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Tiger Success: Leadership through adversity

3 October 2017 By Will Brodie

Richmond’s remarkable 2017 AFL premiership offers a fascinating insight into modern leadership.

This time last year, the Tigers were enduring a shambolic board challenge after a disastrous 13th-placed season, which concluded with several massive losses. They went into 2017 having not won a final in 17 years, and 37 years removed from their previous title. Few predicted they would make the final eight, let alone contend for the premiership.

Richmond’s leaders, President Peggy O’Neal and CEO Brendon Gale, held firm as their positions were challenged. But they were not sitting on their hands. They conducted an extensive review, overhauled the football department, and appointed renowned football manager Neil Balme.

Their steady-as-she-goes approach was a godsend for a large, sometimes volatile club haunted by former instability.

Hardwick attended a course at Harvard University, part of a self-examination which made him understand his micromanagement had harmed his players.

"I wasn't the happy-go-lucky bloke. I'd turned into something that was not what I wanted to be," Hardwick said.  

"It reflected poorly on me… and I turned it around and embraced the vulnerability of being who I am. I haven't got all the answers." 

Balme told SEN radio after the grand final that when results are poor, the coach can want to take over.

“But the only meaningful way is to encourage (other) people to take responsibility…”

“You can have an influence… but it’s not all about you.”

He reminded Hardwick that “the players are in charge of the club when the ball is at their feet…”

Journalist Konrad Marshall, who has been ‘embedded’ at Richmond compiling a fly-on-the-wall book, says Hardwick is a “changed man” after his period of “soul-searching and introspection”.

“He critiqued his leadership style, and methodology, and embarked on a new season determined to focus on his relationships with those around him.”

Marshall also saw a similar transformation in team captain Trent Cotchin, from a footballer offering “robotic” and “rote” responses, to a practical joker.

Leadership consultant Ben Crowe became a mentor to Hardwick and Cotchin. From their discussions came the themes which drove the 2017 campaign - connection, authenticity, vulnerability and story-telling. Players were encouraged to improve teammates and think of others. The leaders had to accept their imperfections.

"That is part of my growth as a person and as a leader, it hasn't been about me this year and sometimes it takes time to learn that," Cotchin said. 

For the rank and file players, the themes were enacted via weekly sessions where individuals – starting with Hardwick and Cotchin – opened up before the group on hardships, heroes and highlights of their lives. The trust built by players sharing their stories drove the connection evident in the teamwork on game day.

"You don't share something that is personal if you don't have the trust, and that is something that every player has done," backman Bachar Houli told afl.com.au.

"When you get your coach standing up and talking about his life, and his family and what they mean to him, it does set the scene.”

Hardwick’s focus on relationships worked.

"It's the old saying, people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," said assistant coach Tim Livingstone. 

Football offers the cruel but simple measure of progress – wins and losses. But Richmond’s amazing 2017 victory proves that relationships, selflessness and real connections can be the basis of success, as much as talent and effort.