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Since last Thursday, the airwaves in the world’s most isolated capital city have been abuzz with the goings on at the Fremantle Football Club, which fields the AFL Docker’s team. Somewhat abruptly, following a mediocre season plagued with player injury, the board sacked the popular senior coach. Community outrage from club members and the wider community was focused, not so much on the fact of the termination, but its manner. No one saw it coming. At a public end of year breakfast on the same day, the coach had outlined his plans for the new season. The president of the club sat alongside him. Hours later, the CEO gave the coach his marching orders, the new coach waiting in the wings.

Public acrimony against the board and its principals has been strident. The “loyalty” word has been prolific in lament. The coach had been seen as extremely and transparently faithful to both club and players through his strategic planning, challenge and support through stretching times. What price the club’s loyalty to him, the team and the fans?

Eventually besieged board representatives emerged and spoke of “the club’s best interests”, “management decisions”, “key performance indicators”  and “business is business.” Of course, none of this washes with a community of fans that doesn’t give a brass razoo about these things. They follow their footy for excitement, belonging, vicarious esprit de corps and glory in either defeat or victory. In their perception, the board had turned on its own and the blindsiding dismissal of a coach deemed to be as heroic as the best of his players was perceived as nothing short of betrayal.

And so is illustrated a clash of cultures in a sea of change. Uncertain and challenging times call for courageous responses.
Some say “We must manage this proactively and dispassionately , using best management principles. The data is in; cold, hard decisions are required. Decide and act!”
Others say, “We are on hard times. Now more than ever we must stick together and allow our community values of compassion, loyalty, mutual support and generosity to prevail.”

Dry management principles applied without modification to wet and messy but aspirational human community is a volatile mix. And it is repeated over and over again in sporting clubs, churches, community groups, schools – in short, anywhere people gather and organise.

The key to bypassing such explosive impasses is wise leadership that can hold the two in tension. and this also abounds (it just doesn’t make news that sells). Good leaders understand and participate in community. They also are able to apply management principles in a way that is collaborative with and respectful of the best human and community values. They do not hide behind popular management idiom and argot.

Will the Fremantle Football Club ultimately profit from this upheaval? Only time will tell. We are all on a steep learning curve.

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