‘Leaders lead through action, not talk’

  Sporting Compass: With Dr Pippa Grange and Paul Oliver

Dr Pippa GrangePaul Oliver

As a sports psychologist and founder of Bluestone Edge, I am fortunate to have many conversations with people about the substance and meaning of sport.
My colleague Paul Oliver also engages with people at all levels across the sporting sector to keep his finger on the pulse of the latest news, views and issues.

In this space each fortnight, we will share some of these stories, insights and possibilities in relation to people, culture, ethics and leadership in sport. I hope you enjoy the conversation and we look forward to hearing your thoughts.

All the best, Pippa and Paul


‘Leaders lead through action, not talk’

1 October 2013
Category:   LEADERSHIP – it starts at the top

In March this year, on International Women’s Day, a man delivered a speech at the United Nations headquarters in New York, which attracted little fanfare. 

The father of three boys told the assembled crowd: “I have never routinely experienced discrimination in my career, nor the apprehension of violence in my personal life. Most benefits of masculinity and patriarchy have accrued to me. Nonetheless, I hope those considerable limitations in my perspective can in part be offset by my sincere intent to support women in my organisation to thrive in the absence of both.” 

The man was Lieutenant-General David Morrison and his organisation happens to be the Australian Army, which he has led since 2011. He was speaking in reference to a recent report, which found one in four women in the Australian Defence Force had been sexually harassed. The report revealed that it is a systemic, cultural, destructive and ongoing problem.

All good leaders know the importance of acting decisively to fix what they know is wrong, and doing so quickly. Morrison was unequivocal in his actions: “I am resolved to make improvements to our culture one of the fundamental elements of the legacy that I hope to leave the Australian Army,” he said.

Culture needs to be led – like strategy, like operations, like teams. Even though poor culture is often lamented as a great organisational risk, it is regularly left to develop organically without due attention. Deliberate planning to perform on the critical elements that constitute good culture can be easily overlooked and instead we find ourselves wistfully looking on at organisations that get it right and presuming they had a magical formula. They don’t; anyone can have it with effort and the intentions of leaders.

The reality is that the biggest influence on a high performing culture is the calibre of the leader and the ripple effect that this has on the rest of the organisation. Morrison has admitted that: “Change is bloody hard … but you have to take steps” and adds: “The sign of success is when the momentum does not rely on the leader”.  

The leader of cultural change may not be wildly popular at first because they are likely to rock the boat, raise difficult questions about accountability and performance, and up-root unofficial sources of power and influence. It is when a leader, especially a new leader, is seen as neither the sole culture guru or as an outsider and a pariah that change starts to look sustainable. 

With this in mind, it was interesting to see newly-elected President of the International Cycling Union (UCI), Brian Cookson, last Friday announce that his first priorities in the role were “to make anti-doping procedures in cycling fully independent, sit together with key stakeholders in the sport and work with the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) to ensure a swift investigation into cycling’s doping culture”.  This was a clear message of his intent to restore the sport’s reputation following the controversy surrounding incumbent Pat McQuaid, who has been criticized for failing to take necessary and decisive action to fully clean up the sport following the Lance Armstrong doping affair.

It is not always easy to act on your values. In many circumstances, leading cultural change when the values of others do not align with yours can be isolating and tough. But leadership is essentially about taking action, and both Morrison and Cookson have clearly displayed this in intention and practice. Leaders lead through action, not just talk.

Until next week ….

Dr Pippa Grange



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Categorized: LEADERSHIP – it starts at the top