On Leadership, Words & Andrew Thorburn

On Leadership, Words & Andrew Thorburn

Freelance consultant Daniel Bluzer-Fry (lead image) highlights the need to consider language in the way leaders respond, not simply the beliefs leaders espouse when it comes to leadership…

There’s never a dull moment in the AFL and I love watching a ‘religious freedom’ flashpoint explode in a corporate landscape dripping with DEI ideas, discourse and policies. One has to have some pity for those who are good people in the AFL, who have had to deal with a number of disasters which has shifted the focus away from exciting things coming up in the AFL, like the NAB 2022 AFL Draft. I’m particularly fond of player named Harry Sheezel. Curiously, some phantom drafts have him going at pick 5 … and landing at Essendon. Would be great if he slipped through to Carlton.

So after reading all of Andrew Thorburn’s statements post his decision to step away from his role as the Essendon CEO last week along with media commentary, one thing that hasn’t been reflected on is the bad taste and hypocrisy he has been permitted to get away with, not through what he has said, but rather through what he hasn’t.

Thorburn has spent a lot of time last week talking about the importance about people being able to hold ‘different views on complex, personal and moral matters’. He stated ‘I love all people, and have always promoted and lived in an inclusive, diverse, respectful and supportive workplace – where people are welcomed regardless of their culture, religious beliefs and sexual orientation. I believe my record over a long period of time testifies to this’ in his initial statement on LinkedIn post resigning from the CEO role at Essendon football club. Lots and lots of talk.

Meanwhile, with respect to the situation relating to the 2013 sermon from a pastor at City on a Hill Church that ultimately served as the catalyst for last week’s events, the Essendon Football Club’s Statement on the matter noted that the views in the sermon were not ‘the views that Andrew Thorburn has expressed personally’.

We live in a society with a plurality of worldviews. It’s difficult sometimes for us to reconcile those differences, but at a basic level, anybody in a leadership position should be able to recognise respectful and disrespectful articulations of any given set of ideas if they self-righteously claim the kinds of things Thorburn has gone to great efforts to in recent days. You don’t need to be a versed copywriter or linguist to do this well … just thoughtful and measured.

Let’s be really clear on what Thorburn has missed here – chiefly the thing that forces us to seriously interrogate the integrity of all his words. The statement in the sermon that really set this whole thing up like a tiki torch was: “Whereas today we look back at concentration camps, future generations will look back with sadness at the legal murder of hundreds of thousands (sic) human beings every day through medicine in the name of freedom.”

It should be noted, that as of late last week, this statement had been cut from the sermon by the church. Something Thorburn as chairman, no doubt would have had knowledge of, if not influence in prior to the action.

A fantastic question to ask, is, of all the words that came from this ‘leader’ in the week passed, despite the sermon being conducted prior to his time as chairman of the church, what stopped Andrew from outright condemning if not the worldview espoused in this sermon, then at a minimum, the insensitive and outright offensive language it was articulated in?

To draw on a comparative thought exercise, I imagine how I might have responded, supposing I had taken a chairman role of a not-for-profit around men’s health that focused on discussion and the expression of a variety of different world views. Sounds potentially problematic as an entity right … but hey, hopefully you get the parallel with maybe a few ‘contrarian’ view being expressed by members from time to time that I may not agree with.

Now suppose in a forum prior to me commencing at the group as a chairman (and even a member of the group for quality of argument), a senior figure had spoken on the topic of group sex, and likened the experience to ‘being hotter than Christ was for 3 days on the cross with nine inch nails pinning down his wrists and a crown of thorns upon his head’. Now imagine this was to be made public the day I commenced as a CEO in an organisation that – like the Essendon football club – was deeply committed to ‘continuing to stamp out any discrimination based on race, sex, religion, gender, sexual identity or orientation, or physical or mental disability.”

Irrespective of the world view (clearly a glowing endorsement of group sex which I’m sure would have both its supporters – potentially a number of Christians who fall under Mormonism – and detractors), and my personal position on it, it would be both insensitive and undermine my integrity (if I was to espouse the values Thorburn has done with such vigour this week) not to outright condemn the way the idea had been communicated in the past from an organisation I presently chair.

Failure to condemn at a base level, the violent vulgarity of the metaphor employed to convey the idea, may after all, make people of the Christian faith feel culturally unsafe in the adjacent organisation that I would be leading.

Now some may feel uneasy about some of the language that was used in the above thought experiment and that it undermines my credibility as a writer. Those people might be about to get even more upset, because it would be remiss of me not to note that whilst I support people having their own worldview, Christ’s crucifixion is not something without historical contention. Unless you’re a David Irving fan (in which case, there’s some more pressing issues to address than contained in this piece), the Holocaust has been extensively documented and there are still people alive today with the lived experience and trauma of the event. Can you see the irony of Thorburn playing the victim and implying that he is being persecuted for his beliefs noting “my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square, at least by some and perhaps by many” given what he has failed to address. It makes it difficult to have any pity whatsoever.

So before thinking about the legal opinions surrounding weather Thorburn could argue discrimination are seriously entertained, perhaps it’s worthwhile doing an additional, practical thought experiment to understand the untenable nature of Thorburn’s position in both of the roles simultaneously. To do so, we should look no further than Junior Vic Metro star Harry Sheezel.

I don’t claim to know Sheezel and have admired his form and skills from afar. Sheezel is Jewish. It would be assumptive of me to suggest Sheezel and his family carry direct intergenerational trauma from the Holocaust today, but for the purpose of this thought experiment, assuming this was the case, maybe what we should ask what the legal opinions would be if Essendon called out his name on draft night with Thorburn as CEO and he declined going to work in that environment (for obvious reasons). Would that be fair and reasonable? What would the AFL do? What would the Fair Work Commission say?

One could write extended essays about the hypocrisy of this so called ‘Christian Leader’ for his conduct in and around the Royal Commission into Banking, and even extend this into interrogating how he ended up in a bank given the scripture in Christian biblical texts surrounding usury.

But rather than convolute and over complicate things, it feels both simpler and more appropriate to note that in failing to immediately condemn the offensive, inappropriate equiveillance used in the sermon rather than the surface level beliefs (in all of the hundreds of words and ideas he elected to openly communicate with all post his departure), he has magnificently undermined his purported leadership skills and ‘love for all people’. So really, the only question one should ask having read all of Thorburn’s commentary is: Where is the love?


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Daniel Bluzer-Fry

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