Talking courage with a CEO in the sports industry

(4 minute read.)

mark brayshaw

Mark Brayshaw is the CEO of the Australian Football League Coaches Association (AFLCA).  He is a former Australian rules footballer who played with North Melbourne Football Club in Victoria and Claremont Football Club in WA.  As the CEO of the AFL Coaches Association, Mark’s focus is on supporting the work of AFL coaches in all levels of football.

 I am grateful to have learnt so much from Mark about the courageous acts of many, diverse people.  While too many to be mentioned here, I trust you will enjoy the stories that follow. 

 How would you describe workplace courage?

Courage is about overcoming an innate fear to take a particular course of action.  There is a risk involved – whether this be to self or others.

How would you compare courage and bravery?

There is a distinct difference between courage and bravery. For me, the distinction is that bravery involves the risk of physical harm.  Bravery is often ascribed improperly. For example,  as a young man, Paul Hogan had a job painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  Because of this job, he wasn’t afraid of heights.  So, when he walked out onto a ledge of a tall building to stop someone jumping off, I don’t think he was courageous (neither did he) because he didn’t overcome a fear of heights to save the guy’s life.

Another example may involve an AFL footballer who is running backwards with the flight of the ball; or a cricketer facing a fast bowler. Both are acts of bravery, but I would only describe them as courageous if the footballer or batsman holds a fear of doing so.

What does courage look like in your workplace?

 In our workplace, courage is displayed most often when people have difficult conversations.  As a result of these conversations, hopefully the positive impact of courage is evident – relationships are built; there is a heightened respect for the initiator of the conversation; and while the message may not be received well in the moment, upon reflection of the conversation, admiration can be built.

I see courage within the AFL also taking the form of a Coach, who has no formal schooling, but who starts studying his Master of Business Administration.  This is courageous for him, walking into university amongst all of his fellow students who already have academic qualifications, and him being easily recognised as a former player (in one case an AFL Premiership winner).  The positive impact of this story is that he was embraced by the other students and they routinely collaborate when studying.  It wouldn’t have been easy for him to take this step, so I believe it was courageous in a small way to put himself way out of his comfort zone.

Please describe 1or 2 examples of times in which you have been courageous.  What did you do?  Who/what enabled you to be courageous?  What was the outcome?  

In my role as CEO of the AFLCA, I have spoken to a number of senior coaches to provide feedback and advice that others may have declined to do.  At times, I have been accused of overstepping the mark and interfering; these have been difficult conversations to have.

So why do you do it?

I reckon I have a duty of care to the 18 senior coaches.

As CEO, every now and again, it’s my job and my responsibility to offer them feedback on tough topics.  I am in a unique role to be able to do so and I should do so.

So how do you have a difficult conversation?

There was a situation in which there was conflict between a senior coach and a high-profile member of the media – both parties being titans of the game.  I brought up the subject with the coach and then asked him if he would like my opinion. I couched my advice as “a kerbside opinion” and basically highlighted the benefits of achieving resolution on the matter, in the long run.

This coach and I discussed what might happen if resolution wasn’t achieved; that this was an opportunity for the coach to demonstrate vulnerability.  This led to the coach publicly apologising.  The resultant impact?  Coach and media personality restored their relationship and have worked together very well ever since.

From your point of view, to what extent are Australia’s leaders leading with courage?

Looking at Australian politicians, I’d suggest that they are not particularly courageous, and that they do what is expected of them by others.  There’s too much political correctness for courage amongst our politicians.

AFLW AwardsOn the other hand,  I see courageous leaders everywhere.  In our sport for example, Erin Phillips, Adelaide Crows AFL Women’s (AFLW) player, thanked and kissed her wife, Tracy Gahan, on winning the inaugural AFLW Best and Fairest award.


The AFLW are leading the way and hopefully will inspire those men in the AFL to be courageous and own their sexuality.

In December last year, there was a woman in Iran who was in a public place without her headscarf, waving a white hijab in protest to a law requiring women to wear hijabs in Iran.  She was putting herself in harms way for the benefit of ~50% of the population of Iran.  That’s incredible bravery as far as I’m concerned.

Further back in history, Nancy ‘The White Mouse’ Wake was a secret agent during the Second World War.  She was born in New Zealand and raised in Australia.  Visits to Vienna and Berlin where she witnessed overt and violent anti-Semitism established a passionate hatred for Nazism in her.  Amongst her many courageous feats, she rode her bicycle over 600 kilometres in a period of 72 hours through several German checkpoints in order to replace codes that her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid.  Hers is an inspiring story.

Mark, there are a lot of courageous women out there.

Yes, there are, and there are courageous men too.

During the America’s Cup in 1983, John Bertrand had a particularly bad day and apparently lost his temper and snapped (unreasonably) at a member of his team.  The next morning at the daily team meeting his least senior crew member had with him a “smiley face” on a lanyard that he’d prepared the night before.  At the start of the meeting, just as Bertrand commenced proceedings, in front of everyone, this junior team member walked over to Bertram and placed the lanyard around his neck.  I read that you could have cut the tension in the room with a knife as this event unfolded. Incredible courage by this young person, but to his credit Bertram broke the tension with a laugh and everyone else joined in.  From then on until the end of the campaign, this lanyard had to be passed on each day, to whoever had the Bad Day the day before.  If you were having a bad day, you had to wear this lanyard for a day.  It became part of the culture of the campaign and the fact that a junior team member had shown such immense courage by kicking it off via the Boss, wasn’t lost on anyone!

smiley face

One of my favourites was Jackie Robinson: an American professional baseball player who became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) in the 1940s.  During his career, he was taunted from within and outside of his own club, The Brooklyn Dodgers, but he was not allowed to retaliate for 2 years.  This was a condition of his being hired by the Dodgers so they had  to research his background to make sure of his character and willingness to refrain from the resorting to violence. Hiring him challenged the traditional notion of segregation at the time – and he was allowed to fight back after 2 years, but boy did he show some courage in the first 2 years especially.  In 1997, MLB universally retired his uniform number, 42, across all major league teams; he was the first pro athlete in any sport to be so honoured.

(Photograph of Erin Phillips & Tracy Gahan, by Micheal Willson, AFL Media, Getty Images.)

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