“Toxic leaders leave in their wake an environment devoid of purpose, motivation, and commitment.”
By Alain Babineau
Will we ever get promotional processes right? Although Chris' article is about the dysfunctionality of most police promotion systems is selecting leaders, I chose to focus my first LinkedIn commentary on the impact of such "toxic leadership" on an organization. I chose the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as a "subject" matter for two reasons. The first one is that after having spent 28 years in the organization, I felt knowledgeable enough about its culture to pierce the proverbial "corporate veil" and identify possible "respondents". Secondly, I believe there is enough publicly available evidence out there, to present a "prima facia case" and provide a reasonable explanation for the current state of the culture in the RCMP.
On June 30th, Commissioner Bob Paulson is retiring after nearly six years as Canada's Top Cop. He will be passing the torch to a new commissioner who will pick up the fight against the systemic harassment, sexual abuse, and discrimination practices, which have been plaguing the national police force for the last two decades and even longer. But on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011, the RCMP newly minted Commissioner Bob Paulson vowed to root out the Force of "dark-hearted behaviour", by firing clear wrong-doers and giving his senior officers the authority to settle disputes without delay. Paulson added that "If it's outrageous and it's serious enough to go after a person's job, then that's what we're going to do!" Interestingly, at the time Paulson insisted that the although the RCMP Act provided him with sufficient power take action in the worst cases, he was also interested in being able to deal with less serious offenses more quickly and in a more corrective fashion for the member responsible. As part of his approach, Paulson vowed to make supervisors more accountable for enforcing discipline. By way of "full disclosure", Paulson confessed that he had, earlier in his career, found himself accused of insensitive behaviour. "I wasn't convicted of harassment or anything like that, but I'll be honest and say that I have conducted myself in my career in instances that I needed to apologize for." At the time, Paulson’s appointment by Prime Minister Stephen Harper was welcomed by the membership as he was seen as a “cop’s cop”; a no-nonsense guy who would “reconstruct or rebuild” the trust within the organization which had been so gravely damaged by his predecessors. Alas, only a few months after becoming Commissioner, in his “zeal” to curb harassment in the RCMP, Paulson himself was formally accused of being a bully! The complaint prompted then-public safety minister Steven Blaney to reviewed the complaint with the help of a consulting firm, which ultimately found that some parts of the allegations were justified. Blaney then ordered the commissioner to apologize for exercising “bad judgment,” and take “corrective measures.”
However, between the years 2000 and 2011, Commissioners Giuliano Zaccardelli and William John Shannon (Bill) Elliott (Paulson’s predecessors) also behaved very badly while acting as Canada’s Top Cops! Indeed, on December 15, 2006, after 6 years at the helm of the RCMP, Commissioner Zaccardelli became the first Top Mountie in the history of the Force to be asked to resign from his position by the Federal government! A federal government-mandated report by lawyer David Brown into the RCMP's pension and insurance plan scandal slammed Commissioner Zaccardelli's "autocratic leadership style", and urged a total overhaul of the Mounties' top management structure and culture! "The Brown Report not only uncovered "palpable erosion" in trust between rank-and-file Mounties and senior managers, but it also revealed Zaccardelli's "unapproachable" management style that led to "mistakes" in judgment about how to handle internal allegations of nepotism and wasteful spending in the pension division. The report also identified a "broader breach of trust" between RCMP management and the members as a result of Zaccardelli's arrogant leadership style. Brown further uncovered a "war of personalities" within the organization in which "Zac" modeled how senior deputies should behave. Brown said that Zaccardelli "allowed a culture to exist and grow while "displeasing the commissioner was career limiting. Zac would remind everyone that, “I am the Commissioner!” Upon stepping down as Commissioner, Zaccardelli took his leadership “talents” to Europe and the Interpol as a senior official for the international policing organization.
On July 7, 2007, Bill Elliott was announced by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper as the 22nd Commissioner of the RCMP, making him the first commissioner who had not previously served in the police or military. Elliott’s main drive was to place Canada's national police force under civilian oversight and granting the Force greater independence from the federal government. Elliott’s self-declared objective was "to modernize the force" and make the RCMP's disciplinary system less bureaucratic. Unfortunately, according to Deputy Commissioner Raf Souccar who testified before a House of Commons public safety committee in February 2011, Elliott’s bullying and “disrespectful” behaviour was "bad from day one"! Ultimately the situation came to a head in July 2011, when four years into his term, Elliott stepped down amidst a "revolt" amongst the Force’s Senior Executive Committee members against his "abusive and bully-like behaviour towards them. A month later, following in Zaccardelli's footsteps, Elliott also took his leadership “talents” to Interpol and became it’s Special Representative to the United Nations in New York.
Needless to say that Zaccardelli and Elliott’s combined 12-year “reign” as top Mounties left behind them a “broken” organization, and a trust level amongst the rank and file vis a vis executive management as low as it could possibly be. Two significant cases stand out in my mind, to exemplify Paulson's tenure at the helm of the Force. In October 2016, after years of push back against the complainants, Paulson delivered a historic apology on behalf of the RCMP to female officers and civilian members and announced a massive settlement over harassment, discrimination and sexual abuse claims that could cost up to $100 million. More recently, an Ontario Superior Court ruling against the RCMP laid out a blistering critique of the how senior officers mercilessly harassed a sergeant and damaged his career after deciding he had lied to them about his unsuccessful bid to run for the federal Conservatives in 2005. Paulson, who testified at the trial, said that he had been led to believe Sgt. Paul Merrifield was a "disgruntled employee" whose accusations against his superiors were groundless! One must wonder about Bob Paulson's "legacy" as Commissioner, and his degree of success at stamping out those "dark-hearted behaviour" he referred to upon taking charge in 2011. Well, the jury has returned, and last week, the Canadian public were made aware of the findings of the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission report and the ex-AG Sheila Fraser report on the state of harassment in the RCMP, and the current AG report on the Force's providing of mental health services to its members. Commissioner Paulson's "administration" received an "F" across the board! Indeed, the issue of harassment in the Force proved to be an intractable one which Commissioner Paulson was unable to handle during his time in office, and which unfortunately continues to persist.
While Commissioner Paulson will be gone by the end on June, please never underestimate the powerful cultural structure "toxic leaders" leave in place upon their departure; a fact not unique to the RCMP. In his article "Toxic Leadership: Protecting the Organisation from Toxic Leaders and Colluders, Dr. Paul Vorster explains that "Toxic leaders draw people into positions of power that share their values and vision and manipulate followers into their way of thinking. While the leader is in power, they will often replace individuals with high moral standing, or who do not support their agenda, with those that do. This is a type of favoritism the toxic leader enacts appointing people they can control or who share their values and vision."
I am certain this will also ring familiar to those current and past members of the RCMP (and to those from other similarly affected agencies) who will read my commentary. This is the reality that awaits the soon to be named RCMP Commissioner, not to mention an all-time low morale amongst a rank and file which recently filed to unionize and finally get a voice and an equal footing at the negotiating table. I have no doubt that, as did his predecessors, Bob Paulson will also "take his talents" to "greener pastures". However, I am more concerned about how long it will take to repair the seventeen years worth of damages caused by the last three "toxic regimes” in the RCMP. I served under these three regimes and witnessed first hand the development of this 'toxic" culture within the organization. What are the options available to whoever will genuinely seek to rebuild the lost trust? This, I will address in future commentaries.
(Ret) S/Sgt Al Babineau spent 30 years in law enforcement and retired in fall 2016. Twenty-eight of those years were spent with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as well as short tenures with Department of National Defense as a Military Police Officer, and as Provincial Constable with the Ontario Provincial Police. Al has a B.A degree in Criminology from Ottawa University, a B.A degree in Laws and Legal Studies and a Graduate Diploma in Conflict Resolution from Carleton University. Al is currently pursuing a BCL/LLB at the McGill University Law faculty.