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This article originated in a leadership program for Indigenous1 Australian researchers, where a participant who had worked with traditional midwives in South Sudan reflected on her experiences. While there is increasing interest in how leadership studies can learn from Indigenous leadership experiences, much of this work has focused on men’s experiences or has not paid particular attention to women’s leadership. In this article, we suggest that women’s experience as traditional midwives or ‘wise women’ has been a crucial domain of leadership over millennia. We begin by describing the features of traditional women’s leadership through midwifery before reviewing Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership theories. Drawing on published and unpublished sources, four principles of midwifery leadership are identified: being a leader who empowers and frees others with ‘no one person wiser than the other’; embodying wisdom and ethical practice which nurtures social, cultural and spiritual needs of women and mentors the next generation by ‘walking together’; being competent and skilled as well as emotionally attuned (‘feeling the job’) to engender trust and calm which is crucial to birth, ‘depending on each other but looking to her to be in charge’ and paying attention and being responsive to emergent change and unfolding present reality rather than being prescriptive, ‘using her knowledge to adjust the situation’. While these emphases are recognisable as part of several ancient wisdom traditions, we suggest that they connect to, and have relevance for, emerging leadership thinking and practice beyond the midwifery or medical context, for men as well as women and for non-Indigenous and Indigenous leadership alike.


School of Nursing, Midwifery & Paramedicine

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Journal Article

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