My father Alan Schwab with Tom Hafey in the race of the Punt Road Oval Richmond, home of the Tigers.
In the inset is me in the Richmond jumper as a boy, with my mate Mick Brownlie.
I think I fell in love with the Tigers before I fell in love with anything else in life.

Everybody needs a hero

by | Aug 10, 2020

I have clear memories of meeting Tommy Hafey for the first time.

I was seven years of age.

It might have been that I’d seen him on TV, on “World of Sport” or “Football Inquest”, or I’d heard his name regularly mentioned in our home, overhearing my dad’s telephone conversations. My father Alan was Secretary of the Richmond Football Club and Tommy Hafey, the senior coach.

Perhaps the reason I remember meeting Tommy was our introduction is just one of many highlights on a most memorable day, watching my first live game of league football.

This also meant seeing my childhood hero Royce Hart play for the first time.

I sat in a football crowd that would roar in appreciation of Royce, but as often in anticipation. It was as if they were willing him into the game, and I added my young voice to the chorus.

Sensing the moment, Royce delivered, kicking four as the Tigers came from behind to beat the Demons.

He was at the peak of his considerable powers.

I think I fell in love with the Tigers (and Royce) before I fell in love with anything else in life.

Most likely, however, I remember meeting Tommy for the first time for the same reason as everyone who met Tom recalled their earliest encounter.

It was the way he made you feel.

It was some time after the final siren, and I am in the old Richmond changerooms. The rooms felt the size of a couple of shipping containers; a yellow and black musty concrete cave with no natural light, built into the bowels of the old MCG grandstand, almost as an afterthought.

The rooms smelt of a heady mix of MCG mud, dencorub and cigarette smoke. It was sensory overload for this smitten seven-year-old.

I was following my father around as he went about his end-of-day business, finishing in a small room I now know to be the coaches room with the Tiger powerbrokers of that era, in the midst of their match post-mortem.

As the meeting drew to a close, dad cupped my head, bringing me out of his shadow. “I’d like to introduce my son Cameron. Today was his first game”.

I was introduced to the men one-by-one, standing military upright in front of each as they held out their hand to greet me. I had been well trained on male custom when meeting someone for the first time. As they looked down at me, I met their eyes, smiled, attempting to reciprocate their strong grip with my well-practised firm handshake.

When I stood in front of Tommy Hafey, he went down on his haunches as he had with the sitting players during the quarter-time breaks. He drew down to my eye level, still holding my hand in a gentle grip, “Good to meet you young Schwabby. You were our good luck charm today, son. Who did you think was the best player?”

“Royce”, I said.

I heard the room chuckle.

“I think you’re right son. I think you’re right”, rubbing my blond head, again as he did with the players.

He kept talking to me as everyone left the room together.

It felt good.

Real good.

There are people you meet, and you feel good about them. Then there are people you meet, and you feel good about you.

The feel good about them people are often charismatic, funny, smart, good looking, whatever it is, you soon sense that you’re in the presence of a person of high capability, and often, influence. They have the capacity to leverage this feeling, amplify it, as a source of power, mainly as it relates to a personal goal, endeavour, or ego.

I know many leaders like this.

How good you feel about them is generally a diminishing good, the value and timing lasting only as long as there is mutuality in the relationship. It is transactional. You are serving them.

The feel good about you people, their goal is to keep you feeling good about you, and in return, you feel good about them. The pattern is set, and it will often last a lifetime.

It is a relationship of care, not convenience.

People like Tommy Hafey.

And for those who question this approach as it relates to performance, speak to those who were coached by him.

All-time great Tiger Kevin Bartlett, a five-time Premiership player, who was closer than most to Tommy, if not closest, explained it best for the many generations of players coached by him.

“He loved his players, he was genuinely interested in them as people”, he said.

“When I played I can tell you that I played for Tommy Hafey, I think we all did, we wanted to win for Tom and were excited if we did, and if we didn’t, we felt like we’d let him down.”

The ‘feel good about them’ option for leaders is a trap, often very difficult to break.

Firstly, it feels good in the moment. The release of dopamine or serotonin, (I’m unsure of the chemistry but you know the feeling) that accompanies power is intoxicating, so much so that leaders look for opportunities to feel it, often impairing their judgement while diluting their presence as words and actions are judged as self-serving, egocentric and cliched.

People stop listening. ‘You lose the room’, and in my experience, it is very difficult to win it back. Often you are the last to know, because no one is prepared or wants to tell you, and the damage has been done.

I have ‘lost the room’ before, more than once, and mostly I was trying to short-cut an issue, find a solution of convenience, or even worse, position myself to ‘look good’ and then losing the respect of my team who surmised my intentions.

Unfortunately, I have also been required to dismiss leaders who have lost the respect of their teams, including coaches.

Secondly, we see it as an expectation, to look the part of the leader. We have grown up with stories of powerful people making famous speeches or waving from open vehicles in ticker-tape parades, being the leader as hero. It is the most visual aspect of leadership, and leaders are judged accordingly, even though we’re seeing just a small part of what it means to be a leader, their ability to give a good talk.

Finally, when leaders are overwhelmed and exhausted, it feels like the easiest option — a false economy. To make people feel better about themselves, you are required to ‘show-up’ in the most generous way, in a state of empathy, which can seem like very hard work at the time but is ultimately energising.

I mean ‘show-up’ in a genuine and personal sense. Yes, ‘walking the floor’ is important, but more significant is what you bring to the conversation. ‘Stop telling, start teaching’ is the adage, which requires the giving and receiving of feedback, because to be a teacher you must be a learner (and unlearner), and much of the knowledge, understanding and insight sits with your team, and you need to hear it, even when it is not what you want to hear.

How do you know that you are ‘showing-up’ with good integrity and intent? Ask yourself the question, “Aside from having a job, how are people better off for being led by me?” Then, with pencil and notebook, set about answering it.

To inform this check-in, regularly ask yourself, when in conversation, be that one-on-one or group, “If I was listening to me now, what would I be seeing and hearing, what would I be thinking, and most importantly, how would it make me feel?”

Show up consistently even when you don’t want to. Practice the timeless skills of bravery, humility and empathy as the basis of your leadership. Minute by minute. Hour by hour. Day by day.

I think about the times that Tommy Hafey continued to ‘show-up’ in my life from that first meeting, and for the next forty years.

He showed up at my junior footy club when I was a kid, our coach advising that he would only be able to stay for a few minutes, but we were so privileged to have him there. He stayed for hours, talking to the young players, their parents, brothers and sisters, thanking everyone for the opportunity to speak with them. The privilege was all his.

He showed up when I got my first job in football at age eighteen as the Office Boy at the Melbourne Football Club, and one of the first phone calls I received was from Tommy Hafey, then coach of Collingwood.

“I was just talking to your dad”, he said. “He mentioned today was your first day. My advice? Don’t be intimidated by the big names. Not knowing is fine. Don’t say you know when you don’t, don’t pretend to understand when you don’t. It is the only way you get to know your stuff., and you need to know your stuff. Good luck, son.”

He showed up, often, when I was a young CEO at Richmond. Sitting in my office for hours, usually arriving unannounced, no fanfare, mostly after we’d been thrashed the weekend before, which happened regularly. Always positive. Seeing the possibilities, when others didn’t or couldn’t.

“Create your own success son’, he’d say. “No one is about to hand it to you. Make it happen. You will be fine. Sun comes up tomorrow. Always does.”

He showed up when my dad died suddenly over 25 years ago.

“Your dad loved you kids. He was so proud of the three of you. Did he tell you that?” he asked.

“He did Tommy. All the time”, I said.

“That’s good son. That’s good. Never forget it”.

Tommy never let me forget it.

He showed up when I got sacked. He showed up when the club I was involved with had a breakthrough win, and this was the pattern for most of my adult life until Tommy died in 2014.

It seemed everyone had a Tommy story, which they took delight in telling. Yes, people loved meeting Tommy, freaky fit, handsome, shining eyes, but they all spoke about his generosity and genuine interest in them.

They remembered how Tommy made them feel.

Everybody needs a hero.

Tommy Hafey’s learnings on leadership:

  1. If it’s meant to be, it is up to me
  2. If you want to be an effective leader, you have to be the most enthusiastic guy in the room
  3. Your words and actions affect everyone on your team
  4. Give 100% effort, 100% of the time
  5. Everyone is important
  6. Know your stuff
  7. Be human

I always enjoy the opportunity to talk all things culture and high-performance, and the development of leaders to achieve it.

Here are a few of ways to start the ball rolling:

  • I like to share the ‘bruises’ of my lived leadership experiences as a 25 year CEO in the AFL with leaders as part of our Learning Leadership event for senior leaders. We have run this event for the past few years, and the feedback has been excellent. We have now transitioned the event online. There is no cost as we recognise that time allocated to learning is perhaps our most precious resource, and therefore we have also provided a number of dates from which to choose, please use this link.
  • Sign up for the “More to the Game” weekly email, and receive a copy of my “What business can learn from football” White Paper. The emails are short leadership reflections, no more than a couple of minutes to read and we will always treat our communication with respect. Please use this link.
  • Download my book “More to the Game”. In this publication, I have combined my writings and drawings with the beautiful imagery of Michael Willson, the premier AFL photographer. It is free to download (no sign-ups) at “More to the Game – What leaders can learn from football” 

You can also contact me at and let me know how you think we can work together.

Cameron Schwab
CEO & Founder


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