What David Morrison taught me about leadership

Throughout our lives we have all experienced both good and bad leadership.  Our first introduction to this was probably at school.  We all remember the teachers who inspired us, who made us feel worthless, who cared about our success or just simply turned up.  For me it was Mrs Shearer, my maths teacher.  She supported me, was clear in her teaching and inspired me to believe in myself.  It worked and I eventually got my higher, surpassing my own grade expectations.

Picture 1A few years ago, whilst developing my own knowledge on the subject of violence prevention I began to look at the role of personal and organisational leadership and how it could be relevant in my work.   When you break down the traits of leadership, I started to make the links quite easily. 

One person that stood out for me at this time was David Morrison.  Scanning news articles on organisational culture I came across a speech made by Morrison in 2013.  At that time Morrison was Lieutenant General in the Australian Army.

To start to paint a picture, Morrison who, at the time was the second highest ranking officer in the Australian army.  In 2013 the army was faced with a scandal that made its way into wider public discourse.   Personnel (some in ranked positions) had been posting sexist comments about female soldiers on social media accounts as well as sending emails containing similar type remarks.  What became known as the ‘Jedi Council’ scandal (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/07/jedi-council-sex-ring-171-australian-defence-force-staff-disciplined) led to a video being posted on the Army’s official YouTube channel.  A visibly irate Morrison described the alleged behaviour as a “direct contravention” of the Army’s values. He added that he had been committed ever since becoming Chief of Army to making the Army an inclusive force. “If that does not suit you,” he said, “then get out! He also told anyone not willing to work with women and accept them as equals, “There is no place for you amongst this band of brothers and sisters.”

Morrison’s now widely viewed speech was written by his speech writer, Lieutenant Colonel Cate McGregor who is transgender.  Morrison, as one of her strongest supporters, refused to accept her resignation from his office when she came out seven months after his speech.

Picture 2

One of the most quoted phrases in his speech, “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept” is one I personally use as often as I possibly can.  It’s both powerful and one that sparks a lot of dynamic discussion.


You will note I mention that Morrison refused to accept the resignation of his speech writer Cate McGregor.  I do this simply because it says a lot about Morrison, his values and leadership at a time of national crisis for his organisation.

So, what did Morrison’s speech teach me about leadership?

  1. Believe in yourself, be comfortable with who you are – Learning on issues of violence and abuse has been something I have dedicated myself to over the past ten years.  By doing so many of the issues that were previously invisible to me were becoming visible.  Once you see it you can’t un-see it.

Morrison both before the incident as well as at the time had revised his vision and focus on improving gender equality.  He was beginning to see the issues and as discussed above now couldn’t simply un-see them.  He knew that the misconduct acts presented major challenges to the army.  Reputation, performance, retention and recruitment were all under threat.  Importantly what was happening was on his watch.  Morrison knew that he had to act fast and ensure changes took place faster than they had done previously.

  1. Make yourself available, take responsibility – Be prepared to both accept responsibility for what has happened and work to put things right.  Bad things happen and whilst we can do what we can, we need to accept that from time to time ‘bad shit’ will happen on our watch.

The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.  Morrison knew this. His personal values shone through at this time of crisis and communicates much for the leaders of today.

  1. Ask for advice and actively listen – As a leader you need to be there, present in the moment.  Be prepared to consult.  You don’t have to know all the answers.  You need to pay attention and actively listen.  Don’t ask for advice if you are going to ignore it.  People around you will quickly realise you are ticking the box.

Morrison was extremely active in listening to the views of his colleagues on a range of issues.  Where he lacked understanding he would probe, and probe again until he was satisfied.

  1. Be open to change and challenge – Prevention isn’t something that society is comfortable with.  Despite the evidence available, we are sometimes influenced by the beliefs and policies of others.  We also have traditions and culture that lead many to say, “That’s what we’ve always done”.  Introducing changes in culture becomes challenging.

Morrison was becoming more aware of the stories from people who had experienced bullying and harassment.  With many things becoming visible to him he knew that change was the only way forward.  As mentioned above he spoke to others, listened to others and began to challenge the status quo.  He made cultural change his focus and, in his speech, he empowered others to do the same.

  1. Actions speak louder than words – It’s easier to communicate your displeasure on a subject than it is to make the changes needed that support the words. We far too often rely on words.  Whether delivered verbally or through policies on conduct, many in leadership still put their trust in this narrow approach.  Whilst I agree that policies on bullying and harassment are needed, I don’t think this is enough.  In reality policies are often read after something has happened.

A criticism often levelled by groups after watching Morrison’s speech is that it was easy for him to say, given his leadership role.  What many people don’t know is that Morrison invested time and resources in leadership training to help make the culture changes that were clearly needed.  Colleagues from the United States worked closely with the army over a prolonged period to equip soldiers with the knowledge and skills ‘not to walk past’ problematic and negative behaviours.  His focus on equipping the bystander with such skills is the action that many leaders don’t deliver.

  1. Be courageous – Leadership often involves you going against the grain. It takes courage to challenge the behaviours of others.

 Despite his position it took courage from Morrison to challenge existing values and traditions.  Furthermore, ‘the behaviours from the some needed to be challenged by the many.’  Watching Morrison’s speech, I saw how he spoke to the many.  I think he knew that it would be difficult for others not to walk past negative behaviours.   It is clear from Morrisons words that those who perpetrated abuse have no place in his military.  Also, and importantly victims have his support.

However, Morrison goes one step further.  He communicates to those who witness abuse, the bystanders.  He’s clear in what their silence says but he does it in a way that brings them into the conversation as the solution.  He uses the term ‘moral courage’ which in many ways accepts the challenges but he provides the support necessary both in his words and the subsequent trainings delivered in his organisation.

David Morrison’s speech and demonstration of the traits I have discussed above, continue to influence my work when I deliver talk, trainings and in my writing.  Silence, in many ways is the infection that permits violence and abuse across many different settings.  This leadership requires to be both visible and consistent and not just to prevent the next horrible act or to respond to it.

Leaders often focus more on what not to do rather than spending time developing a safe and supportive culture.  Culture is not some fancy slogan written on the wall.  It is a set of values and beliefs displayed by a group or organisation.  It is the ‘mood music’ often being played by those in positions of leadership.

Whilst Morrison was clear in his views of the perpetrators, he was focused on the culture that had once permitted these behaviours but also on creating a culture where abuse in any form, would not be tolerated.

If you haven’t watched the speech I’ve discussed, you can follow this link –








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