Lesson #20 – “Growers and Arrivers”

by | Oct 5, 2023

I doubt there has been a more watched person in the history of Australian Football than Nathan Buckley.

More than 30 years ago, he announced his arrival as a player of immense capabilities and single-minded determination with all the media scrutiny that followed. The judgement continued unabated throughout his career as player and coach, monitored and opinioned by a game that couldn’t get enough of people like Nathan Buckley.

Much of the commentary had a ‘heroes and villains’ storyline, and Nathan has been positioned as both. Over the years, our paths have crossed only a few times, but this view did not accord with the person I found to be engaging, thoughtful and generous, even when he didn’t have to be.

In the aftermath of last Saturday’s outstanding Grand Final and a Collingwood Premiership two years after he walked away from the senior coaching role (or was pushed, depending on the preferred storyline), people wanted to know how it felt to be Nathan Buckley at that moment such is the intrigue.

“I was tremendously emotional immediately after with a couple of my old teammates and a couple of players I have coached,” he said.

“I have got a lot of gratitude for my career. I still have a little bit of ‘what ifs’ there, but I was rapt to see some of the boys that I have coached be rewarded and take that next step.”

“The club right now in 2023 and right now in September have been able to do it,” he said. 

“They deserve all the credit.”

Having spent a lifetime in the game, I learned that some people are into growing, but most people are only interested in arrival. 

The ‘arrival’ people create all the commotion that distracts from the critical work of the ‘growers’, who are playing a much bigger and far more important game, energised by all its possibilities, and significantly, not overwhelmed by its ambiguity.

It is a kind of ‘Curiosity vs Certainty’ mindset.

Their world is not black and white. The ‘growers’ see something far more nuanced, full of shades of grey, and they can successfully operate in it, knowing this is where the opportunities exist. They have crafted this capability, the curiosity to learn, the courage to unlearn.

The football world spent most of the last 30 years thinking of Nathan Buckley as an ‘arriver’, but he fully strikes me as a ‘grower’, and perhaps he always has been, as it is easy to overestimate the role talent plays with those who can make the game look easy.

He may once have been someone who took pride in having the answers, whereas my sense of the man today is somebody who relishes trying to understand more about the question.

This feeling was confirmed when listening to a terrific podcast when Nathan was coaching Collingwood in the aftermath of their 2018 Grand Final loss to the West Coast Eagles.

They lost by less than a goal in a match the Magpies led for all but a few minutes.

It was a game of moments, and for people like Nathan, it was a loss that will never get any easier, but for the greater Magpie population, Saturday’s victory is the salve this wound needed.

In “The Howie Games, where Mark Howard interviews Nathan, he talks with openness and vulnerability, such as his relationship with his father, including the letters his dad, a Vietnam Vet, wrote when he was at boarding school in country Victoria, having grown up in the Northern Territory.

The conversation moved onto that period a few years later when every AFL club was chasing him when he was playing in South Australia for the Port Adelaide Magpies. I was in the queue as the then CEO of the Richmond Football Club, and I sense we were never really in the hunt.

Mark Howard asks Nathan about a ‘brown paper bag’, an old-time recruiting technique when a player is handed cash, literally in a brown paper bag, in this case, $10,000 in a cafe in Adelaide, as an incentive to sign with a club.

Mark and Nathan were reflecting with mirth on how times have changed, and what massive news such a move would be today had it been discovered.

Nathan then pauses and reflects, “I sometimes think, at times, you can get caught between eras, between the old way and the new way”.

He then pauses again.

“We’re always between the old way and the new way.”

I have learned that discomfort marks the place where the old way meets the new way. It is a place of vulnerability and courage. If it doesn’t challenge you, it will not change you, and whenever in doubt, back the new way and all its uncertainty.

After three decades of intense scrutiny, the world is still getting to know Nathan Buckley and always will be. Who he was before, who he is now, and who he is becoming will always be something a little different, and that will keep him interesting and many of us guessing.


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