Carlton’s cultural change: Trying to be humble

Carlton will take to the MCG on Thursday night brandishing three new players, including two precocious teenagers, and a game style that has added layers to the one that fell so frustratingly short of finals in 2023.

But the most significant and ambitious change at the old dark navy Blues started several months ago, via Carlton’s strategic five-year plan, piloted by chief executive Brian Cook, that aims to change the club’s culture, shifting the Blues to become a values-based organisation that prizes words not traditionally associated with Carlton – “humility” and “integrity”.

The Blue celebrate on the siren of the 1981 grand final.Credit:The Age

In the strategic plan, which covers 2023 until 2027, Carlton has set the goals of reaching 125,000 members, averaging home attendances of 55,000, reaching the top two in digital engagement in the AFL and – in what reeks of a cautious new realism under Cook and president Luke Sayers – winning at least one premiership in both the AFL and AFLW.

Yet when you read the summary of Carlton’s five-year plan, it is the mention of those values – and the specific mention of humility – that leaps up like Charlie Curnow taking flight.

Carlton and humility. Those two words jar, in the same way that St Kilda and success have been less than synonymous. Or Collingwood and subdued.

More than any of the competition’s original Victorian clubs, Carlton have been the ones that didn’t do humility. They were personified by power, money and their unmatched capacity – especially in the ’80s and ’90s, under the pugnacious leadership of John Elliott and Ian Collins – to bend the competition to their will.

A dejected Charlie Curnow and the Blues take in the narrow loss against Collingwood in round 23 last year.Credit:AFL Photos

Carlton didn’t rebuild. Carlton didn’t apologise. They sought – rather, demanded – success, by any means necessary. Coaches and even other clubs were expendable; the apogee of Carlton’s arrogance was the attempted takeover, via shareholders, of a privately owned North Melbourne (the plan being to asset strip the Kangaroos, taking Wayne Carey and others to Princes Park).

Watching from afar, in his long tenures as CEO at West Coast (two flags and an empire established) and Geelong (three flags and a stadium built), Cook viewed the Blues as a club that was “a bit cocky” – the same term that the great Alex Jesaulenko once used to describe the good Carlton sides of the ’70s and ’80s.

The values that Carlton have adopted as their creed, in the strategic plan, are as follows: Respect, humility, integrity, united, excellence, relentless.

The club’s official mission statement, or purpose reads: “A united, inclusive and values-led club that achieves on and off-field success and ignites a sense of passion, pride and belonging for our members, supporters and stakeholders.”

It is noteworthy that “values-led” precedes the mention of success.

To try and teach Carlton humility might sound like a big ask, given that big money still stalks the boardroom. Cook, however, reckons that humility is already evident within a new leadership at the club.

“I get that,” said the CEO, when asked about Carlton’s not-so-humble history. “It is visionary for us. But I do believe this [humility] is a genuine behaviour that is present at Carlton, has been there at Carlton over the last year or so.”

Cook clarified the nature of Carlton’s new humility as one that involved the club being “inwardly confident”. He explained the ambition as one that was carried quietly within Carlton breasts, not proclaimed loudly. “It’s not the outward, gregarious, boisterous confidence. It’s an internal achievement and inward confidence.”

Cook said that coach Michael Voss – a former champion who carries himself with a mix of self-assurance and modest earthiness – was the best example of Carlton’s humility. “Who’s your ideal model here? I’d say it’s ‘Vossy’.

“It’s important your leaders demonstrate values all the time.”

Extolling humility and integrity – and virtuous values – as essential to this reimagined Carlton, will prompt a mixture of eye-rolling or guffaws from fans of other clubs. But Cook and the board are serious about it. “We won’t appoint a leader unless they have the right values,” said the CEO.

It’s possible that old Carlton – a club that could humble rivals, plundering the poorer teams without hesitation – have been bent into a different beast by the competition’s new (socialised) order. On the creed of integrity, Cook said – in a clear reference to the salary cap scandal of 2002 that so damaged the Blues – “we’re still paying for it”.

Intriguingly, “relentless” is one of the new values, but “ruthless” – another intrinsic part of past Carlton DNA – is not. “We’re relentless and we’re ruthless, but we play within the rules,” explained Cook.

One can argue that while Carlton are losing some of their rapacious ways and even that they have been humbled, a brutal form of ruthlessness – seen in the jettisoning of so many coaches, CEOs and others – is the old trait that has had staying power in a modern, equalised AFL.

Cook acknowledges there has been a high turnover of key people, but at first wasn’t sure of why this had happened. Then, he suggested that this very absence of success for two decades had been the issue. “I think they’ve been impatient about success.

“I think after so many years of being unsuccessful, they, Carlton people, want success and they want it relatively quickly, given what they’ve had to bear.”

Desperately seeking success. Right now. That fragment of Carlton’s culture remains intact.

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