Our so-called leaders often fall disappointingly short of the mark. But last week at a Families Commission conference to talk about the state of Pacific Island families, Samoa's head of state, Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Tai'isi Efi, offered an example of leadership that gave me hope.

Tui Atua's perfectly pitched speech on the challenges facing Pacific families, and his message - that it's time we re-examined some of the cultural practices which impose such a heavy burden on families - wasn't a new call.

Many of us have been saying the same thing for years, though nowhere near as eloquently.

What makes this so significant is that this time it comes from an elder statesman and scholar who is regarded as something of a cultural guardian.

For Tui Atua, a former Samoan prime minister, the tsunami that caused so much death and destruction has also provided an opportunity "for a reappraisal of family and societal values and a cleansing, if you like, of that which, in the light of so much pain and grief, became peripheral, nonsensical, vain and excessive".

Such is the case with Samoan funerals, which have become "very expensive and stressful, with some families getting into debt financially, mentally and spiritually by the end of it".

Indeed, "the social stigma of losing face if family resources are found wanting is so great that family heads are willing to do almost anything to avoid it, including creating inter-generational debt".

The tsunami may have opened the door to change. By necessity, funerals for the tsunami victims were very simple affairs.

"The paraphernalia that we have become accustomed to seeing at a Samoan funeral, especially one held in the villages, was so scaled down that one could not help but ask: how much of it do we really need? Will our funerals and their cultural imperatives lose meaning and substance if we gave to the grieving and demanded nothing or only accepted the bare minimum in return? Would the dignity of the deceased and his or her family be undermined by simple but true gestures of reciprocity?

"The seeming ordinariness of the tsunami funerals, with the minimum fuss and bother that surrounded them, did not, however, lose any face by their simplicity. Instead, they gained in that they reminded us of what really mattered."

The tsunami chastened and cleansed, said Tui Atua. It was an invitation to reassess, and make anew. "We might say that it forced us to front up to our vanities and cupidity, violently shaking and unmasking us of the facade and exploitations that befall status at funerals and making profane anything other than what is fundamental to the act of celebrating life and providing relief from sorrow and pain.

"In a nutshell, the tsunami has forced us to ask: Are our families suffering because of our own misplaced and inflated expectations? If the answer is yes, then we must take pause to sort out why this is so."

The answer is yes, some of them.

Research presented at the Families Commission conference confirmed that many Pacific families in New Zealand struggle with the cost of meeting cultural obligations.

But many felt obliged to continue. For some, it was the price of membership, an essential part of their cultural identity.

There is a balance, and many of us have found it. But many families, perhaps the most vulnerable, need permission to throw out cultural norms that no longer work for them, or to challenge practices that have drifted too far from the core values that give them meaning.

And this is where leadership comes in.

Some years ago, I wrote a piece about the excesses of Samoan funerals, after the death of a woman whose funeral was in stark contrast to the misery and pain of her death. While church ministers were feted by her extended family and given money and food to take home, her children went home to empty cupboards. The children's father worked long hours, but his take-home pay barely covered their expenses.

A few ministers wrote to me after the column, saying they had tried to refuse gifts but were always pressed to take them.

I didn't think they were trying hard enough.

It would be easy, of course, to focus on what's wrong with Pacific families, rather than on what's right. And while the research papers funded by the Families Commission point to families buffeted by economic forces beyond their control - more so than any other group in New Zealand - they also highlight the resilience of Pacific families despite the odds.

Tui Atua tells of a grandmother who, on hearing the emergency call to go to higher ground, had yelled to her grandchildren to run for their lives. Being a big woman, she knew she would slow them down, so she was horrified when her 7-year-old grandson came back for her. Realising the boy wouldn't leave her, she held his hand tightly and tried to move quickly, but the wave caught them. Her grandson did not survive.

The tsunami offered up many images of the strength of the family, but none as "heart-wrenchingly raw and vivid as the sight of a mother, at the call of a new body being found, rushing over to see if it is hers and on realising that it is, oblivious to the stench of the rotting body, hugs and kisses it as if it were newborn".