Whether you’re from Victoria or not, whether you follow AFL or not, you’d probably be hiding under a rock if you didn’t know who Gillon McLachlan is––especially come September.

The soft-talking, well-educated farm-boy that runs one of the world’s most successful football leagues is more than just a footy-boss. He is quietly one of the most influential leaders in Australia atm, and while he hasn’t had an easy run of things, McLachlan still manages to remain positive about the job he’s doing at the AFL.

There was a great article about Gillon in The Age, Good Weekend lift-out recently, and even though I am not particularly interested in the man himself, as a leader, I found his journey quite an interesting one.

Since being named top gun at the AFL in 2014, McLachlan has had to, almost single-handedly, face more cultural challenges than some CEOs would face throughout an entire career. And he’s responded to the challenges in the best way possible––by affecting change in a business he saw was drowning. His changes have come slowly and surely, and not always welcomed, the massive cultural changes McLachlan has made at the AFL have been undoubtedly good for business.

First change: the popular, but rather unassuming AFL boss, Gillon McLachlan, infiltrated an old-fashioned ‘boys’ club,’ and appointed more women––a change he admits inadvertently helped with some of the challenges the AFL were going to face. One such, was when Adelaide Crows coach was horrifically murdered by his own son back in 2015. McLachlan admits when faced with the news, had he followed his own male instinct of “soldiering on”, instead of adhering to the influence of the female staff who urged they cancel at least the game involving the Crows––the first time in AFL history a game has been cancelled––things might have been very different for the culture of the club.

Another big move he took to shake the culture into a progressive path, was boldly standing for the “Yes” vote in the 2017 plebiscite around gay marriage. Knowing it would put many of the supporters’ noses out of joint, he did it anyway, because it was right. And it was also right for the game.

Probably the biggest achievement for McLachlan on his journey into changing the culture of the AFL (for the better), was the introduction of the AFLW––an entire professional league for women footballers. A huge move, but, of course, a successful one.

He doesn’t always get it right, however. One of McLachlan’s biggest regrets is that he didn’t stand up earlier to stamp out racism within the game’s culture. He cites a time when Indigenous Sydney star player Adam Goodes was getting booed of the field every game by supporters, which eventually lead to his early retirement from the game.

It was a sticky issue at the time, that has since been relived. This time round the gallant leader has taken a clearer stand against racism. But that doesn’t stop him having regrets for not doing enough when it first arose.

He told The Age,

“I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to say that it’s racism and create a whole new spot fire?’ I demurred, and I can understand why I did – I just wish I hadn’t,” he says. “I think about it a lot. My realisation now is that sometimes you’ve gotta just call it out, and not nuance it and manage all these people. And I own that.”

And this is just one more reason he is a good leader. He admits mistakes and changes course when things don’t feel right.

Testament to this is a comment by Indigenous TV host, Shelley Ware, who in the article, quietly defends McLachlan’s stance on racism. When asked about the issue that rocked the entire AFL for a number of seasons; and is still gurgling away, Ware told The Age reporter,

“I think Gill listens, and he has the courage to revisit his mistakes, and acknowledge that he was wrong.”

To me that says a lot about the CEO and is something we could all learn from. That and the fact that, no matter how thick a culture feels within a company, if you think it’s not right for the organisation, and you’re a good enough, strong enough leader, you can change it for the better. It just takes, patience and time, and good personal examples set.


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