Lesson #05 – “What is leadership, Yabby?”

by | Jun 16, 2022

“What is leadership, Yabby?”

I am sitting in front of Allan ‘Yabby’ Jeans, AFL Hall of Fame coach.

My question was simple, as is his answer. The best answers most often are.

“Leadership is personal.”

“Yes, leadership is personal, Cameron”, he says slowly, his voice so quiet I lean forward to hear him.

This from a man whose voice could strip paint off changeroom walls as he exhorted the last remnants of effort from his spent charges, players who had already given everything. They would find something, grown men, veterans of this most unforgiving sport, still learning there was more they could give, another effort, another level, another layer.

“You have to pay the price!” he hollered at the Hawthorn team as it made its way back onto the MCG after halftime in the 1989 Grand Final. Pay the price they did. It would be the club’s most famous victory and the last time Allan Jeans, the coach, would celebrate Premiership success.

The quiet man sitting before me is old, frail, yet inviolable.

He is dying. He is my friend. I love him.

I may never sit before him again, and we still have talking to do.

We will always have talking to do.

His voice is quiet, not because it isn’t still strong. Yabby would use cadence and control in his voice to elicit responses. While his booming coach’s voice was legendary, his silences were even more profound.

His voice was slowed and lowered because he understood the significance of my question and the power of his response.

He had just condensed a lifetime of leadership learning into three words, knowing that it was up to me to make sense of them.

He couldn’t do it for me.

When you are in the presence of people like Allan Jeans, you want pieces of them to rub off on you. Sprinkle a little magic dust, walk away with the answers, a short-cut perhaps, or a ‘hack’ of some kind, a way to benefit from his hard-won wisdom without having to experience the discomfort that is the antecedent of growth.

To profit from the bruises without having to endure the bruising.

It was rare for a football conversation with Allan to pass without some reference to a player he had left out of a grand final team. The memories are burned into Allan’s soul as they are for the player. Recollections for Yabby as profound as the outcome of the game.

In our game, dreams become hope. Hope becomes the expectation, often without substance or rationale.

I had never met a man who could personalise expectation like Yabby. It meant a lot of heavy lifting, now his expectation of me. While happy to share his leadership war stories, Allan was setting me a challenge, and as I write this over a decade later, I remain uneasy as to whether I honoured the expectation.

Leadership finds you wherever you are now, but never leaves you where it found you.

At times leadership requires a level of courage and bravery you did not realise you possessed until your circumstances demanded it.

It is only then that you have found your place as a leader.

I now spend my life talking about leadership and my lived experience. Thirty years in professional sport in the AFL. Almost 25 of those years as CEO of iconic, celebrated and ambitious sporting clubs, but mostly when they were in a place of struggle.

Football writer Greg Baum described this world with great insight.

“In season, a football club exists in a state of nervous tension, a 24-hours-a-day dwelling on the next match, relieved only in the two hours of playing it. It means that for all their outward robustness, they are also moody and delicate places, susceptible as a barometer to the pressures that surround them.”

In an industry where opinions are many, mostly proffered with the wisdom of hindsight and little responsibility or accountability for their views, you’re often reminded of the times you got it wrong, and how you failed. Mistakes are inevitable in an ambiguous, conflicted and high-stakes environment, with a ubiquitous scoreboard that ultimately defines careers.

But in my quiet moments, I don’t think about the judgement calls, the getting it right or wrong. My reflections are when I could not raise myself to the core expectations of leadership.

Three words. Calm, brave and humble. The three bridges we are required to cross, often daily.

To be calm, to have the emotional clarity and lucidity the situation requires. There were times I personalised the situation when self-control was needed and required. In an environment of strong personalities and anxieties, often under pressure, anger can become the default emotion, a chorus I sometimes led. By doing so, I guaranteed something much less than the optimal response.

To be brave, to step into challenging spaces. By definition, the courageous conversation is the one we don’t want to have. There were times I allowed the moment to slide, left with the unsettling feeling that sits just under your diaphragm, out of reach. No matter how you seek to justify your actions, it won’t budge. That feeling in my gut is still there years later. I feel it as I pen these words.

To be humble, as counterintuitive as it might seem, to gain influence by surrendering control. I think of the times when my ego wouldn’t allow it. I personalised disappointment, making it about me when, as a leader, it is never about you. I was being defensive and combative, disguised as competitiveness, sending the wrong signals, mostly overcompensating for the feelings of doubt.

You learn to lead by leading, and it is the hard days that define us. In moments like these, we don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are, and don’t always like what we see.

We will make mistakes, but by owning them, we learn, and by sharing our learnings, and therefore our vulnerability, so do those around us.

Real-world experiences gifting us the feedback needed to grow. To get better.

We start to develop a slight ‘limp’. What Dan B Allender calls ‘The leaders limp’. It is our leadership authenticity, benefiting from our own bruising, and creating context for the learnings of others, the books we read, the podcasts we listen to, and the conversations we have with people like Allan Jeans, a man generous enough to explain how he got his ‘limp’.

Leadership is personal.

It is time to say goodbye to Allan Jeans.

“I was born with big ears, so I figured I might as well use them”, he said as I left.

And listen, he would.

He created the space required to work it out for yourself, the best way to learn.

“Success needs no explanation. Failure accepts no alibis”, he would often say, knowing that building resilience means you have to learn from your disappointments.

It’s how you find out who you are.

It would be our last conversation.

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