7 Leadership Lessons from AFL Legend Tommy Hafey

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 - 08:13

By Tony Gleeson FAIM

In February of this year AIM was very fortunate to have the late AFL legend Tommy Hafey present to the Victorian and Tasmanian winners of our AIM 30 Under 30. What stood out most about the event for me, was the way Tommy at age 84, was able to engage a group of people who on average were more than 50 years his junior. Even with this age difference, his enthusiasm and energy mesmerised the group.

Not only was it was clear that Tommy loved life, but he also wanted everyone in the room to love it as much as he did and help us to understand how we can get there ourselves. He was big on being honest with yourself, integrity, connecting with other people and simply being the best you can be.

The following blog post is from a conversation with Tommy shortly before he passed away on 12 May 2014.

Tommy Hafey: As a motivational speaker and ex-AFL coach, people often ask me what I think it takes to be a successful leader. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but there are a few things I’ve learned during my lifetime that I believe apply to everybody – whether you’re managing yourself, leading a company or coaching a footy team through the finals.

1. If it’s meant to be, it is up to me

Ten little words that have the power to change your life. I’m a firm believer in making things happen for yourself, creating your own success and being proactive about achieving your goals.

I see a lot of kids these days who feel like they’re entitled to a certain level of success, that they’ll make it to the top because they have talent, or they’re clever, or maybe they think it’s easy.

What I learnt early on, what I’ve told all the players I’ve ever coached, my own kids and now my grandkids is that if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen. And the harder you work, the easier it gets.

2. If you want to be an effective leader, you have to be the most enthusiastic guy in the room

Whether you’re a footy coach or a CEO, you can’t expect to motivate people if your heart’s not in the game. Passion is hard to fake, and if you’re not driven to succeed, it’s almost impossible to motivate others to get behind you.

3. Your words and actions affect everyone on your team

Even if you don’t realise it, the way you work, play and speak affects everyone on your team (or business). It doesn’t matter if you’re the top dog or a new recruit, if you do something stupid, or lazy or dishonest, your whole team will have to deal with the consequences.

4. Give 100% effort, 100% of the time

So many past players have come to me at some time or another and said “I’m really sorry Tommy, if I could have my time again I would’ve worked harder.” Don’t take success for granted and don’t do something you’ll have to apologise for later.

5. Everyone is important

When I worked as a professional printer, our company’s biggest client needed a rush order of business cards for an upcoming trip to China. Leaving on Saturday afternoon, he called us on Friday and we worked overtime to get the order printed and packed.

But no one explained this to our delivery boy, who figured he could just drop the order in on his way to work on Monday morning. The client didn’t get his cards in time and ended up moving all his business to another printer. It was a costly reminder that everyone, from the General Manager to the delivery boy, has the power to influence the success – or failure – of the team.

6. Know your stuff

Don’t say you know when you don’t, don’t pretend to understand when you don’t. Make sure you’ve done your homework and if you don’t understand, ask questions until you do. Faking authority on a subject you know nothing about will only make you look more stupid.

7. Be human

People will work harder for you if they like you and believe you have their best interests at heart. Don’t be too worried about drawing a line between boss and friend – if you work hard, know your stuff and show enthusiasm, people will respect you and like you.


Tommy Hafey was an Australian Rules Victorian Football League player and coach. Hafey played for Richmond between 1953 and 1958, and coached four clubs – Richmond, Collingwood, Geelong and Sydney – between 1966 and 1988, leading Richmond to a total of four premierships. He was an inaugural inductee into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 1996, named coach of Richmond’s team of the century in 1998, and given the AFL Coaches Association “Coaching Legend Award” in 2011.

Tony Gleeson FAIM is the Executive General Manager of AIM Victoria & Tasmania.