Having just completed my final coaching stint in AFL I reflected on the dramatic change that has taken place in leadership over the last 35 years.
When I started out as a 17 year old kid from Doncaster the industry was very much part-time. My first coach was a school teacher by day and after hours would take charge of the Fitzroy Football Club.
The model back in the 80’s on leadership and coaching was very much about “do as I say”. There was over 60 players on the list and were all part-time footballers, there simply was no time for close relationships with your coach. Everyone got on fine but the mantra very much was the coach would decide everything and the players would follow.
There was a certain survival of the fittest mentality and the environment could be fairly brutal. No one complained it was leadership in the 80’s.
As I put down my whistle on an 11 1/2 coaching career, leadership has been completely transformed.
We now hear words such as culture, empowerment, consultation and talk about player leadership groups.
In my view, a great leader has to make his staff invested and valued. That is why the old model no longer works.
How do you transform a group of people from simply punching the clock in and out to feeling like shareholders?
Would you prefer your staff to get up in the morning and say, “not work again” or “I can’t wait to get to work?”
Great football clubs now have strong leaders but one of their greatest traits is empathy. They understand each and everyone of their staff and the only way you can do that is by building strong relationships.
My first message to all the football staff at the Melbourne Football Club was ‘get to know the players’ by spending as much time with them in order to understand them we had to know them as people first and footballers second.
A great leader also needs to be a brilliant communicator and must be prepared to have an open door policy as all times.
What are the benefits of having strong relationships and communicating openly and honestly?
- I find if a player genuinely feels you care about them when you need to have a difficult conversation they don’t take it personally, they understand you are simply trying to make them and the team better.
- If their performance is suffering from something outside the football club they are more likely to open up about it and you are more capable of finding a solution.
- In all aspects of your organization staff are more comfortable coming to you with a problem or more importantly a great idea.
- Being honest and open and talking directly with them avoids the water cooler talk, rumour, and innuendo. They may not always like what you have to say but they respect you because you have told them face to face.
- If everyone feels valued and invested they share in both the triumphs and disappointments and both will drive your staff to greater performance.
There was a philosophy in football that existed that there had to be a distance between a player and coach. You couldn’t be friends with a player in order to get the best out of him. That philosophy no longer exists, you certainly don’t need to be friends with all of you players but leadership should be built around strong values and not antiquated myths.
Leaders will always have to make decisions, some will be popular and some not so. It is something that coaches face on a weekly basis when the team is selected for the weekend matches. Often there is a player who we have to leave out of the team that thinks he should be in the best 22.
The decision can be difficult and has to be made collectively by the staff that hold that responsibility. The leader must canvas all the views and ultimately make the decision. Importantly, once that decision has been made all members of the selection panel must walk out of the room united.
The coach must then talk to the player directly and must articulate the groups views openly and honestly.
Great leaders and great organizations when put to the test in tough situations like this, always revert to their strong values.
If you have built strong relationships and your message is honest and delivered with empathy you have stayed true to your values.