This article was written by Peter Ryan, with additional reporting by Ashley Browne. It was originally printed in the AFL Record 5th April 2012 titled ‘Leadership groups are getting bigger and captains are getting younger.’.

When a club captain is younger than 36 of his teammates, it is time to wonder what is happening.

That’s the situation with Melbourne’s Jack Trengove, who at 20 years and 211 days became the youngest captain in the game’s history when he co-skippered the Demons against the Brisbane Lions.

But by 2012 standards, his youthfulness is not that unusual. Five of the six captains appointed this season were 24 or under.

Phil Davis and Callan Ward are 21-year-old co-captains of the Greater Western Sydney Giants, along with 32-year-old veteran Luke Power. Geelong’s Joel Selwood is 23 and North Melbourne’s Andrew Swallow is 24. Melbourne’s 22-year-old Jack Grimes is co-captain.

With captains now more likely to be into Bon Iver than Bon Scott, it’s worth considering to what extent captaincy is changing?

Not as much as you might think.

The skipper still has to play well.

“It’s always the No. 1 pre-requisite to being a good captain,” said Brisbane Lions captain Jonathan Brown.

He also needs the respect of his peers on the field.

“If he models good behaviour, drives performance hard and is a consistently high-level performer himself, then that would seem like a good fit,” said Ray McLean, Director of Leading Teams, and an expert in facilitating performance and leadership.

McLean said his organisation uses the selection of peers as a pivotal component of deciding who becomes captain. Often, however, the captain emerges from the process used to establish the leadership group.

The leadership group is important. Often misunderstood, it is only effective if the club’s philosophy around leadership is sound and its role is understood. That leads to productive actions and shared responsibilities.

The captain, the coach and other centres of influence within the club must have a shared understanding of what they are trying to achieve for the leaders in the playing group to have a profound impact on and off the field.

Trouble happens if the leadership group is not certain what its role is or the club is unable to harness its input properly.

Brown suggested this could easily happen if a club was not careful.

“We’ve been through a time where we tended to focus on the little things off the field that don’t have too much significance on how we play,” Brown said.

“We try to focus our leadership on the field and obviously on the training track. That is more important than worrying about whether a bloke has left his towel on the floor or missed filling out his diary – that’s real leadership with your actions on the field and around the training track.”

If trouble occurs, it is not because of the leadership group structure or the age of the captain, McLean said. To assess what is happening, it is more important to understand the club’s philosophy towards leadership, rather than the structure of the group or the age profile of the captain.

“You might have leaders who run through part of the review. You might have leaders who get involved in mentoring players. You might have leaders who have an involvement in some of the training drills, but all of those are not just concocted to keep them busy,” McLean said.

“The reason why leaders are driving (activity in those areas) is so they can influence their peers to a higher level of performance.

That’s a bit more of a serious task than kicking the odd captain’s goal.

North Melbourne’s former skipper Brent Harvey said the leadership group made the captain’s job easier in some ways. No longer is the man just THE MAN.

“The leadership groups are getting bigger and the captain is getting younger,” Harvey said.

Support is critical because it is not an easy gig even for those suited to it, like hard-working Collingwood skipper Nick Maxwell.

“It is challenging and it’s a hell of a lot more work than what it is when you are not captain,” Maxwell said.

“But it’s something the people put in that position really enjoy and they thrive under that pressure.”

Brown is most people’s idea of a good captain, a person who thrives under pressure.

He understands the broad nature of the role. He said it was critical to understand any issues young players might have that could affect their ability to play their best.

“In the past, it was probably every man for himself and ‘don’t bring your problems to the footy club’. Whereas nowadays, the role is part-counsellor sometimes,” he said.

Brown said he needed to be supportive but he also needed support to do the job properly.

“You are captaining well if you can get more and more guys stepping up to the plate, because you are passing on tips and helping them,” he said.

That’s the task facing the young leaders. Play well, focus on behaviours that affect performance and help make sure the club understands the leader’s role.

Get that right and age does not matter.

Ray McLean

Ray McLean

Ray founded Leading Teams in 1992 after working as a leadership officer with the Air Force. He has published two books, ‘Any Given Team’ and ‘Team Work’. Ray is based in Geelong.
Learn more about Ray.