In an exciting new podcast series, AFL Players’ Association CEO, Paul Marsh, goes one-on-one with the best leaders in the game to gain an interesting insight into their unique leadership style.
The AFL is home to some of the best and most influential leaders in Australia. The captains of the league’s 18 clubs are revered by thousands, and the AFLPA’s ‘Captain’s Call’ podcast brings some of their stories to you.
Marsh hosts the captains as they share their experiences in the AFL, their roads to captaincy and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. Their philosophies and styles all differ, and they talk about the moments that shaped them as leaders.
From these conversations come some fascinating stories, many of which wouldn’t have been shared with football fans until now.
Fremantle skipper Nat Fyfe is one of the most respected figures in the AFL, and the deep-thinking 26-year-old opens up about the devastation of the 2013 Grand Final loss to Hawthorn, and the immediate realisation of just how difficult it is to get to that moment.
“There was heartbreak straight after. The cogs in my mind started ticking over… ‘What am I going to have to do to get back? How long is it going to take? Will it be in a purple jumper?’ he said.”
Fyfe also shed some light on Matthew Pavlich’s leadership reign, what an AFL captain needs to succeed, cultivating an off-field image and career, and his plans for life after football.
Dyson Heppell was just 24 years old when he took over as captain of Essendon, and he too leaned on others for guidance. While Jobe Watson and other teammates are obvious influences, some of his mentors are more surprising.
He names Richmond’s Trent Cotchin and Collingwood’s Scott Pendlebury as two opposition captains who have reached out and offered advice during tough times. That shared knowledge has helped Heppell settle into the captaincy and find his own leadership style.
“Scotty Pendlebury, whether he knows it or not, is a good mentor of mine and I speak to him a fair bit. Even going through a rough period earlier this year, Trent Cotchin reached out and I spoke to him on a few occasions as well,” Heppell explained.
Easton Wood is in his first year as skipper of the Western Bulldogs but had almost a full season learning from one of the best in the business. When former captain Bob Murphy went down injured in 2016, Wood was forced to step up and take over.
“As wonderful a leader as Bob was, I needed to do it my own way. You need to be genuine, to build relationships and be curious,” he said.
Of course, the Bulldogs won the premiership that year and Wood had Murphy guiding him every step of the way. Now in the role full-time, he says he’s finding ways to use Murphy’s advice while still forging his own path as a leader.
North Melbourne has long been guided by the Shinboner Spirit, and Jack Ziebell’s play has always exemplified it. As captain of the club since 2017, he now needs to help his teammates buy into those ideals, too.
“The ‘shinboner’ spirit is thrown around a lot and it is something that we try and drive as a leadership group — it’s one of our tools to bind everyone together,” Ziebell said.
It’s not just the football club and its history guiding him, though — from his family and upbringing in Wodonga to his leadership group at North, Ziebell says he has plenty of mentors who have helped shape his leadership.
Shannon Hurn joined a West Coast side with high expectations, and saw them win a flag in his first season at the club. By the time he was an AFL regular, though, the club’s off-field issues were coming to light.
He and his fellow younger players led the charge in changing the Eagles culture during the late-2000s and he’s moved seamlessly into the captaincy in the years since. Now in his fourth year at the helm, he says he’s still learning about how to best lead his players.
“My first year, I probably tried to do too much. I thought you become a captain, so you should be all over everything. You should be understanding what’s going on, but you shouldn’t have to do it all yourself,” Hurn explained.
In his conversations with all five players, Marsh talks about the strengths, weaknesses and philosophies of each as a leader. From that stem valuable lessons for leaders in any field and for anyone looking to improve on their own skills and qualities.