read the transcript here

Last week on Facebook, I talked about “pivot points” – clear breaks with the past coupled with action to change the future – and why they’re essential to good crisis management. This next story takes pivot points to a whole new level.

In short, a group of Australian Army officers and NCOs calling themselves the ‘Jedi Council’ are accused of filming sexual encounters and emailing them around to other soldiers, civilians, and contractors. They used military email accounts. It’s been going on for at least three years. One of the men involved was a high-raking lieutenant colonel. Some of them were special forces. 17 men have been suspended or are being investigated, and over 90 more are implicated. There are dozens of victims, and they are angry.

This comes on the heels of an intense, 2-year investigation into sexual harassment and abuse in the Australian military – spurred by a military academy cadet recording and broadcasting himself having sex with a female cadet over Skype. When it came out that the male cadet was let off with a slap on the wrist – but the female cadet was hit with multiple disciplinary actions – the military came under attack for being sexist and soft on abusers. This is the kind of scandal where people the top get fired – ugly, public, messy firings.

photo credit: Australian Army

Enter Lt. Gen. David Morrison, Australia’s Chief of the Army.. He’s got a reputation for being firm and blunt – which is saying a LOT coming from Aussies. After holding a press conference last week to address the new scandal, he released this video on the Army’s official YouTube channel.

What do I love most about this video? Is it the way Lt. Gen. Morrison tells soldiers to “Get out” of his Army if they can’t get over their sexist opinions? The way his lip curls in contempt when he says that he’ll be “ruthless” in hunting down anyone who demeans their colleagues? How he reaffirms the value and kick-ass-edness of female soldiers? Or maybe how he not-so-subtly questions the manhood and courage of anyone who knew about this crap and didn’t say anything about it?
No. No, I think it’s how in less than three minutes, he managed to do what no one in all of the U.S. government and military has managed to do: convince everyone that he’s serious about making sure this doesn’t happen again, even though individuals – not “the Army” – are the ones at fault.How did he do it?

Morrison directly confronts the real problem – Military Culture. Culture plays a huge role in this kind of crisis, but it’s a sacred cow people feel they shouldn’t address directly or can’t do anything to change. But it’s a myth that culture changes is hard and takes a long time. Even in a large organization, it happens as quickly as leadership sets clear standards and enforces them.

Morrison does just that. He acknowledges that this crap happens because people buy into the cultural stereotype that “toughness is built on humiliating others.” He is brutal and blunt about that stereotype being unacceptable in his Army: “If that does not suit you, then get out. You may find another employer where your attitude and behavior is acceptable, but I doubt it.”

Morrison is angry. Our resident human behavior specialist watched this video and said that Morrison’s anger was overwhelming – but not out of control – and that’s the scariest thing of all. There is no doubt that this is a disciplined man in complete control of his anger. His anger gives him credibility in an age of politically correct and legally-vetted statements. Audiences are used to government leaders releasing vanilla statements about how they “condemn sexism/racism/whateverism in any form,” and “cooperate with investigations.” Those statements are the norm these days, but they’re designed to avoid liability. Audiences are smart – they’re know when someone is playing CYA, and those statements don’t earn their trust. They’re the crisis equivalent of the adults in Peanuts saying “waaahhhh waaah wah wah waaaaaaah.”

But Morrison issued the ultimate anti-political press release. He put his controlled anger out on YouTube for all the world to see. He ensured that audiences see him having the same reaction and feeling the same contempt that they feel. He offered himself – willingly – as being personally accountable to every Australian for fixing this mess. His discipline in controlling his anger convinces the audience that he’s capable of following through on his promises. His boldness and bluntness convinces them that he’s not some political spindoctor and that they can trust him.  


(Are you taking notes, Defense Secretary Hagel? Hrrrrm?)

What can each of us learn from Morrison?

1. That anger is powerful in a crisis, but only it if disciplined, controlled, and properly expressed to increase your credibility. It’s ok to be angry. Sometimes, it’s the most powerful thing you can be. But it has to be controlled, empathetic anger – the kind that says the message “I’m as mad as you are. We’re on the same team, and I’m going to fix this for all of us.”

2. That you have to address the cause, not the symptoms if you want to solve the problem. Morrison didn’t focus on this incident – he addressed the culture that made this years-long scandal possible. If we want real change, we can’t be afraid to address culture. Culture is complicated, but it’s actually the fastest and easiest problem to address – and you can’t really eliminate a problem until you do. Until you take responsibility for changing your organization’s culture and expectations, you’ll just keep putting out the same fires.

3. That when a huge crisis hits, you have to throw the “traditional” PR script out the window and be yourself. Too many people mimic what they’ve heard others do and say during a crisis – which just comes off as inauthentic and undermines their credibility. That’s one thing you can’t afford to do when a crisis hits. Morrison is a soldier and a straight-shooter, so canned PR phrases would sound even more  insincere and awkward than usual coming from him. So he did what any soldier would do in this situation – he chewed out his troops for screwing up and told them to get their shit together. But while he was himself, he didn’t wing it. Morrison was himself, but he was a controlled, careful, well-thought-out version of himself. When a crisis hits you need to be yourself, too. Instead of releasing vanilla statements to your audience, focus on what messages they need to hear about the problems you need to address, and then deliver those messages in your own, authentic voice.

Come back tomorrow for more about how Morrison gained credibility and trust in a crisis – and how you can, too.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.