|Masters of Influence|
Written by Michael Voss + Russell EvansThis is the first interview for our regular feature, Masters of Influence, and we're speaking to Michael Voss, former captain of the AFL triple premiership winners - The Brisbane Lions. As of next month, Michael will be interviewing leaders in their respective fields, exploring their perspectives on leadership. First though we have decided to put Michael under the microscope for this exciting section of "The Leader".
Russell Evans: Thanks Michael for joining us. As you know this is our first newsletter and we'd like to get some insights into people who were effective leaders in their field. What I would like to do is get some insights in terms of what helped you to be a successful leader at the Brisbane Lions, and the way you see leadership evolving within organisations. Firstly, did you always have aspirations to be a leader? Where did you leadership journey begin?
Michael Voss: I don't think there was a specific leadership path laid out for me until I was probably 17. I had never skippered any of the teams I played in. Back then, moving into a leadership role was based more on competence on the field - about whether you played well or didn't play well - and that was almost the only criteria to be given a shot at leadership. I was about 21 years of age when I took on the captaincy of the Lions, so I got thrown into captaincy quickly, and at a very young age. At times that was very difficult, trying to work out exactly how I was going to lead a group of men when I was only 21 myself.
RE: It would have been a difficult scenario as 21 is not very old, especially in football circles. What were some of the things that you did first when handed the captaincy?
MV: One really important thing for me was that I didn't talk down to the senior guys about how they should play their game. It was more about influencing in a different way. Although I had won the Brownlow Medal the year before, and didn't lack football skills, I do believe that I was given the captaincy role based on my personal character and ability to influence positively. At 21 you think that you are bullet proof, so I agreed to take the role on. It certainly had its ups and downs, but ultimately I began to understand it was about leading by my actions and behaviours on and off the field. I had been voted into the role because of the way I approach my football alongside my professionalism in all areas of my career so I knew if I could behave as a leader consistently then I would influence those around me.
RE: Sounds like you had some confidence in your own capability and some clarity about the principles and values that were important to you. What were some of the things that you didn't do so well?
MV: I think, like all new leaders, there were may things I didn't do well. In 1998, at 22, the Brisbane Lions finished on the bottom of the ladder. I broke my leg half way through the year and, for a period of time, I felt I got lost in some of the politicking that goes on behind the scenes - and that just wasn't me. There were many people trying to influence me because they knew I had a strong voice and a strong influence on the future direction that the Brisbane Lions was heading in. That period of time opened my eyes as to what goes on behind the scenes in any large organisation with lots of stakeholders with competing goals. I was determined not to get involved in that. My job was to lead the team, and not try and do other people's jobs within the organisation. That was a really hard lesson and wasn't something that I picked up until much later when I had the chance to reflect back on what happened. This time was a real turning point for me as a leader.
RE: Sounds like there were a few lessons there. A greater level of understanding or organisational behaviour, being clear about what your role is and what you need to take accountability for, and how to use your voice and influence in the right way. You went back to the basics and thought about your role as leader in terms of the team. Can you give me an idea, now that you have left the Brisbane Lions, how would you define strong leadership?
MV: Leadership to me is being able to bring a group of people together for a common purpose, common direction, and getting them to work together in a cohesive unit to reach that common purpose. It's about leadership and not just about leaders - there are plenty of people who want to be called leaders, but there not enough who want to show leadership. A lot of people want to wear the hat but are not keen to make the tough decisions or take on the hard work that comes with leadership.
RE: Did you have any role models. Who were the people that you looked up to as leaders?
MV: I had some really good role models, but I had some bad ones also. You tend to gravitate to those that show the way on certain things and that you feel align with you. My mum and Dad were exceptional role models. Even at Morningside Football Club in my junior days I had some great role models who I looked up to. Roger Merritt was an exceptional, powerful leader and most recently Leigh Matthews has had a very profound impact on me as a leader.
RE: Now that your career has grown outside of sport, are there some business leaders or leaders in other professions where you are seeing some of those same characteristics?
MV: You always need your mentors and I have had those in my business career for some years. I've been fortunate enough to have had a couple of strong leaders who have been willing, even when they are exceptionally busy, to take the time to sit down and share what they know. I think that is what leadership is all about, being able to share your experience and what you know but realising that people are still going to do things in their own way and for their own reasons. Share your experiences, show them a way forward, get other people to come along on the journey with you - for me that is a really huge reward, and an important part of leadership.
RE: Looking forward now, what are the things that you are focusing on as a leader in developing a new career in business?
MV: It's a good question because when I've come through a system where I started at the beginning and evolved to a position of senior leadership over a period of time to get to the top of my game. Then to come out of that industry in which you are really well known and into a different field or career you, in some ways, start all over again. For me, again you go back to 'yourself'. I am 32 years of age yet at times I feel like I am the 21 year old captain again. Everything is new and really exciting, but I am starting to get to know myself all yourself again.
You constantly ask how am I going to be of value? How will I develop? You are building the respect of others again but in a different arena. I am automatically seen as a leader at the Brisbane Lions because I had been there so long, but now I'm dealing with a different group of stakeholders and I have to earn their respect and trust. If anything I feel like I have gone full circle. To me, that's why I think the foundations of leadership are important no matter what context you are in - to know yourself and be true to your own principles and values.
RE: Thanks Michael. It's great to share your reflections and we look forward to watching as you continue to build success in your new career.