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What the Jewish Community can learn from the AFL

October 23, 2012 – 4:25 pm2 Comments

AFL great, Michael Long, one of the figures most associated with the AFL’s campaign against racial vilification.

By David Werdiger
The end of the chagim usually means one thing – a slide into that inexorable gap between the football season and the cricket season, known affectionately as the spring racing carnival. For those who are counting the sleeps until round 1, 2013, there is the trade period, punctuated this year by the introduction of free agency, and the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation (MHC) AFL post grand-final corporate lunch, featuring guest speaker Andrew Demetriou, CEO of the AFL.

Demetriou’s job ranks quite highly in the pecking order – certainly up there with Prime Minister and captain of the Australian cricket team.

He was introduced by Leonard Yaffe, Life Governor of the MHC, who recalled being labelled a “wog” when he went to the football at Footscray Oval. The experience led him to become involved in Maccabi, where he was able to engage his passion for footy and combine it with a Jewish social experience. This differed from Demetriou’s own experience some decades later, where football was able to break down the racial and social barriers of his time.

Football gave Demetriou a sense of community and belonging. Clearly, this stuck with him. For a CEO of a multi-billion dollar organization with a seven-figure salary package, he displays immense humility when talking about the “community” side of footy. After he was appointed to the position, he was told by an elder statesman that the AFL was being entrusted to his care, that he had an obligation to pass it on in better shape than he found it. This expresses so well the notion of custodianship of communal organizations, no matter how big or how commercial.

Expanding the competition to new geographies and negotiating huge media rights deals are essential things that any CEO must do, but Demetriou spoke more about culture, and the role of a leader in setting the culture: “You can’t claim to be a leader … if you don’t care about … trying to build a better community”. While some see the AFL as sport, or big businesses, he recognizes that it’s a not-for-profit, community and cultural organisation.

He spoke with immense pride of some of the community achievements: ensuring the AFL remains a family-friendly sport, bringing Sudanese and Ugandan immigrants into the game, the Peace Team in the 2008 International Cup, and the policies on racial and religious vilification.

Now if this comes from a high-profile, highly-paid CEO of a huge national sporting league, what message does it send to the presidents, board members and others associated with our Jewish organisations? What can they learn from his approach?

For starters, that the organisations are not theirs. They are merely custodians of something much larger than any individual, an entity that often has a long history that far preceded anyone’s currently involvement, and hopefully will continue far beyond their tenure. In the corporate world, company directors are elected by and held accountable to the shareholders. The notional “shareholders” of community organisations, irrespective of their legal status, are the people the organisation serves. And yes, it’s the org that serves the people, not the other way around. Yet in so many organisations, we see regular and bitter fights for control and power. Leaders seem to forget what the organisation is really about, and instead focus on themselves and their roles.

The way the AFL openly confronts and deals with issues serves as another lesson. The prevailing attitude among many Jewish organisations is that conflict is best dealt with quietly and internally, as “airing our dirty laundry” brings shame upon the Jewish community. Certainly in the first instance, conflict should be resolved internally, what happens when it doesn’t? The parties tend to dig themselves into a deeper and deeper pit, so that when the matter finally becomes public it has been transformed into a conflagration so wild everyone has forgotten how it all started. This is a big price to pay just because people thought they could deal with things “quietly”.

The combination of leaders with too much power and hubris with an organisational culture of secrecy is a dangerous thing. The law of the instrument says: “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. If the only tools leaders have are their egos, if the culture is one where political power is what counts, then to them, everything is framed through that lens. Every issue is an attack. Every innovative step forward is a potential erosion of the status quo. That they serve at the pleasure of the community is long forgotten.

Demetriou understands this very well. In addition to the time we spend talking about footy in shul, we would do well to talk about the values and culture of the AFL, and to apply them in the way we run our community.

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