literature an empirical study that considers leadership as cultural practice. It is part of the emerging wider conversation about the importance of understanding leadership in terms of how people perceive and experience it from within their own socio-cultural backgrounds and in specific contexts. It challenges leadership scholars and practitioners to think about how they could use the knowledge of cultural practices to understand and utilise leadership differently, in the face of the dominance of Western leadership models. This study is also a wider invitation to consider the relevance of its themes and methodology to developing alternatives to organisational research based on Western perspectives, such as the emerging literature on Pacific and indigenous perspectives.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



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Victoria University of Wellington School

Victoria Management School


Jones, Deborah; Bridgman, Todd