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A man’s world would be nothing without a woman or a girl

Celebrated journalist and high profile media personality Caroline Wilson says, “Sometimes it’s an asset not being part of the boy’s club.”

Last week I ventured out on a bleak, cold Melbourne night to Deakin Edge at Federation Square to hear Wilson talk about Tackling the Sport of Men. Unsurprisingly, the auditorium was packed. In light of recent comments from those water challenge incident commentators, Collingwood FC President Eddie McGuire, his Triple M co-hosts James Brayshaw and Danny Frawley, and Footy Show presenter Sam Newman, Wilson’s appearance at the David Parkin Oration for Sport and Social Change was highly anticipated…the event was booked out!

Hearing Wilson recall the old days of the AFL in the 1980s (then known as the VFL) when she was the first woman to cover footy full time as a young reporter (now almost 35 years ago), reminded me of my time as a player. Wilson describes the environment at the time as “a bastion of masculinity” – a sport for men, run by men, reported on by men, where what happened on the field stayed on the field. Sounds about right.

Speaking about her career as a sports journalist, Wilson noted she’d covered athletics, golf, even three Olympics, but was unaware her appointment by a maverick editor at The Herald would be controversial. It’s one that paid off, which would see her become Chief Football Writer at The Age, as well as many other newspaper, TV, radio and current affairs gigs and recognition though multiple Walkley Awards.

If sending a young female reporter to cover the footy was, in Wilson’s words, a “social experiment”, she certainly challenged it. Undeterred by being marched out of the players’ change rooms, being mistaken for a waitress back of house or seated with footballer’s wives at events, Wilson not only wrote about the game, but had a hand in changing attitudes. She says she learned more from the women in football who gave her the best stories, sharing their insights and analysis when none of the men were listening.

Wilson has paved the way for other women in the sports media and can now cite many more female colleagues reporting the game: Sam Lane, Chloe Saltau, Emma Quayle and Linda Pearce. She’s seen a slow changing of the guard over her time in football, culminating in the advent of the AFL Women’s League, to premiere next year. Wilson spruiked a genuine possibility that the next AFL Chair could be a woman. In a global context, she highlighted opportunities for women in critical leadership positions – Theresa May post Brexit and I’d wager Clinton over Trump.

As David Parkin reminded us, sport has a unique ability to cross barriers, influence communities and be a positive agent for change. Over the course of its evolution from a part-time localised sporting competition to a national league of full-time elite athletes, the AFL has also helped increase awareness and change attitudes on a range of social issues, such as violence against women, mental illness, same-sex marriage and diversity.

The business landscape in Australia has similarly undergone significant change over the past three decades. It would have been hard for me to imagine what the AFL would look like today as young recruit at Fitzroy in the 1980s. I’ve found being open to awareness, developing an understanding and mindfulness is a great start.

What mechanisms for change have you engaged in your world @work?

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The noble heart of a hard-headed leader

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?

Featured image: Jeff Kennett by Craig Sillitoe Photography, Creative Commons Attribution

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