Empower Or Direct?

95 afl

At some point in late 1994, Carlton coach David Parkin sat down to do his customary end of season review.  After being Grand Finalists in 1993, the club had only reached fifth place in the just completed season, a very disappointing result.  Rumours were swirling that the club president wanted to change coach but had been rebuffed by his top three candidates.  Blame for the result couldn’t be placed on the players, as by any measure it was a high quality team.  Indeed history shows that it was literally the best team money could buy.  The mood in the room cannot have been good.

Perhaps emboldened by the fact that he was for all intents and purposes already sacked, and encouraged by a young sports psychologist named Andrew Stewart, Parkin recognised that the greatest resource at his disposal was his players and set upon a revolutionary (at that time) course of player empowerment.  The players were made accountable for all aspects of the preparation and review, including tactics and team selection.  As a result season 1995 turned into a historic achievement.  Carlton set numerous records along the way and on that last Saturday in September they easily won the premiership.

The moral of the story is clear.  Empower players, give them ownership of the process and success will inevitably follow.  In the following twenty years, this model has become the standard in Australian sport, particularly the football codes.

The postscript tells a slightly more nuanced story.  Carlton didn’t repeat their success and finished sixth in 1996.  At coaches conferences, Parkin relates that eventually the players came to him and asked to be relieved of their responsibilities.  It turns out being empowered was really hard work and not a lot of fun when they weren’t winning.  They wanted to be told what to do again.

So which is it? Empower players or direct them?  In the article linked above, Parkin himself has an  answer, “your leadership style should be specific to the situation you find yourself in with the individual and the group”.  He goes on … “(being an) autocrat works for a younger group that needs direction and wants to know what, how, when and why, but as they mature there is that changing relationship with the leader, to the point where they will take control of their own situation.”

The Carlton story shows that it is not even that simple.  Experienced players want to be directed at times and inexperienced ones can be successfully empowered.  In a stressful moment, direction can provide security in the same way that empowerment can provide freedom.  Sometimes the correct answer can vary even during the course of a single match.  As we all know, 2-2 and 21-21 are not the same.

Perhaps Malcolm Blight got the balance best with his ‘Rule Of Three’.  Every player was allowed to read the play and make his own decision on the correct response.  Up to a point.  If he was unsuccessful twice, he had to follow the team rules.  Every player was empowered, but with the security of a built in fall back position.

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