Culturally based leadership in contemporary Papua Niugini


“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one who gets the people to do the greatest things” – US President Ronald Reagan

Traditional chietaincy ceremony in Iokea Gulf Province (2016)

Leadership in contemporary PNG culture is entirely different between the Highlands and the Coastal societies. A leader in the Highlands is recognized as a leader by measuring the amount of wealth this person has and the type of business they own. Their success in business is closely linked to pride and prestige. In the coastal areas, leaders are often selected through a hereditary system where a leader is chosen by inheriting the leadership within the family, clan or tribe through birth. 

In my own understanding, I believe our customary ties with our people play an important part in the leadership role at different levels. I think it is true that owning and operating a successful business is closely linked with leadership pride and prestige in the highlands. It is obvious that it is part of the ‘Big Man’ system. The coastal lowlanders obtain leadership through inheritance known as the ‘Chieftainship’ system where leadership is acquired through inheritance.

I believe the difference in the leadership achievement in the highlands is earned. The man who achieves leadership positions accomplish this through the amount of economic wealth he has. A successful business man who runs a large business is regarded by his people as a leader. The number of pigs shows the wealth that person has to contribute to traditional occasions such as bride price and compensation. The entrepreneurial skill and ambition displayed is also approved by his people to be a leader. It is true that a man in the highlands attains the leadership role by earning the respect of people through owning land, pigs and being able to manage obligations within their community.

The leadership in the Coastal lowland areas may vary in terms of customary traditions. Some parts such as the New Guinea islands and Central province obtain their leadership through the ‘Chieftainship’ system where a leader is selected through birth, usually from a higher-class family where the first born of the chief is expected to be the upcoming leader.  In these parts, their traditional leadership may be passed through a matrilineal or patrilineal society. 

In other parts such as the Momase region, it is based on the patrilineal society. The leadership achievement also varies in the Momase region particularly the Sepik where leadership is passed through initiation ceremonies when a young person is expected to follow certain skin cutting rituals to be able to earn leadership.

There is a clear line of cultural difference that separates how leadership is earned in the highlands and inherited in the coastal lowlands.

However, they all share an important similarity which is cultural reciprocity. The people appoint leaders that are expected to return the same loyalty given to them by the people. The people in the lowlands and the highlands initiate and appoint leaders with expectations for these leaders to give back to the people.

Leadership is determined by cultural obligations and this cultural bond is closely tied together with leadership. A leader must give back to his people in order to maintain a stable relationship and support for each other within the community. I believe leaders aren’t born, they are raised, prepared and shaped by the culture of the society in which they live. To be a leader, a person must return the respect given by their people.  It is important that leaders do not take too much pride in leadership but to use that respect to motivate others to become leaders. 

Lingard Ragin is a Third year student in PNG Studies & International Relations at Divine Word University, Madang

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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