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Former astronaut and current Governor General of Canada, Julie Payette

This summer the very decorated former astronaut and current Governor General of Canada, Julie Payette was the focus of investigation for claims of workplace harassment. It seems this isn’t the first time her subordinates have made such comments since “The National Post reported on claims that Payette’s treatment of staff at the Montreal Science Centre foreshadowed what was to come at Rideau Hall.”

In what looks like a feeble attempt to identify with her beleaguered staff, Payette sent them a memo stating:

“When faced with problems, it is imperative to stay united and work together to find solutions. I am listening and I remain fully committed to our team and our mission.”

It is rather rich of her to claim the imperativity of “staying united and working together” in such a dis-united and soul-crushing work environment apparently of her making.

A CBC News report cited a dozen unnamed sources saying:

“Payette has created a toxic work environment and a culture of fear at Rideau Hall — to the point where some staffers have been reduced to tears, have gone on leaves of absence or have left the office altogether…

Sixteen sources with direct knowledge of the alleged harassment have told CBC News that Payette has yelled at, belittled and publicly humiliated employees. They accuse her of throwing tantrums over the quality of staff work and accusing staffers of incompetence. Her longtime friend and second-in-command, Assunta Di Lorenzo, is also accused of bullying staff, yelling at them and calling them “lazy” and “incompetent.”

As if the story could not get worse, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to satisfy Payette’s need for privacy at Rideau Hall (official residence of the Governor General), but she still hasn’t moved into her official residence almost three years into her five-year mandate!

That’s because Payette had requirements she wanted satisfied before she would move in. Ashley Burke reported:

“They include almost $140,000, spent studying and designing a private staircase that was never built, and more than $117,500 on a gate and series of doors to keep people away from Payette’s office, according to the National Capital Commission (NCC), which manages the official vice-regal residence.

Those costs go well beyond the usual transition expenses, which normally involve some fresh paint and new furniture, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the project.”

My Own Experience:

I have little direct knowledge of Payette’s situation other than to say it sounds very similar to my own experience many years ago with a senior officer. His primary metric for decision making was how it benefitted him personally, or how it made him look. Financial decisions were made so that he could “earn” a bonus at the expense of legitimate operational needs. While staff cooperated with the cuts, little did they know he’d be the sole beneficiary.

Add to this the fact that over a dozen female executive assistants revolved through the office during his short tenure – chased away by sexual harassment; employees began to break down exhibiting the highest sick time in the department along with a precipitous drop in productivity. To make matters worse: this was an open secret among those in the know.

Work Culture

The attention to improving work culture has come a long way. There is a growing body of literature addressing workplace bullying, and leadership in the age of anger. One recent example is Aaron James’ book and documentary: A**holes: A theory.

With venomous social media, resurgent authoritarianism and rampant narcissism threatening to trash civilization as we know it, the time has come for A**holes: A Theory — an entertaining and oh so timely feature doc from acclaimed director John Walker.

Please note: language warning!

The Need for Integrity in Leadership

What kind of leader goes out to reduce their staff to tears? Who yells at, belittles, and publicly humiliates their employees and thinks this will improve performance? What possible leadership strategy includes throwing tantrums and accusing staffers of incompetence? Who knowingly allows bullying staff, yelling at them and calling them “lazy” and “incompetent”?

I have no answers to these. I remain baffled that some people seem to get to positions of maximum destructive influence. Nevertheless these experiences were cautionary tales that have informed my own human attempts at leadership against the current of entitlement and belittlement that sucks the life out of any organization.

Addendum: “The Painful Julie Payette lesson: look to character, not resumé, for your leaders“. Petros Kusmu writes:

“… it is fair to say that we often fall into the trap of assuming that a stellar resumé makes for an effective leader. We need to listen to the deluge of HR books, lectures and corporate training and hire strong leaders possessing a combination of passion, humility, adaptability, great listening skills and unimpeachable integrity.

Had the Trudeau government, and more broadly Canadians, looked past Payette’s remarkable achievements as a scientist, pilot and astronaut — not to mention, someone who also speaks six languages and is a Juno-nominated musician — perhaps we would have noticed the red flags much earlier.”

In Profound Contrast:

When confronted with the request that two of His disciples be entitled to a special place beside Jesus, Jesus said this:

You know that the rulers of the [of this world] lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,

What is your experience of servant leadership – and/or in contrast – how have you overcome toxic leaders?

For more, consider following Linda Crockett MSW,RSW,SEP – Workplace Bullying Expert offers Solutions: consults, training, group facilitation, & coach/counselling at: www.abrc.ca.

For more on Servant Leadership, see Leadership Is: Devotions for Servant Leaders – written by friend and mentor, Laurie Kennedy.