David Parkin - what's your contribution to the community?

28 March 2012 By Stefan Grun

David Parkin
David Parkin

David Parkin is one of the most successful coaches and leaders in Australian Sport. He has won five premierships as captain and coach at two of Victoria’s greatest AFL clubs – Hawthorn (1997-1980) and Carlton (1981-1985 and 1991-2000) as well as a stint at Fitzroy between 1986-1988. Parkin has become a master at translating the leadership lessons from sport into the business world.

Having recently released with Paul Bourke an update to their latest work Captain-Coach Leadership David shared some of the insights which underpin his thinking and philosophies on leadership in our community.

Can you adapt your leadership style?


David is famous for being one of the most autocratic, dictatorial coaches ever in AFL competition; a style that brought Carlton the 1981 and 1982 premierships and David a legion of coaching devotees.

When approached in 1995 by the club’s psychologist Anthony Stewart, David delegated certain parts of his coaching authority to a group of senior players, who were made significantly more responsible and accountable in the process. Whilst this transition wasn’t easy for the coach, the team flourished with their new found empowerment and went on to win the premiership that year. This was one of the first examples in Australian sport of a senior coach empowering his players with a leadership group – a trend which have been made famous in recent times by Ray McLean and Leading Teams.

With success came a change in focus for the group, wanting less input into the day to day operations of the team. As the players’ intrinsic motivations had changed and focus switched to other things in life, David was asked by the team to reclaim his authority and control of the group - a tactic he employed until the next crop of leaders emerged to reclaim their role in shaping its direction – a legacy which is still in place to this day.

 What’s your contribution to the community?

Despite all his success over many years there is one thing which has always underpinned David Parkin as a coach and leader. When you leave a football club, Parkins believes, you should leave it a better place and yourself a better person.

“When I coached at Carlton everyone had to work, study, do an apprenticeship or become involved in a community program. If they didn’t do that I wouldn’t play them. One of my proudest achievements is that almost every member of my Carlton premiership teams has gone on to make a substantial contribution in the community. It gives me great pride when they ring and share their accomplishments with me.”

Does this happen in today’s football clubs?  

“Today’s football is producing some of the most unbalanced people in our society. Players are put on a pedestal because they chose their parents well and they can kick and catch a footy,” says Parkin.

So what can a football club do to address this imbalance?

In the updated version of Captain-Coach Leadership, Parkin devotes a new chapter in his book to Gerard FitzGerald. Not as famous as many coaches, FitzGerald has carved out a highly successful career in the Victorian Football League (VFL), coaching several VFL clubs including the North Ballarat Roosters.

FitzGerald has turned the Roosters into the powerhouse of the competition; winning the 2008, 2009 and 2010 premierships. What is significant about this is the culture, values and philosophy FitzGerald has created in the club – making the club a central hub in the local community.

The Rooster’s vision is “To be the premier COMMUNITY club”, with a core belief: “to value our people, our members and our community”. FitzGerald sees the football club as an extension of the local community and believes that if the club is not connected to what’s happening in the town and region they cannot be relevant and remain sustainable.

FitzGerald sets up an environment where players are encouraged to go to university or do apprenticeships, despite knowing this means some of them will be lost to the club. This is vital for them as people to develop these life skills but also for the continual replenishment of the team.

Can this model work in today’s AFL?

“This is a very contentious debate right now. The AFL, in this current agreement with the AFL Players’ Association, have finally got a clause to say every Club must employ a properly trained and qualified welfare manager. However, there is no guarantee a daily or weekly schedule will allow both personal and professional development of any real significance to occur,” Parkin says.

Parkin says the clubs often argue that the initial two or three years of a player’s career needs to be dedicated solely to football.

“Making a contribution to their communities, or developing skills for life after, is not of high priority. The research that the combination of the AFLRB, AFLPA and ACU are now undertaking is trying to provide some evidence to support the argument that a more balanced existence during their football life (beginning to end) will in fact not interfere with their weekly performance but enhance it.”

“It is not easy to set up a research proposal which will prove this but my anecdotal evidence from a past experience would suggest strongly that it does – but things have changed. Players are now highly paid professionals which Clubs expect much from, even at 18 years of age, so you can understand their resistance to taking time away from their major focus – playing football,” Parkin says.

“The Clubs would also debate strongly that they are making significant contribution to numerous community programs and that one of the direct outcomes from becoming a League footballer is a set of mental, physical, and social skills which are transferable into other elements of their post football lives/careers. It’s hard to argue against that too.”

“The debate over whether AFL clubs are developing good people as well as great footballers will continue for many years, and I hope to help shape those outcomes.”