Does Leadership Matter?

There comes a time when you have to say that the emperor has no clothes.

For me, it came when I heard Trent Cotchin’s 39 possession game against Fremantle, returning from a cheekbone fracture, described as “outstanding leadership”.


This, from the same voices who pilloried Cotchin for a lack of “leadership” after Richmond’s infamous 1 point loss to Collingwood just a few weeks ago.  Cotchin, by the way, had 38 possessions that night and was clearly among his team’s best.

But this is neither a defence nor a critique of the Richmond captain.  This is about the “L” word, and how it is being used in the modern sporting lexicon – with greater frequency but with less clarity.

A couple of years ago, “Leadership matters” was the subject of a Malcolm Ashwood article on the Almanac that provoked nearly three hundred comments (a record?).   This discussion was an earnest, thoughtful exploration of an elusive subject.  Many of the qualities that we traditionally associate with leadership were mentioned but I don’t think anyone quite nailed what “leadership” really is, less still why they regard it as so important.

My observation is that “leadership” has become a corporate wank-word, a catch-all to describe a fuzzy mélange of personal and organizational actions and behaviours.  It’s a favoured buzzword among the AFL’s movers and shakers and their acolytes in the media have been quick to copy and slow to question.  Clubs spruik the virtues of their “leadership groups” but does anyone really know what they actually do?  Commentators talk of “leadership” to praise or bludgeon anything from individual players through to the entire structure and history of clubs.

Back to Cotchin and that loss to Collingwood. The media seized on Richmond’s late fadeout against Collingwood as a glaring example of a lack of “leadership”.   It wasn’t just personal against the captain.  Forensic video dissection of the team’s poor decision-making across the last few minutes, was used as evidence of a lack of “leadership” across the playing group and coaching staff.  There was questioning of the club’s hierarchy, its history, its culture.  There was furious agreement that “leadership” was the problem but when all was said and done, I doubt that anyone was clearer just what this lack of “leadership” actually consisted of.  Did it magically appear when Richmond pinched that game against Sydney under reverse circumstances?

When bad things happen, it’s fair enough to ask “what went wrong and why?”  But resorting to vague cliches such as “poor leadership” is just a lazy way to sound authoritative about a subject, whilst reinforcing prejudices about individuals and institutions.

Individual qualities that command respect and attention, good organization, smart tactics or just the ability to communicate and empathise with others can all contribute to coherence, harmony and, sometimes, success.  But somehow in all the hot air about the importance of “leadership”, the tail has started to wag the dog.  What’s been overlooked is the bleeding obvious: by far the greatest determinant of sporting success is the ability of the players.  You see, there’s this thing called the scoreboard.  It doesn’t measure leadership.  It doesn’t measure principles or culture or values.  It doesn’t measure KPIs.  It measures goals and points.  Within the rules, you score them to the best of your ability.

When people talk of “leaders” in sport, the common, glaring mistake they make is to confuse champion players with “leaders”.  Champion players have no common trait of “leadership”.  Some of our finest sporting stars have been boneheads, thugs, bullies, or isolated, social recluses, to the point of shunning long-term team-mates.  Great players have only one thing in common – an exceptional ability to execute athletic skills.  It is these skills that deliver results – period.  Some have a knack for encouraging, cajoling, organising and directing their team mates, which may constitute a basic form of leadership.  But these qualities are incidental to essential sporting ability.  An unexceptional player with these attributes might get the “best clubman” award, that patronizing acknowledgment that you’re a great bloke to have around but not a player who’ll win your team a flag.

The 2006 West Coast Eagles won a Premiership because they were blessed with an outrageously gifted midfield group whose talents prevailed in spite of what was revealed to be a reckless, drug-infused club culture.  There was precious little leadership in evidence but hey, they won a trophy by being better than 15 other teams.

Conversely, Melbourne and Jack Watts have been media scapegoats for years.  Watts’ critics have lurched from blaming his lack of personal “leadership” for Melbourne’s recent failure as a club and the club’s lack of “leadership” for failing to help Watts reach his potential.  There might be elements of truth on both sides but surely Watts’ biggest problem is that the poor kid was thrown prematurely into a dud team that was desperately hoping that he’d revive their fortunes.  Isn’t it interesting how the attitudes towards Watts have been changing with the fortunes of Melbourne and now that he has a few high quality mates around him to share the load?

The corollary here is the virtuous and vicious cycles of success and failure.  This is where commentators take on a rather hysterical moralizing tone about “leadership”, giving it a mystical quality that somehow compensates for its lack of substance.  Their simple theory is that if you have good leadership standards in place (whatever they are), good performance will follow. Badly performing clubs are in their predicament because they haven’t set these standards.  It’s not unlike arguments about the “undeserving poor”.

Breaking the nexus of poor performance and lack of confidence is the hardest thing for clubs to do. The easy steps they can take are those that some call “good leadership” but I would describe as “competence”.  They can take steps to manage and resource their operations better.  They can employ smart coaching staff to devise tactics, strategies and motivation.  These activities probably help deliver better results than if players were left to their own intuition.  But they do little without having a high quality team.  This can take years of careful assembly band but may still succeed or fail because of luck and a whole host of other uncontrollable factors.  Inasmuch as we can define it, leadership or lack thereof, at best plays a peripheral role.

Critics of this piece might point to examples such as Geelong’s use of the Leading Teams program as an example of how “leadership” can make the difference between a talented but wayward group and a united, successful one.  If those involved say the program was significant, then who am I to doubt it?  However, if there were more talented teams than Geelong going around between 2007 and 2011, then I’m a rotten judge.  Surely it was the series of astute, inspired and downright lucky selection decisions Geelong made earlier that decade that was the real basis of that wonderful era rather than a dose of pop psychology and some “honest conversations”?  Plenty of other clubs have subsequently undertaken similar “leadership” initiatives and I’m not convinced that any have achieved success without a commensurate improvement in the playing list.

Ultimately, I believe that individuals are responsible for their own actions and it is their own skills, decisions and motivations that drive these.  I don’t dispute that the commands or influence of “leaders” and the surrounding structures and hierarchies can play a part but in the context of professional sport at least, I think these factors are considerably overstated.  I expect that plenty will argue with me about my skepticism about “leadership”.  But what I hope I’ll get some agreement on is my lament about how high-profile organisations, aided and abetted by the media, take words like “leadership” and use them to create complexity and opacity where none should exist.   Football is a simple game.  Let’s not allow “weasel words” to pretend otherwise.

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About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. Thanks Sam for a thoughtful analysis. I like you was skeptical of the nebulous notion of leadership, although i’ve been interested in it for many years. My first encounter with someone trying to define leadership more concretely was via a book “Maverick” by Ricardo Semler. Then eX PE teacher, Ray McLean’s book “Any Given Team” which is the basis of Leading Teams. The book convinced me somewhat there is something in Maclean’s notion of leadership. As you say, in Australia the “Leading Teams” approach seems to have dominated AFL. It started with St Kilda in 1995 and is also cited by players as one of the reasons the club turned around and made the grand final in 1997. Sydney also credits leading teams as a major influence in them winning 2005 grand final. Geelong and Hawthorn also subsequently say the same. The book is worth reading it defines leadership more concretely. Although, I have another good friend, also an Ex PE teacher, who went on to do a PHD in Psychology. He has a successful leadership program based in London, but he focuses much more an an individualistic psychological approach of improving specific qualities of the leaders. Very different to Leading Teams.

    From what i’ve heard second hand, the Leading Team approach did not work in the English Premier League, yet it has worked spectacularly well in Australia – which seems to suggest their are some cultural components of Leadership.

    But regarding your other arguments – skill, tactics and good organisation are all somewhat nebulous too. What one coach claims as skill another coach thinks opposite examples include Tom Lynch who Ross Lyon rated low because of his defense yet Brenton Sanderson rated him highly. Ross Lyon’s tactics were rated last year as good, now not so. Then their is the notion of ‘team work’ which while somewhat nebulous too, i would still rate above individual skill.

  2. bob.speechley says

    Something further to consider is Social Network Analysis which has been developed in relation to Indigenous players in the AFL in a recently published Sport in Society Special Issue “The Biggest Game in Town: An Analysis of the AFL’s Vilification Policy” by Sean Gorman, Dean Lusher & Keir Reeves. It focuses more on the dynamics within a team in an interesting way.

  3. Seriously interesting – and engaging – book. The Lusher, Gorman, Reeves idea has application in many places/situations. It is made particulalrly interesting because of footy and the ongoing mystery of success of a footy club/team.

  4. Stainless says

    Thanks for the comments.

    John and Bob – I’m not familiar with the Gorman Lusher Reeves work but from what you describe it sounds as though it proves my view that the complexities of team dynamics and performance can’t just be summarized in an empty cliché like “leadership”.

    George – lots of interesting issues here. My purpose in making the skill v leadership issue such a black and white one (which it obviously isn’t) is more about criticizing the lazy use of words. As a writing community I like to think we can lead the charge here.
    Interesting point also about the EPL and Leading Teams. To me it’s not surprising. The EPL is the ultimate expression of naked capitalism in sport. The best players are bought by the richest clubs which routinely dominate the competition. The turnover is so rapid that it’s hard to imagine a strong team culture having a great influence. The obvious exception here is Leicester’s extraordinary feat and there is already plenty being said and written about the cultural and leadership factors that drove this success. The more prosaic explanation is remarkable good fortune in keeping a consistent stable team together without mishap and being able to grind out a freakish sequence of narrow wins.

  5. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Leadership is one of my favourite subjects,re the pies v tigers game where it stood out was the tigers had about 7 chances where if the correct decision had been made they would have won and yes I well and truly thought they lacked leadership in the crunch where as the crows v hawks game skill errors and bad luck contributed I thought there were discernible differences.Stuart Maxfield is lauded by the swans internally and acknowledged re playing a huge part in turning the club around with extraordinary leadership.Nick Maxwell and Nathan Van Berlo again with in the footy industry are just so highly regarded,a subject of a million different opinions

  6. good point Sam about the lazy use of words, I’d love to find out more about what Leicester City did about culture and leadership.

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