Saturday, November 15, 2014


This is a story about institutions. Changing cultures. 

When he eventually gets around to writing his book it will prove a fascinating business insight into how to introduce change. 

Morrison - the YouTube that made him famous

This is a piece I did for ASPI's Strategist after seeing him preform at the ANU's National Security College . . . 


It sounds corny, but it's true; a sudden hush really had suddenly come over the audience.

The army commander, Lieutenant General David Morrison, was addressing a packed amphitheatre at the ANU's National Security College. His topic? Well, of course. Gender equality (not, note, equity) and female representation in leadership roles. A large number of people, mostly women, executives, and from across the public service, defence and academe, had turned out to see him.

They weren’t disappointed. His performance had been exactly what they'd hoped for. Dynamic and forceful, the inspiring words of a "conviction" leader rang through the lecture theatre. But now the steady flow of words suddenly paused. A new emotion had entered the hall.

"It was my approach to the army that cost me my first marriage," Morrison insisted. There was no doubt about the pain in his words. He paused. For a second the audience was sharing the room with another human, rather than a general. Then, almost imperceptibly, his back stiffened and he carried on.

"You don't want non-competitive people in the military," Morrison announced. "We want people who will win." His voice had become quiet and clear, but leaving absolutely no room for doubt. Recognising the contribution women can make to the military is all about strengthening and invigorating the institution; making it better. It has nothing to do with political correctness.

Morrison’s now become indelibly identified with this issue; but it wasn’t always so. His progression – why he seized this particular issue; how he used it implemented significant cultural change; and how he nonetheless maintained the Army’s crucial operational focus – will provide a remarkable business case study for years to come. It’s a story about how to achieve one of the most difficult thing of all: organisational change.

Morrison related how he was suddenly faced with his challenge just six months into a three-year term as Army commander. He’d became aware of sexist behaviour in the ranks: no surprise there. It would have been easy for him to do nothing. Going head-to-head and criticising the behaviour by recording a video on YouTube certainly wasn't the obvious response, but the general explained why it was a crucial one.

"I decided there was a limit to the number of things I could achieve [as Army commander]," Morrison said, "but this was something I could do". And he has. The commander doesn't deny that injustice against women still exists, nevertheless he hopes he's banished the "unconscious bias", the prejudice that no one recognises because it’s present everywhere. The changes are significant.

No one pretends everything is fixed. Indeed, one mother in the audience (who’s employed by Defence) insisted provocatively that she wouldn't want either of her girls to join up. Morrison didn't try to convince her all the Army’s problems are fixed.

"But unless I compete for your daughters," he said, "they'll go to Telstra, or the Commonwealth Bank, or perhaps somewhere even worse". Morrison paused. "They might even join the Navy . . . "

Laughter rippled through the hall. It was a flippant response, perhaps, yet it caught the tone of his speech perfectly. The army commander wasn't saying the problem didn’t exist (the typical defence response). Instead he was admitting the issue and outlining what he was doing to address the predicament. This is an element of Morrison's response that is so refreshing.

Instead of attempting to deny the problem, or cover it up, Morrison’s embraced it. He’s insisted this is a challenge that he can, and must, deal with. This process has become the key to moving on and resolving problems. Identifying the issue, admitting it publicy, and outlining a clear process to redress the grievances and prevent its recurrence.

His speech possessed more detail than can possibly be outlined here. He talked about how he changed the recruiting advertisements so they no longer showed women charging at sandbags and bayoneting them. He spoke of targets but, the general insists, no diminution of standards. Finally, crucially, he emphasised that the changes he’s ushering in are to increase the organisations ability to complete its mission. This is not political correctness for its own sake.

The remarkable success of Morrison’s project can be measured by the way so many others have taken it on as their own. 


  1. Alas, while one sympathises with the Army Commander's direction in dealing with the challenges of society's expectations the reality is that the Armed Services are not normal civilian corporate entities despite the use of sanitised corporate dialogues. The Departments of Defence both here and overseas were once termed Departments of War. In reality, they still are. In ground warfare, combat is still nasty and brutish with the ever present after-effects of PTSD being a risk for many, if indeed more serious injury is not sustained in operations. The fact is that images showing women charging and bayoneting sandbags is actually relevant - that is what a soldier may need to do. The Profession of Arms may be honourable but it is not known for its niceties.

  2. Yes, I understand and take your point. Ground warfare is violent and some people are 'optimised' for this task. Equally, however, I think you'd admit that there are other tasks that require people who have different skills. A chicken strangler may make a great intelligence analyst or blanket folder, but not everybody who fits in the latter categories will necessarily use the bayonet on a daily basis. But this is a debate for another time.
    That's why the article focussed on culture change. I posit it as a business case study rather than a guide for developing forces.

  3. Unusual.... the last chicken strangler I've heard about who worked in intelligence was Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS including the SD Gestapo... hmmm