Seeing Jeff Kennett up close and personal headlining the 2015 Deakin University David Parkin Oration for Sport and Social Change, is an opportunity to see a leader in action. He’s animated, engaging and at times a little embarrassing.
Speaking on professionalism in sport and its effect on workplace health, Kennett’s words are prophetic, delivered just hours ahead of the tragic events at Adelaide FC.
Kennett says we’re not well equipped to deal with the pressures of everyday life in modern society. Stress, change and anxiety can get the better of us because we haven’t been taught to deal with these issues. Despite being more connected than ever before in the digital age, social media can have the opposite effect, causing social isolation.
He talks about elite sports people living in a cocoon, out of touch with the real world, empathising with the likes of Ian Thorpe, unable to come out and reveal his true self until well into retirement.
Passing under the red and yellow beams on the Citylink freeway into Melbourne CBD, or attending a conference at the Melbourne Conference and Exhibition Centre (colloquially known as Jeff’s Shed), you cannot help be reminded of some of the legacy infrastructure from former Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett.
In government Kennett was a polarising figure, and to get ‘Jeffed’ didn’t always have positive connotations. His vision for a Greater South East State remains understandably unpopular, and in my local community we’re still hopeful for a new high school to replace Richmond Secondary College, closed by the Kennett Government in the 1990s.
I lived in Sydney for the most part of that decade and I don’t know a lot about AFL, so while Kennett’s achievements as President of the Hawthorn Football Club (including a Premiership) may qualify him to talk about sport, it’s his work as founding Chairman of beyondblue, an organisation raising awareness of mental health, which is a real crowd-puller these days.
Over the course of the David Parkin Oration, Kennett offers personal advice from the perspective of a learned professional with many years of experience at the top of his game. His universal wisdoms, in the form of parental guidance and family stories, are also put forward, which makes him authentic and even endearing. He’s certainly charming and knows how to work an audience.
Deakin University awarded Kennett an honorary Doctor of Laws for distinguished services to business and the community, so it’s fitting that he’s a strong advocate for education as one strategy to meet life’s challenges. In fact he’s equally passionate about education and sport, suggesting ongoing learning as a pathway to equip young people for life after professional sport.
But what Kennett said that really hit home with me was this: “Professionalism does not yet recognise the human frailty of those in a profession.”
In our pursuit of professionalism, to excel in our career and to be the best that we can in our field of expertise, too often we lose sight of our humanity. There’s a body, without which there’s no brain. Athletes are reminded by injury. In the corporate sector, often we’ll wait until it’s too late to take care of our physical and mental health.
To be capable of great things, we need to play fair with ourselves too. Kennett says the second most important function of any leadership group, after good governance, is health and wellbeing of its members. This month beyondblue launches a series of projects aimed to reduce stigma around mental health conditions in men. It’s a timely reminder for professionals to check in with our team mates on and off the field.
What lessons can business leaders learn from professional sport? What’s your game plan for a healthy body and mind?