Leadership Secrets From Brisbane Lion’s Superstar Jonathan Brown

SUMMARY: What does a great captain do? Are they there to lead the team through the banner, call the coin toss and deliver a motivational speech before the game, or is great leadership more than that? We asked Jonathan Brown, one of the great AFL captains of today, what he did. Here’s what he told us.


Captain Courageous - Jonathan Brown

Captain Courageous – Jonathan Brown from the Brisbane Lions

It has been proven as fact that all great teams, armies, businesses and even countries typically have one thing in common, and that is good leadership.

In football, it is beyond doubt that successful teams usually have a leadership group headed by an individual who possesses the necessary qualities to ensure his team remain focused on the big picture. He is a person that inspires his team mates, not just through his football ability, but also by his actions.

The AFL has had some magnificent captains in recent times including Wayne Carey, James Hird, Nathan Buckley, Brett Kirk and Brad Johnson to name just a few. Whilst all these mentioned have moved on and passed the mantle, one of the most inspirational leaders in football today is Brisbane Lions captain, Jonathan Brown.

If you are a fan of football, you know that Jonathan Brown is one our game’s modern day greats. Brown entered the AFL at the start of one of the most successful eras of any club, resulting in triple premiership success for the Lions, and 3 medals for himself at a very young age.

He played with some of the countries best players which no doubt helped build him into the best Centre Half Forward in recent times and of course, into the revered leader that he is today.

So what makes Jonathan Brown such a great captain at his club, and what lessons can coaches pass on to their young leaders? We were fortunate enough to be able to ask the great man himself.

Preparing For The Role

Early in his career, Brown was earmarked for a leadership role with the Lions, and was selected as one of 5 captains of the club. This allowed him to share a lot of the responsibilities and gave him a solid preparation to take on the role in the future.

“I didn’t do anything specific for the role, just the experiences of having a fantastic previous captain in Michael Voss, and the thing that always stood out to me was the way he led by example on and off the field.  This is by far the most important function of a leader”, says Brown.

Many great leaders often have strong role models or mentors that assist them with developing the appropriate skills so necessary to become a good captain. Brown is no different.

“My father Brian played VFL footy and has been a very successful country football coach so he has been a great sounding board over the years”, says Brown.

“Also, Leigh Matthews was a very good mentor to me and encouraged me to back my natural instincts when it came to leadership.  He believed you were given the title of a leader because of what you had already done previous so he didn’t believe that you all of a sudden had to change just because you had a title beside your name.  However in saying that, I believe a good leader will always evaluate the way he is leading and try to improve or develop in all aspects of leadership as he goes along.”

Leadership Traits

Different leaders will give varying opinions of what are the ideal traits or qualities a leader must possess. Jonathan Brown has his own views that define a good leader, especially in a football sense, but these can be transferred to virtually any other activity.

Leading By Example

According to Brown, the most important function of a leader is to lead by example on and off the field, which is something he learned early in his career from Brownlow Medalist Michael Voss.

This means identifying the team values required to achieve success, and living them on and off the field as an example for others players to follow. After all, if your leaders aren’t instilling and living those values, what hope do you have for your other players?

Good Communicators

Brown also believes captains need to be good communicators. This means understanding the different personalities in the group and being able to listen and communicate for them. You must always have a sense of what the general group is feeling and relay that to the senior coach good bad or indifferent.  You are their voice.

Club Ambassadors

Finally, Brown believes captains need to be strong ambassadors for their club in the public eye. Clubs and players get scrutinised more than ever, so it important to portray a positive image to help your club’s brand, which in turn helps the club in attaining sponsorship dollars.

Sidebar – If you want to identify potential leaders at your club, you may also find a system known as the “8 C’s of Leadership” helpful, which is commonly taught and used in sports coaching:

CONFIDENCE: Self belief but without excessive ambition
COURAGEOUS: Go where others fear
COMMITTED: Do things; be assertive, but not aggressive
CONSIDERATE: Listen and respond to the opinions and views of others
COURTEOUS: Show respect in conversation
COMPASSIONATE: Responding to empathy
COMPROMISE: Discuss things – Win / Win situations
COMMUNICATION: Articulate with the HEAD and the HEART ensuring both verbal and non-verbal forms of expression to convey the same message

Leading Off The Field

Most coaches would understand what leading “on” the field entails. It means developing winning habits and setting the example at training and on game-days.

But what about “off-field” leadership? Jonathan Brown has copped his fair share of injuries along the way and currently as we write this article, Brown is recovering from serious facial injuries sustained whilst carrying out one of the courageous acts he is renowned for.

Brown believes it is vital, and still possible, to contribute when recovering from injury and not playing. You see many captains sitting in the coaches’ box and taking part in match day operations. For Brown, it goes deeper than that as he continues to impart a positive message to the playing group.

Mentoring Younger Players

For Brown, good leaders need to act as good mentors, particularly for the younger guys who may still be coming to grips with what it takes to succeed at the AFL level.

“I try to spend as much time as I can, getting around the younger guys and spending time with them talking about their own game.  I watch a lot of their video edits with them, especially the young forwards but also talk to coaches and offer advice on what I’m seeing from a forward line point of view.”

Information Conduit

Another facet of strong leadership is for the captain to act as a conduit between the players and the coaching staff, relaying any issues or problems that the players feel uncomfortable about approaching the coaches with.

For Brown, this is an important part of his role as captain of the Brisbane Lions. “I do act as a conduit between the players and leadership group and the support staff.  Because we have a leadership group meeting which consists of 6 players and several support staff each week we can stay on top of most issues.”

Team Selection

Team selection is probably one of the hardest jobs in football. Telling a player that he is omitted is always difficult. I find that you get a better response from the players who know that the captains are involved in selection matters. For Brown, this is seen as an important factor for the Lions.

“I believe is beneficial for the captain to be involved in the selection process because we as players are the ones that need to rely on each other on game day”, says Brown.
“It’s important for a coach to be able to get an understanding of where other players fit according to the players opinions. A huge part of it is can you trust the player that is out on the field.  However with so many hours tied up with training these days it can be difficult to attend all selection meetings.”


Leadership in sport is often espoused as vision/valued based. In other words, good leaders create a shared vision within a playing group (for example to win a premiership) and then instill and live the values required to achieve that vision.

As you can see through Jonathan Brown’s example however, great leadership in football delves far deeper than that. Great leaders must also play the role of mentor, player confidant, on-field coach, information conduit and club ambassador, as well as motivator and role model.

Good leaders are made, not born, and as a coach you should be trying to identify good potential leaders at your club, and then foster their development by allowing them to serve in a leadership capacity under great captains and appointing great mentors to advise them.

In Jonathan Brown’s case, it appears the legacy of Michael Voss and co. have helped him immensely in his role as captain. There is no doubt that the younger members of the leadership group at Brisbane will benefit from Brown’s example in the future and one day continue the proud Brisbane tradition of having great leaders at the club, due largely to the quality of the big man himself.
Title photo by Peter Owen via: freeforcommercialuse.org.

Posted by David Johnson

David “Johnno” Johnson is our chief football researcher and writer. With over 20 years of coaching experience in all grades of football David was also a prominent footballer himself, having played at Teal Cup level and was even recruited by the Essendon Football Club. The pinnacle of David's coaching experience saw him as the assistant coach of the East Fremantle Shark Football Club in the WAFL for a number of years.

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