Connection with Culture in Aotearoa: Creating Effective Leaders

Sarah Leberman, Professor of Leadership at Massey University, and co-founder of Women in Sport Aotearoa, on authentically connecting with your culture to build meaningful connections and skills as a leader.
Mim Haigh
Sports Writer – Athlete Assessments

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What is your pepeha (a form of introduction that establishes identity and connection) in te ao Māori (Māori world) , and why will sharing it help build deeper connections with the people around you? 

Sarah Leberman, a pioneering leadership expert who we’ll let introduce herself with her own pepeha shortly, explained that when we identify ourselves in this way, it gives people the opportunity to build meaningful connections and relationships in a way we don’t usually do.

As an example, she said, “If I say, ‘Hi, I’m Sarah Leberman, Professor of Leadership at Massey University’, it doesn’t tell you anything about me.”

Whereas Sarah explained that by sharing her pepeha she shares with her audience where her ancestors are from, where she grew up, where she lives now, what tribe she identifies with, who her partner and children are, before she then gives her name, her job, and what she does. She added, “Talking about who we are, rather than just what we do is a really important shift, because it puts everyone on equitable ground. It gives everybody a platform with the same things to talk about.”

Sarah shared a brief example of her pepeha, which when in Aotearoa New Zealand would be said in Māori. We’ve included Sarah’s pepeha and mihimi (the greeting that comes before the pepeha) here in Maori, with an English translation on the side.

E ngā mana, e ngā reo, e ngā hau e whā, e rau rangatira mā.

Nō Rūhia, nō Pōrana, nō Kōtirana, nō Ingarani ōku tupuna.

Nō Cambridge, Ingarani ahau.

I whanau mai au i Cambridge, Ingarani.

I tupu ake au i Heidelberg, Tiamana.

Kei Aokoutere ahau, e noho ana.

Nō reira, ka mihi au ki a Rangitane, me nga pae maunga ō Tararua, me te awa ō Manawatu.

Ko ngai Tiriti te iwi.

Ko Brett tōku hoa rangatira.

Ko Phoebe tāku tamahine.

Ko Sarah Leberman tōku ignoa.

Kei te kura o te Kāhui Kahurangi o te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa au, e māhi ana.

Ko au tētahi o ngā kaiwhakarewa o Ngā Wāhine Hākinakina o Aotearoa.

Nō reira, huri noa i te whare,

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tatou katoa.

This is my Mihimihi,  acknowledging the respected people from the four winds, and the importance of the Maori language.

My ancestors are from Russia, Poland, Scotland and England. 

I was born in Cambridge England, My family is from Cambridge England.

I grew up in Heidelberg Germany. I now live in Aokoutere. I therefore acknowledge the local tribe of Rangitane and the surrounding mountains and river. My tribe is that of the Treaty partner, Brett is my husband, Phoebe is our daughter, my name is Sarah Leberman.

I work in the School of Management at Massey University and I am  the co-founder of Women in Sport Aotearoa.

This signals the end of my mihimihi and pepeha – thanking the space we are meeting in and greeting everyone.

Equity grounded in cultural relevance is a distinguishing feature of Sarah’s leadership teachings, reflecting on her own migration to the country she shared, 

“A key driver for me choosing to come to New Zealand was the Māori culture, that was a big one. In Māori culture everybody has a story to tell about where they’re from and how they connect.”

Sarah is passionate about women’s coach development and equity for Māori people and has been building leadership capacity in students and athletes at Massey University for over 30 years. Throughout this time, she has been active in the public space advocating for women and girls in sport and just over six years ago, Sarah co-founded Women In Sport Aotearoa. The charity, of which the Māori name is Ngā Wāhine Hākinakina o Aotearoa, exists to transform society through leadership, advocacy, and research, to ensure all women and girls gain equity of opportunity to participate, compete, and build careers in play, active recreation, and sport in Aotearoa, New Zealand.


As a leader in the field of sport management, alongside her passion for advancing women in sport, Sarah is regularly called on to facilitate workshops advancing women’s coach development in addition to her own classes at the university.  Sarah uses her own leadership philosophy to guide her teachings, sharing,

“My personal leadership philosophy is that everybody can exercise leadership, and if you know your strengths and your passion you can lean into the leadership space.”

Sarah considers it a myth that only some people can be leaders, explaining that while there are only limited numbers of positional leaders like a department chair, school principal, or coach, everybody still needs to exercise leadership. Sarah explained that even if we have a team captain, we can’t just rely on them to lead, everyone in the team needs to lead and learn how to bring their strengths to contribute meaningfully to the group.

Sarah uses Athlete Assessments’ DISC Profiles as part of the curriculum in the classes she teaches and with teams she consults to. Athlete Assessments’ DISC Profiles deliver a 40-page report outlining the individual’s unique spread of strengths, style of communicating, way of approaching tasks, and their how of building relationships with the people around them. The reports detail an individual’s preferred and non-preferred behaviors, and importantly also give an insight into what they need to be successful in their chosen endeavor. Most often it will confirm or enhance their understanding of self, while also uncovering potentially unseen strengths or blind spots of potential limitations.

Having taught a range of courses at Massey University, including in the sporting context, Sarah is focused on the common denominator in all endeavors. She explained,

“Even in a facilities management course we first have to know how to manage people. It is people who use the facilities and if we’re trying to learn about people, let’s learn about ourselves first and move from there.”

Practicing in Aotearoa New Zealand where Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) is the founding document, Sarah draws on three Māori concepts to consolidate the meaning of her leadership messaging.

The first is whanaungatanga which loosely translated means family and relationship.

Sarah explained that leading is all about relationship and connecting, reminding us that leadership is not a solo activity. She added, “You need the other people in your community, leadership is about how you bring people with you and how you move things forward.”

The second concept is kaitiakitanga which means stewardship or guardianship.

Sarah detailed, “I strongly believe that whenever we are in a positional role of leadership, our role is to steward the organization or team through a certain time period, it’s not ours, it doesn’t belong to us, and we should ideally leave the organization or team in a better place for the next person to come into.”

The third concept is manaakitanga which is about uplifting people’s strengths and having an inherent respect for everybody.

Sarah draws on this explaining, “When we acknowledge that everyone brings something to the table, we can achieve great things.”

Sarah then went onto articulate how each of these concepts dovetails into followership, an intrinsic element of leadership, stating,

“When I talk about followership, people often say, ‘What’s this got to do with leadership?’ and I clarify that actually, most of us follow for as much time as we lead, even if we are in a position of leadership.” 

She gave the example of if you are a department chair or a coach, you will have people above you who you are following and there are people below you who are following you. Rarely are we in a position that only requires us to lead, therefore Sarah says is critical we know how to truly support the purpose of what we are doing. 

In alignment with the equity that underpins all of Sarah’s programs, regardless of role and whether they are an athlete, coach, sports professional, or studying a non-sporting path, each individual actively engages in learning about themselves and each other through the DISC Model which provides a common language for talking about differences.

Explaining the importance of having the full spectrum of behavioral types into our teams to fulfill each of the functions or roles required, Sarah emphasized it is imperative we learn to work effectively with people who are different to us, whether leading or following. After developing an awareness of individual preferences and behavior, Sarah builds on the framework DISC provides to understand others and teaches her students various ways to adapt their natural style to work more effectively together.

The ability to adapt is critical and Sarah shared some examples of exercises she does:

  1. Large groups, time limited: When working with bigger teams and limited timeframes, Sarah will get everyone moving around the room, pausing to share their DISC Profile with a new person standing in front of them. The activity heightens each individual’s self-awareness and shows them the way we are different from each other. The exercise also gives people the opportunity to adapt or communicate in the manner that is most effective for each different behavioral style. The exercise takes the model out of the theoretical realm and shows the direct behavioral application.
  2. Large groups, with time for observation: Within larger groups, Sarah will also create smaller teams where the athletes or individuals grouped all have the same profile (e.g., all C’s or all S’s). The whole group can very quickly see how the smaller groups may struggles to achieve tasks, whether they lack direction, become focused on details, dissolve into side conversations, or stop talking in a productive way. This exercise reinforces that groups or teams need different profiles to bring different skills and fulfill the roles that move teams forward. 
  3. Groups of any size: To demonstrate the way adaptations take thought, and are sometimes uncomfortable or outside of our natural, instinctive action, Sarah gets everyone to do a simple exercise where they cross their arms as they naturally do. She then asks everyone to unfold their arms and cross them the other way. This demonstrates the way that we can achieve the same outcome, but we may need to adapt or change the way that we do things to be effective with the person in front of us.
  4. Limited capacity: For Ph.D. doctoral supervisors and their students, the group are unable to complete the full DISC Profiles. Instead, Sarah uses Athlete Assessments’ DISC Card Game to start conversations about the way that each of us is different, and how we prefer to approach things. Sarah’s end goal with this group is to develop a base of self-awareness to show the group how they can be a high performing team by building their ability to give individual and effective feedback by understanding others.

Effective leadership grows out of relationships that recognize and value our individual spread of strengths and personal preferences. Sarah role models the way we can develop an open platform to support and grow relationships, while encouraging each of us to draw on the culture that permeates our communities to further enhance our ability to communicate most effectively and meaningfully. Sarah’s contribution to advancing women in sport and leadership in Aotearoa is one that we admire and truly value.

Biography for Sarah Leberman

Sarah Leberman is a Professor of Leadership at Massey University in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Over the last 30 years she has held 12 different positions within the university including Associate Head of School, Department Chair of the School of Management, Deputy ProVice Chancellor of the Massey Business School, and Dean Academic for the whole of Massey University. Five years ago, Sarah stepped away from senior roles and returned to her substantive position as a Professor to take up a more active role in the organization she co-founded, Women in Sport Aotearoa. Sarah has a Ph.D. in Management from the Victoria University of Wellington, a Master of Arts in Geography from the University of Cambridge, and a Graduate Certificate in Athlete Career and Education Management. 

Where to from here?

Whether your expertise lies in leadership, coaching, or a specific skill, managing people well will elevate you and your people to the top of your field. Athlete Assessments’ DISC Profiles provide a thorough foundation for this process, and we encourage you to reach out and contact us if we can help you be your best.  

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Leadership is not anchored to a nominal position or the domain of the select few within a team, according to Sarah Leberman, Professor of Leadership at Massey University, New Zealand. Also a Fulbright Scholar and the author of highly significant research on leadership, Leberman specialises in applying the knowledge surrounding leadership to the sport space and in particular women and girls.

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Bo Hanson’s career within the sport and the business sector spans over 25 years, delivering leadership, management, and coach development. In addition to his own athletic career comprising of four Olympic appearances and including three Olympic medals, Bo has worked for many years with coaches and athletes from over 40 different sports across the globe. Bo was also the winner of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD) 2023 Award for L&D Professional of the Year, for his dedication to L&D and transformational work across various industries.

After a successful career in sport including four Olympics and three Olympic Medals, Bo co-founded and developed Athlete Assessments in 2007. Bo now focuses on working with clients to achieve their own success on and off ‘the field’, and has attained an unmatched track-record in doing exactly this.

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