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Why toxic leaders should never be tolerated

Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on February 11, 2024.

The US Navy has a system similar to companies in the private sector to report abusive and toxic leaders. The crew members of the USS Lake Erie, a guided missile cruiser, reported the toxic and destructive behavior of Captain Danielle C. DeFant. 

DeFant was relieved of command in October as a result of her losing the Navy’s “confidence in her ability to command.” Those within her command lost confidence in her ability to lead. They accused her of bullying, verbal and physical abuse, sexual discrimination and creating a toxic climate and culture of fear on her ship. 

The US military is known for its focus on leadership development. Unlike in the private sector where these types of leaders are more often tolerated, toxic leaders in the military can get people killed.

An Oct. 22 investigative report by the Navy, obtained by KPBS News under the Freedom of Information Act, included 45 statements from sailors, chiefs and officers of USS Lake Erie. The report outlined numerous allegations against DeFant. She acknowledged many of them as being factual.

Quoting the Navy’s investigative report

Captain DeFant’s behavior consisting of yelling, profanity, and public admonishments has contributed to a culture of fear onboard where a large number of chiefs and officers … are hesitant to or avoid bringing adverse reports to Captain DeFant. … This culture ultimately leads to an unsafe command environment where sailors do not feel empowered to take charge and exercise sound judgment in support of operational safety.

A senior commanding officer and warfare commander demonstrating destructive behaviors can have a devastating impact on sailor and officer retention.

The commanding officer shall use all proper means to foster high morale, and to develop and strengthen the moral and spiritual well-being of the personnel under his or her command.

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It is surprising that DeFant rose to the position of commander of a warship after serving in many leadership positions, including executive officer and commander of another vessel. Her lack of leadership skills must have been apparent in her previous roles in the Navy. 

Given DeFant’s lack of leadership skills, the Navy needs to investigate her previous fitness reports and why she was given command of a guided missile cruiser. What needs to be corrected in the leadership evaluation process so this doesn’t reoccur? 

All three of the above quotes from the Navy’s investigative report apply to toxic leaders in the private sector. I wrote columns on toxic corporate leaders in May 2017 and August 2023

An article in the MIT Sloan Management Review reports that a “toxic corporate culture… is 10.4 times more powerful than compensation in predicting a company’s attrition rate compared with its industry.” If your company is experiencing abnormally high attrition, a toxic corporate culture may be the reason.

Individuals who are toxic are not trusted by their peers or direct reports. The actions of everyone they work with have a defensive component, which hinders any group from becoming a high-performance team. Toxic people within the organization don’t realize that they are damaging their personal integrity and reputation, important traits which determine whether people want to work alongside them.

Individuals who report to toxic leaders are reluctant to report bad news, depriving them of information needed to correct a situation that will only get worse or become unfixable. 

I used to work for a toxic leader. I was eventually promoted out of that individual’s organization and became his peer, and then promoted again and became his boss. He continued to treat the people in his organization poorly, so I terminated him. The employees within that organization celebrated for days.

I replaced him with a very effective leader. Once more, these employees were making decisions on their own. They were exercising initiative and creativity, taking personal ownership of their part of the business and not being fearful of making a mistake, which was career threatening under the former leader.

Never tolerate a toxic leader. They cause great harm to your organization. If they cannot rapidly change their leadership style, part company with them. 

Stan Silverman is founder of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at stan@silvermanleadership.com.

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