Coach as Leader

1240406988_a06768ea5f_oThis season’s AFL competition has taken place against the backdrop of ASADA investigations into the use of supplements in the sport.
The Essendon club has been at the centre of these investigations.
On Tuesday evening, the AFL Commission announced its sanctions against the club.
Throughout the investigations I have been thinking about the role of the coach as leader. I am particularly interested in how a coach sets a performance course that is guided by an ethical framework … all in the context of good governance. (This is the AFL’s chronology of events and a discussion of NSO governance issues.)
Twelve hours after the AFL Commission’s announcement, James Hird, the head coach at Essendon, was quoted in an AFL news post:

  • “I should have known what was going on; I should have known more and I’m very disappointed that I didn’t.”
  • “There is a level of responsibility you have as a senior coach. There are a lot of things that happened at our football club that shouldn’t have happened and as senior coach I take some responsibility for what happened and not trying to stop it.”

From the outset of the investigations, I have been wondering about the complexity of performance management in football. However, I do keep coming back to the head coach as leader. I believe that a head coach owns a big picture of performance (with short, medium and long term aspirations). This big picture involves advocacy and persuasion that of necessity requires accountability and responsibility for the autonomy granted to develop and deliver the picture.
I think the head coach must have a paramount concern for athletes and staff. This is a profoundly ethical commitment that guides all other behaviours. Matthew Klugman has explored what happens when this ethical responsibility meets a cult of the personality.

Those who puzzle at the cult of personality that seemed to make James Hird almost untouchable at Essendon need to realise just how much he has meant to the club and its fans. He brought them untold joy and was rewarded with fierce devotion. Even now they see him as sacrificing himself for the greater good, as heroes are required to do.

It will take more than a guilty plea and a year’s suspension to charges of negligence to stop many Essendon fans holding James Hird in the highest of regard. We underestimate the power of love at our peril.

Matthew’s quote resonates with the findings of a recently published ethology study, Experience overrides personality differences in the tendency to follow but not in the tendency to lead.

Photo Credit

Farewell to Kevin Sheedy and James Hird (Gavin Anderson, CC BY-SA-2.0)


  1. Very interesting piece – very interested in ethical side of coaching and leadership. Will send you an interesting video regarding ethical side of coaching and injuries. One that is close to my heart

  2. another thought provoking post; I trust it gets a lot of animated discussion going in your session. Has James Hind completed his 1 year suspension yet?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here