Robbie Flower was a beautiful footballer; a descriptor rarely used to describe anyone playing Australian Rules football. He is also the best player I got to watch ‘up-close’ in my 30 years in the game. I’m not saying he was the best I’ve seen, a different conversation, just the best I got to watch week in and week out as an insider, a different form of appreciation.
Sometimes when watching a game of sport, there is one player who seems somehow different from any other in the arena. It goes beyond athleticism, skill, and competitiveness. It’s a rare combination and interaction of qualities and capabilities that set them apart, that without full access to any element, would reduce them to mere mortals. Superpowers lost or stifled, and they become just another player.
The superpowers are generally obvious, but with Robbie, it was subtle, almost inferred. He made subtlety his competitive advantage. Micro movements, both instinctive and studied that would bewilder opposition players. Somehow he would find himself in space, not just small spaces; it was like he had his own football and the MCG to himself.
This thought came to mind as I watched “The Last Dance” on Netflix, a wonderful insight into the complexity and contradictions of high-performance sport. It is also a reminder of the genius of Michael Jordan, who somehow manages to play at levels above the supreme standard of the NBA, such that the likes of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are left shaking their heads.
If you listen to the commentary of Robbie’s era, words such as ‘graceful’, ‘elegant’ and ‘humble’ are used to describe, and it seemed, celebrate him. He was the Yin to football’s Yang, at a time when brawn, brutality and bombast was mostly the mark of the 80’s footballer.
The game somehow needed him, and for this reason, while adored by supporters of the Melbourne Football Club, he was universally admired by anyone who loved the game, notwithstanding their club allegiance. Once a year, Robbie would belong to all Victorians, in State of Origin games where we would get to fully appreciate his mastery when playing with and against the game’s best. He thrived.
For the Melbourne supporters of this era, their consolation was “at least we’ve got Robbie Flower” as they left the MCG after suffering yet another loss. He was more than enough to bring them back next week, and for the best part of 15 years, almost the only reason Melbourne supporters would go to the football.
The lack of team success would be enough to challenge any team-oriented athlete, which Robbie undoubtedly was. There was no lack of opportunity for him to join the power clubs of his era. A time when the loyalty of players was being questioned as football lovers were coming to terms with the push towards professionalism, the pressure on players in poor-performing clubs to move to teams for riches and the promise of success was significant.
It was never an option for Robbie.
Soon the word ‘loyal’ was added to the other descriptors.
Former Western Bulldog champ and skipper Bob Murphy reminds me of Robbie Flower. He is the closest I’ve seen to him as a player, although I generally avoid comparisons between players as it is often an excuse for not adequately exploring the unique qualities of the individual player. Yet, every time I watched Bob Murphy play, I thought of Robbie Flower. Skinny, balanced and skilful wingers turned half-back wearing #2 might have been as deep as it went, but it was certainly there.
Having read Bob Murphy’s terrific (and partly accidental leadership) book Leather Soul, this quote again reminded me of Robbie:
“It’s seemingly a fading currency in professional sport, or so I’m told. Loyalty in sport isn’t dead, just a little misrepresented. It’s not blind loyalty. Too much is at stake. The loyalty I’ve known in footy is a relationship – there must be an exchange of effort and goodwill. The Bulldogs and I were a good couple. I gave them everything I had. I hope they feel like they got a good deal, too. I’m a proud servant of the Bulldogs. Forever.”
Too often, leaders think of loyalty as an expectation, yet are unwilling to take personal responsibility for the relationship which created the less than optimal outcome – a good person leaving. This is particularly apparent in prosperous times when competition for talent is amplified, but in actuality, real notions of loyalty are formed in tough times.
A quote from Jon Gordon in his book “You win in the locker room first” describes it well:
“The character you possess during the drought is what your team will remember during the harvest.”
Winning is never the result of a single thing, but losing often is. Good culture is an artefact of our combined behaviours, particularly as it relates to building trusted relationships. The work leaders do now, when it’s hard, will aggregate and be the reason they succeed in the future. Connections formed and established during these challenging times will be the platform for the loyal, trusted and high-performance relationships in years to come.
I remember discussing with Robbie why he never left Melbourne. His answer was simple. “I always believed that one day we would get it right, and I couldn’t live with myself if I wasn’t a part of it”.
While Robbie never got to play in a Grand Final, his last three games were finals, the only finals he would play. He was captain of his beloved team, beaten just one game short in a folklore match against a superstar Hawthorn lineup. I was Recruiting Manager at Melbourne at the time, and just a little bit proud to have played a small role in football lore, yet it remains the most heartbreaking game I was associated with. I have attempted to capture this emotion in my drawing of Robbie and Hawthorn champ and skipper Michael Tuck (above), the emptiness of missed opportunity.
As long as the game is loved, people will talk about this game.
As long as the game is loved, Robbie Flower will be a hero of the Melbourne Football Club, for all the right reasons.
In Bob Murphy’s words, Robbie Flower and Melbourne were a good couple.
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 cameron@designCEO.com.au and let me know how you think we can work together.
CEO & Founder
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