Opinion: What I learnt from David Morrison as chief of army

by Contributor28 Jul 2016
Avril Henry has worked with Australian of the Year David Morrison on various cultural transformation initiatives during his time as chief of army. She outlines some key lessons from that experience.

Here is what I learnt from David Morrison’s leadership after working closely with him on various cultural transformation initiatives during his last two years as Chief of Army:
  1. Ask for advice and opinions from a diverse group
I met with David Morrison in 2013, following the release of Elizabeth Broderick’s review into the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force. He said: “We have a number of problems and need help,” to which I responded with: “Yes you do, and yes you need help.” He asked: “Can you help us?” I responded: “Only if you listen to me.” For only a split second he was slightly taken aback, then smiled and said: “You are right.” And so began our journey together.
  1. Actively listen
As a leader, you need to be present, pay attention and actively listen to your people, advisors, mentors, and stakeholders. There is no point asking for advice or the opinions of others and ignoring it. People will soon realise it is just window dressing for doing what you want to do anyway. David would ask for my opinion on gender, cultural change, training programs, use of language in communiques, and genuinely listen. If he didn’t agree or understand, he would probe and ask questions until he was happy with the proposed outcome. Listening does not come naturally to people in power, especially men; they have to work at it, and David works hard at being a good listener
  1. Be open to change and challenging the status quo
I have enormous respect for our people in defence, and what they do every day here and abroad. They have traditions, policies and culture dating back over 100 years and making change has historically been met with “That’s the way we’ve always done things.” This makes introducing cultural reform very challenging, especially in an institution like the army. Once David had heard the stories of people who had experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination, something he had never experienced himself, he opened his mind (and heart) to the necessity for change. And he sought advice and assistance from those who had done it before in challenging environments. He spoke to other leaders, he joined the Male Champions of Change, and he challenged the status quo. He made cultural change part of his mission for his remaining term as Chief.
  1. Be courageous, knowing not everyone will like what you do
It took courage to challenge everything from the existing values, traditions and behaviours, to even the language being used in communications and conversations. I had the privilege of reviewing and editing non-classified documents for use of language, working with a team of army people across all ranks to create language to describe their Contract with the Nation and Values, in modern, meaningful language, understood and accepted by all. It takes courage to challenge “how we’ve always done things” and bring in a civilian with no military experience who questions what is said and done in relation to workplace behaviour and language.
  1.  Believe in yourself and be comfortable with who you are
Being comfortable with who you are, is the essence of self-leadership and authenticity. David would say to me: “Once you have seen something that is not right, you cannot un-see it.” David knew that not everybody would like, or agree, with his revised vision and focus on improving gender equality and behaviour in his beloved army, but he knew it needed to change, and faster than previous changes. David has strong self-belief; surrounded himself with good people inside and outside the Army; and has an incredibly supportive family and wife. He also knows how important all this has been to his success, and acknowledges it.
For over a decade I have interviewed hundreds of leaders around the world, and written four books on leadership. I have identified 12 key characteristics of effective, inspiring leaders, which have remained consistent, in prosperous and challenging times; many of those are displayed by David.

About the author
Avril Henry is a keynote speaker, author, consultant and coach and the Managing Director of Avril Henry & Associates, a consulting business.  www.avrilhenry.com.au