Chapter Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10

Chapter 6: Leadership – a Role for Everyone

The Black Swans – a Story about Abuse of Leadership

The leadership of the Australian Aborigines has for long been a puzzle. So much so that they were believed to be so "primitive" that they had no leaders. However, their approach to leadership was in fact so advanced that the British colony authorities and the naval officers were primitive by comparison. Here follows what might be the "humankind's first management course" – the story about the Black Swans. It describes twelve typical abuses of leadership, which we analyse in the book. Number 2. below is a classic; do you recognise it? The correct answer is found at the bottom of the page!

1. When Wurunna returned to his people he brought with him some hunting tools never seen by men. These, he said, were made in a country where there were only women and they had given them to him in exchange for his possum skin rug. They had told him that they would trade more hunting tools for more possum rugs. The people agreed to trade and to go to the women's country.

Salt Bush Land
'The Plain' as it may
have looked at the
time of the story

2. Wurunna warned his people that there were unknown dangers on the plain because he was sure the women were spirits – they had told him there was neither death in their country nor any night. However, Wurunna said there was an evil smell on the plain which seemed to have death in it.

3. Wurunna planned to smoke all the men so that no evil would be carried back to their people. Wurunna also arranged a plan for warning the men to leave if they stayed too long on the plain. He would take his two brothers with him and would turn them into two large swans. As there were no birds or animals on the plain they would be noticed quickly.

View from Wubi-Wubi
"The Lake" (now dry),
at the horizon

4. As soon as everyone was ready Wurunna would send these swans to swim on the lake opposite the women's camp. Seeing them, the women would be frightened and forget the men, who could then go onto the plain and get what they wanted. He told every man to take an animal with him and if the women tried to interfere, they should let the animals go and, again, the women would be distracted and the men could make their escape with the tools.

5. They set out – Wurunna and his brothers went to the far side of the plain and Wurunna lit a fire to smoke his people. From inside himself he brought out a large crystal and with its power he turned his brothers into two swans. 'Bibil, bibil,' they said. When the women saw the smoke they ran towards it crying, 'Wi-balu, Wi-balu,' but then they saw the two large white birds swimming on their lake and ran towards them.

6. The men seized the opportunity and took all the tools they wanted from the women's deserted camp but the women saw them and came angrily towards them. Then each man let go of the animal he had brought – far and wide on the plain went possums, bandicoots and others. While the women chased the animals, the men dropped the possum rugs and, taking the tools, rushed towards Wurunna's fire.

7. The women, seeing the men leaving with all their tools, ran after them but the men passed into the darkness and smoke and the women were afraid to follow – there was no dark or fire in their country. The women were so angry they began to fight among themselves and their blood flowed fast so that it stained the whole of the western sky where their country is. Now, whenever the people see a red sunset they say the Wi-balus must be fighting again.

Wubi-Wubi at Distance
Wubi-Wubi - the "sacred
place where Baayami lived".

8. Wurunna now travelled on his journey to the sacred place where Baayami lived. He forgot about his two brothers even though they flew above him crying, 'Bibil, bibil', so that he would change them back into men. By the time Wurunna reached the sacred place, the swans were very tired and rested on a small lagoon.

9. The eaglehawks, messengers of the spirits, who were flying to deliver a message, saw the two swans on their own lagoon. In their rage they swooped down, drove their claws and beaks into the poor white swans, and then carried them far away from the sacred place. As they flew, they plucked out the feathers of the swans, which fluttered down the sides of hills and lodged in between the rocks with blood dripping beside them – these formed flowers which are now known as paper daisies.

10. The eaglehawks flew on until they came to a large lagoon near the big salt water. At one end of the lagoon were rocks on which they dropped the swans. The eaglehawks then remembered the message they had to deliver and left the swans almost featherless, bleeding and cold. The swans thought they were going to die far away from their country and their people.

Black Swan in Narran Lake
A black swan in
Narran Lake.

11. Suddenly, they felt a soft shower of feathers falling on them, warming their bodies. High on the trees above they saw hundreds of crows similar to those they had sometimes seen on the plain but had believed to be a warning of evil. The black feathers covered the swans except on their wings, where a few white ones had been left. Also the down under the black feathers was white. The red blood on their beaks stayed there forever.

12. The swans flew back to their country and their people. Wurunna heard their cry, 'Bibil, bibil', and knew it was his brothers, although when he looked he saw not white birds, but black birds with red bills. Sad as he was to hear their cry, Wurunna could not change them back into men. His power as a wiringin had been taken from him for daring to go, before his time, to the sacred place.


Black Swan Painting
The Black Swans

The Black Swans story is one in the series with the wiringin, Wurunna, in the lead role. As is so often the case in Aboriginal stories, the story teaches by showing us the consequences of abuse – in this case, the abuse of the power of knowledge.

The story (being told to everyone) reveals some of the tactics of bad leadership; for leaders to avoid and for followers to recognise and beware.

The answer to the quiz:

Section 2. is a classic abuse of leadership: Scare your people with a (non-existing) unknown threat from foreigners! This will make the people more easy to subjugate. This is also a recommendation by a well-known authority on leadership abuse: Machiavelli.

The painting follows the story from top to bottom.