Faculty of Business and Law

Sport Innovation Research Group

Future of Leadership in Sport

Brendon Gale, CEO of the Richmond Football Club joined members of the Swinburne Sport Innovation Research Group to address the Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship’s event in September 2019. Brendon discussed themes of vulnerability and connection in changing the environment of a football club, making Australia’s largest sport team membership base central to the club’s operation, and the role of football clubs in developing social value and gender equity.

After two glorious premierships spanning three seasons, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Richmond finished 13th in 2016. After bowing out of three successive finals series in the first week, 2017 marked 15 years since a Tigers’ win in September. Before then, member satisfaction had dropped and the knives came out for the board and senior leadership. 

 “When experience falls short of expectations at a club like ours, out come the baseball bats,” Gale told attendees of the Future of Leadership in Sport event hosted by Swinburne University’s Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship and Pitcher Partners. “And they certainly did that year.”

Gale spoke candidly in a conversation with Director of the recently launched Swinburne Sport Innovation Research Group, Dr Adam Karg, continuing the club’s reputation for being an “open book”. Gale shared with over 180 attendees how Richmond turned its fortunes around – first by belying calls for blood.

“I think the overriding emphasis [for senior leadership] was one of, okay, we're not where we want to be, why? Let's gather the evidence. There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of noise out there… let's ignore that, let's not react to public pressure and make poor decisions. Let's absorb the pressure… let's make the changes that we need to do [but] on the basis of evidence and from a position of strength, and a position of trust.”

According to Gale, no-one embodied calm more than President Peggy O’Neal, the club’s first female director to be appointed to the board – a fact that singled her out for criticism from some disenchanted fans.

“She sat back and said, okay, let’s review our performance, gather the right information and make strong, evidence based informed decisions.   So that’s what we did.”

The courage to be vulnerable

Reflecting on tenser times, Gale remembers the review as “robust”. “What it affirmed was that there’s lots of stuff we do really well. But there were areas we needed to address. 

“It wasn’t a review of the football department, it was a review for the football department. We shared the findings, [and] there were some really tough conversations, but all with the right intent.”

Gale says what took place was a change in how we prioritised the development of a mental performance mindset, and in particular, how we understood and sought to develop leadership. A significant turning point, he recalls, came when he was told to watch Dr Brené Brown’s TED talk “The power of vulnerability and leadership”, at the recommendation of a club leadership consultant

“To me, Dr Brown’s TED talk, about 11 minutes, talking about leadership and vulnerability, summed up football clubs… so that weekend, I went to the bookshop and bought two of her books. I think I read them in two or three days. Slowly over the next few months through the good work of our leadership consultants this approach spread through our club.”

In 2017, vulnerability and connection weren’t yet in vogue in the historically hypermasculine world of Australian Rules Football, making Richmond an industry leader. Gale described how sessions in which players shared attributes that were perceived as “shameful” or other vulnerabilities transformed the club.

“In 2016, everyone was going back to the corner, working harder, lifting more weights, trying to run faster, spinning the wheels and not getting anywhere. Guys bunker down in silos under pressure. [In those circumstances] we tend to internalise and ‘woe is me’, thinking about ourselves. That’s the opposite of team.

“Connection goes to trust. Trust goes to leadership. And it was a shared experience with the whole team [that we fostered]. So it culminates in Grand Final day in 2017. And we eviscerated another team, because we were by far a better team.”

Success, says Gale, breeds confidence that the club’s culture has changed for the better. 

“The experience [of vulnerability and connection] has been successful for us. That in and of itself institutionalises and entrenches this new approach. As an administration, we’ve just got to make sure we can continue to invest in that.”

103,358: Making the members central 

One noticeable element of the club’s transformation change since 2010, contends Gale, was making its members central to the club’s operation. 

“I think for years our approach, and this is probably symptomatic of a lot of clubs, the fixture would come out, and we'd get the database of, the previous membership database, and we just mail out the fixture and we'd just say, ‘Sign up.’ And that was about the extent of it. So we felt that we had a large lapsed membership base, and rightly so, because a lot of members had lost, I guess, faith or confidence in the club.

“[So we changed] the way we talked about them, the way we described them, the way we serviced them, the way we inform them… we sought to better understand who our members are. And better understand what motivated them, and then we could start to tailor our messages accordingly.”

One key finding, says Gale, was that members wanted the club to stand for something more than football.

“Our members want us to stand for something… to play a broader, deeper purpose. 

Gale’s observations aligned with the recently released Swinburne’s Australian Leadership Index study of which revealed public perceptions of sport organisations outweighed many other forms of organisations in Australia.

“Look at organised religion or our state and federal parliaments, it’s fair to say that people probably have less faith in these institutions than they did, say, 30 years ago… but I think sport, and its ability to bring communities together and strengthen communities, grows. That’s an enormous privilege in sport, and [with] an organisation like ours, it comes with enormous responsibility.”

Creating social value

Gale points to Richmond’s advocacy in the indigenous space as one example of how the club have taken seriously their responsibility – and members’ desire – to strengthen Australian communities through and beyond football. 

“We’re one of only 15 organisations in the country that have Reconciliation Action Plan and Elevate status, we're the only sporting club. We took a big step this year [and] went out in support of treaty. We're [generally] very non-political, but the treaty process in Victoria isn't political. Because it's law.

“We felt it wouldn't be right if we didn't encourage young Victorians to register to participate in this process, to have their say, to help determine their own future. Now we experienced a little blowback on that. But to sit there and do nothing would be inconsistent with our purpose and brand.”

Leading on gender equity

Further consistent with the “new” Richmond brand, says Gale, is the introduction in 2020 of its first women’s football team, a move that solidifies the work Richmond has already done to increase gender equity in leadership off the field.

Gale gave the example of starting as CEO in 2009 and noticing very few women shortlisted for jobs.

“Footy is so equalised, we have salary caps, we have drafts, …[it’s] all about competitive balance. One of the few areas where you can get a competitive advantage is in your talent, your people and culture. But basically, lack of representation of women [in the game] has meant that when it comes to accessing the best talent, we've got one hand behind our back.”

As a result, Gale and the senior leadership team set about finding out why women weren’t being put forward or nominating for football positions.

“Women tended not to see football as a legitimate career pathway. And I understand why. It's perhaps the lack of voice or visibility of women. You can't be what you can't see.

“We've got a female President, which is remarkable. Peggy was the first female director on our board, and now we have four. So she's blazed the trail, I think, on our board and the like… I think the overriding benefit is it just that it normalises [women in] footy clubs. You've got to remember, football's been played by men for over 100 years. And it's been managed by men. And coached by men. And the story of football has been told by men, including broadcasting, journalists. So these aren't normal workplaces. So I think just the normalisation has been a huge, which facilitates healthy, respectful attitudes towards women as well.”

Thank you to our industry partner Pitcher Partners for hosting this event on behalf of Swinburne University of Technology.