February 3, 2021
Whether you call it a rushed behind or an own goal, Collingwood Football Club has offered us a spectacular example of one this week. “We’re not a racist club,” Collingwood chief Eddie McGuire said in response to a damning report that exposed structural racism at the club. Indeed, it was a “proud day” for Collingwood, he said. No, it was a 1980s masterclass in reactive, defensive spin.
Now, let’s re-imagine it as an example of the leadership expected in 2021. McGuire might have said: “The Do Better report makes clear what has already been known to those who have been hurt by a dark and shameful part of our club’s culture. On behalf of the Collingwood Football Club, let me say how sorry we are, and how sorry I am, that systemic racism has been allowed to occur.
“I am grateful to and humbled by all those who have spoken up. You have done so when too often you were not believed. You were brave. For too long your voices have not been heard. That must change. As a club, we must change.
“Winning on the field has only ever been one part of what makes a great club. We must learn to listen, and we must believe those who say they have been hurt by us in the past.
“Nothing I say now will repair the profound and enduring harm former players and their families have felt over the years as they bore the brunt of a club culture that clearly lacked respect. I acknowledge that I, too, have failed and that accountability for our culture rests with me.
“I commit to do better, just as the title of this report suggests. This is not a proud day for our club. It is sobering start to the work that I and others need to do to ensure this never happens again.”
McGuire has acknowledged he got it wrong. But imagine how different it would have been for those who have experienced profound and enduring harm if he had shown such empathy, compassion and humility. Imagine the important conversations that Australia could have had this week if the tone had been set differently, from the outset. Imagine it was club that published the report, rather than it being leaked to the media two months after it was completed.
You don’t treat an apology as public relations exercise. Collingwood learned that the hard way this week.
And unless you can truly put yourself in the shoes of those you’re leading, you can’t lead with empathy and compassion, an essential trait for the leaders of today. You might win an AFL season or dominate your industry, but unless you do the work to understand all those you lead, especially those who are different to yourself, all your success will be for nought. Being leaders means holding up mirrors to ourselves and our cultures – to see things we may rather not see.
If not, the culture you create will catch up with you. That will be your legacy.