Manly’s Culture Clash

Recently I had a long chat to one of the foundation players for the Melbourne Storm and he gave a great insight into the formation of their club culture which, salary cap irregularities aside, has seen them established as a force in the National Rugby League, consistently making finals and taking underperforming players from other sides and helping them realize their full potential.

Something that quickly established itself is that their culture is not a top-down one.  Each year the playing group meet to decide their goals and the values and disciplines they will hold for the year.  Once this has been agreed on there is a mutual accountability amongst the same group, with players expecting and encouraging each other to attain what it is they’ve agreed on.

This flat, relational and participatory culture also shows out in their weekly video review sessions where the most senior and decorated players are on an even keel of accountability with others who are just starting their careers.  All ideas are considered valid for consideration and constructive criticism can come from anywhere within the confines of this trusted nest of relationship.

It seems to me this kind of flat, participatory culture has similarities to the one instituted at my club, the Manly Sea Eagles, by coach Des Hasler.   Perhaps because of their similarities these two proud clubs have established a vicious and celebrated rivalry over the past five years. 

Like the Storm, Manly have based their recent success on recycling bit-part players from other clubs, shaping them into their system and seeing them blossom into solid contributors to their success (the recent Grand Final side included the following players who fit this mould – Shane Rodney, George Rose, Joe Galuvao, Michael Robertson.)

I keep this culture of Manly very much in mind as the club seems to have imploded over the last five weeks, perhaps the most complete unraveling of a competition winning club ever.  My thesis is that the prime cause of the unraveling is a clash of cultures within the Manly organisation that has bubbled under the surface for years but has erupted into cataclysmic proportions this month. 

Des Hasler took over Manly in 2004 when it was close to oblivion.  Back then it would have been almost inconceivable that within 4 years the club would celebrate a record-breaking Premiership title, ironically over the Storm.  This turn around in fortunes was built on the tight relationships between key coaching staff and the playing group.  The type of relationships built on similar building blocks of the Storm – accountability and loyalty to club and cause. 

Consider the frequent references to the “bunker mentality”, “us and them” and “flying under the radar” that have been used to refer to the Northern Beaches club even when it was sweeping all before it.  The Storm can be single-minded in their pursuit of success partly because they enjoy anonymity in a city that treats them mainly with perplexed ambivalence.  Not so Manly in the crowded marketplace of Sydney where rugby league is religion.  Their commitment to each other and the club’s success is all the more profound having taken place under the glare of the magnifying glass of the Sydney rugby league media.

This then is the culture of the coaching staff and playing group, never more seen than in recent weeks where many of the coaching staff, and some players, have looked to follow Hasler since he announced a departure to the Canterbury Bulldogs of Belmore.  This is the bonds of relationship and loyalty speaking.

For several years this knot or relationship, loyalty and accountability has been a bur under the saddle of the Board and administration of Manly.  Here we have a different culture – one of command and control. 

Most of Hasler’s time is spent with a group of post-modern Generation Y men.  From out of that comes his advocacy and protection of staff and players.   Internally the conflict has been between this and an administration that reads from the Modernist, Baby Boomer text books. 

Modernity’s processes and the attendant conflict language attended by a CEO authoritarian leadership model have been surpassed by a much more participatory, empowering, open, emotionally intelligent, resonant, quiet leadership styles among “postmoderns” as attested to by leadership writers such as Roxburgh, Branson, Rock, Badaracco, Harris, Whealtey, Goleman, Boyatzis, McKee, Maloney, Hjalmarson and others.

The sacking of Hasler today shows this conflict has become irreconcilable.  It is a sad day for anyone associated with the Manly club because it represents the worst case scenario – two warring parties adopting a scorched earth tone and rendering a lose/lose scenario.  It is to the shame of all involved that this has happened.  The best of modern business looks for win/win outcomes, even with competitors.

To quote a modern leadership guru, may the future for Manly under new coach Geoff Toovey resemble this:

Shifting the context from retribution to restoration will occur through language that moves in the following directions: from problems to possibility; from fear and fault to gifts, generosity, and abundance; from law and oversight to social fabric and chosen accountability; from corporation and systems to relational life; and from leaders to citizens.”  Block


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