Spotlight on David Morrison

10 minutes on leadership with David MorrisonLeadership WA spoke to Australian of the Year and former chief of army, David Morrison about leadership and the need to ensure our culture is inclusive, not exclusive. 

You talk about the importance of owning the culture of the organisation in which you operate and, to some degree, you lead. Could you share with us how you did that throughout your career, not just when you were at the pinnacle of it?

DM: To be really honest, for a large part of my career I accepted the culture as something that was pervasive but intangible. I talk now about culture being the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and that, I think, is a pretty reasonable shorthand description of culture. For a lot of my career I just accepted the stories and, yes, so many army stories were absolutely affirming – in terms of courage in the most awful of circumstances – and about this idea of service before self. Every Anzac Day and Remembrance Day we would manifestly wear the pride in that culture.

The real pivotal moments came for me when I was the chief. Because we, as the leadership team, were brought up short and we started to look at our culture and say: ‘Are we actually relevant with these stories and this culture?’ The answer was that we were certainly running the risk of becoming irrelevant, not because of the idea of service before self – I think that’ll survive until the end of the world – but the fact is that our stories were rooted in stories about Anglo-Saxon men.

They are distorted stories about the idea that Anglo-Saxon men were these rough-hewn country lads who were natural soldiers who fought best with a hangover, and so on. Once you stop and ask whether that’s true, the answer is that it’s not; and so, as a consequence, we are losing relevance with today’s contemporary families.

What do you do about it? Lots of good things, and we did, around policies and initiatives, recruiting campaigns and retention initiatives and so on. But the most fundamental thing we did was to try and change the stories. This was largely about recognising that we weren’t telling women’s stories. Then, as time has moved on, and I guess I’ve seen more of this issue beyond the military, I’ve come to appreciate that you can say that about Australia and almost every community. Around the world, we celebrate men’s stories in a completely different way to acknowledging the stories of women.

Yes. Even I must admit, I find it a challenge because I am a woman but yet I often default to men’s stories.

DM: Yes. Because you’re inculcated from birth, like I am.

Absolutely, you look at the scan of the horizon and you see what you see – and it’s mostly white men. So how do you make a concerted effort to look for those other stories, because they’re not necessarily the ones that are just marching across your horizon? What did you do?

DM: Well, it’s amazing how quickly you do see them when you start to look for them. I have a speech title that I give which is around ‘Seeing the unseen and hearing the unheard’ and, at a personal level, I started to see issues that I’d never seen before. They were women’s journeys through the same profession. I had been pretty much cosseted for three decades – allowed to fail safely, the courage to just move to the next level, not having to concern myself with issues around childcare or overly much around the adverse effects wrought on my wife and children as a result of continually moving. I was focused on the career. Now, women don’t have that. When you start to look for them, the stories are all there, and they’re to be absolutely acknowledged and celebrated. Telling them really pulled the army up. I think there were moments for a lot of leaders recognising that we had been complacent in assuming our culture to be what it was. And when we looked at our culture in a new way, we found it to be exclusive, not inclusive.

Just fascinating, when you think that a huge percentage of the population does not fit the cultural mould that so many people think of as ‘Aussie’.

DM: Fifty-one per cent in terms of gender.

That’s 51 per cent in terms of gender and also other diversity as well, non Anglo-Saxon backgrounds.

DM: Yes. In Australia, we pride ourselves on being egalitarian – we talk about mateship and a fair go all the time. But if that’s the case, how do you explain a gender pay gap across all professions of 18.8 per cent? And, in this state, I learned recently, it’s higher, it’s up around 26 per cent. How do you explain that? It doesn’t actually gel. What it says to me is, well, the stories about egalitarianism and a fair go can’t be right so we’d better either do something about it or change the stories completely.

What three things would you change in Australian society?

DM: You can be awfully general in answering a question like that and say: ‘Oh, well, what we should do is completely get rid of gender inequality’.

But I suspect that that’s going to be the work of many lifetimes. I think what we could do right from the start is tackle the issue around gender pay gap. There is very clear evidence that it exists. There is a lot of data that can be analysed to show where the problems are and why it exists – it is not beyond the wit of modern man or woman to change that paradigm. Not change it over the course of a generation, but to actually change it to ensure that men and women start their professions on the same pay, for example. Because, at the moment (at least in the corporate world), a lot of men go into a graduate position saying: ‘Well, that’s not enough, I’d like more’ and, because they’re a talent that’s seen as useful, they get what they want. On the other hand, women invariably accept what they’re given. So that gender pay imbalance, starts from the first day at work and just grows over the course of a career lifetime.

Secondly, we also need to find a better institutional and societal response to domestic violence. I think we are starting to tackle it – there are some extraordinarily focused organisations and individuals who are now making a difference here – but it is our greatest social concern. More time needs to be spent: talking about it; holding people to account, if needs be; caring for those who are its victims; and finding a different way to have a national conversation about domestic violence. Rosie Batty started it and it will continue, whether I chose to pick it up as a particular theme or not. Right now domestic violence holds us all back.

Thirdly, I think we probably need to tackle this right at an early age, in primary schools, and all our formal educative periods, issues around gender imbalance. We probably won’t change many men at the moment – or women for that matter – but we could make an effort in schools, because that then lays a foundation for the future.

What do you mean when you talk about gender imbalance?

DM: Well, it’s about how we talk about women, how we talk about men, how we celebrate men’s victories, how we celebrate women’s victories, how we give opportunities to men but not to women. It’s pretty easy to change. I think a lot of women are told almost from birth: ‘You can do this, but you can’t do that’.

Women are told they can only apply for a job if they meet 11 of the 10 criteria. Men are told something completely different: ‘Three? Oh, that’s enough. You’ll be able to wing it’.

On the issue around domestic violence, one thing that intrigues me is we know one in three or one in four or one in five Australian women or children will be abused but we never put it in terms of one in three or one in four or one in five Australians are abusers. So the conversations we have inculcate the victim as the story.

DM: Without a doubt.

So how can we change that so that we’re talking about the protagonist as being the issue and not the victim? I would love to see us change that discussion, saying: ‘Why is it that we have a culture in which people – and it’s not all men, but it’s probably mostly men – think it’s okay at some moment (maybe just for a flash) to abuse someone else?’ How do we change that conversation?

DM: I’m on the board of a federal and state-supported organisation called Our Watch, and it is looking at primary prevention, so tackling issues of domestic violence at all levels, both in a recognition of victims’ needs but also what we do about perpetrators. It’s very complete. It involves: an approach through the schooling system; an approach to first responders like police; it addresses issues that magistrates and judges should bear in mind; and other organisations that deal with the social issues around domestic violence. I think that’s helping enormously. I think organisations like White Ribbon, ANROWS (Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety Limited), VicHealth and the Rosie Batty Foundation are all contributing. My sense here is that the more we talk about this, the better we will be. But we do need to be absolutely black and white about holding people to account.

It is such a quandary, isn’t it? But you’re right, at some point, it has to be black and white.

DM: I think it probably is.

Yes. Changing the subject completely, you are such a fantastic speaker and an inspirational figure in a highly visible role. You could be on stage or in front of a group of people influencing 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Which leads me to the question, how do you make time for you? How does the general take care of the general?

DM: Gee, I’m glad you’re asking me and not my wife, because she would have a much more critical answer. Not very well, is the short answer. Look, as far as being the Australian of the Year, it is a year in which I can add a voice of influence – how effective that is, I’ll leave for others to judge. It would be a hell of a shame to waste it. Now, I think I’ll probably give maybe 200 speeches, or more, this year. I just think it’s a real privilege to be given that opportunity. Some of it is corporate engagement, so that’s great, but the majority of it is in the not-for-profit or philanthropic area – certainly this year – and what an entrée to meeting wonderful Australians who are helping to shape the future. If that means that there’s less time for other things in life, well, I guess that just has to be borne during 2016 but, gee, I hope my wife isn’t ever given the chance to read or hear that answer.

I’ll try to make sure she does.

She’s the most important person in my life by a country mile. She is the most extraordinary supporter of what we are both doing, so we’ll manage.

How have you juggled many years of public service on both of your parts?

DM: She and I have been married for 15 years. Well, she’s managed it by giving me the priority, you know – isn’t that so typical? We’ve moved from Brisbane to Canberra, Canberra to Townsville, from Townsville to Canberra, from Canberra to Sydney, from Sydney back to Canberra, and every single time she picked up sticks and continued her career as best she could. Now, of course, she’s got this great opportunity to further her career and where am I in my support of that? I’m sitting in an office in Western Australia.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known 30 years ago?

DM: I wish I had seen the issues that I see now around people not being given the chance to reach their potential in life – honestly. You know, if we put it in gender terms, I don’t think most men are malicious, most men are not malevolent in terms of denying other people, they’re just getting on with their busy men’s lives. They just don’t see your issues. They assume, like I did, that you’re jumping hurdles of about the same height as me. But, realising that, you know, realising it deeply, understanding I think many of the underlying issues behind it, that changes a person. Yes, it would have been much better if I had had that insight a long, long time ago, but at least I’ve had that insight.