Mar 202017

We are republishing some of our posts on Toxic Masters. Have you a horror story about dysfunctional leaders aboard or ashore? Tell us in confidence at, we’d like to hear what you have to say – and do share the post with your friends in the industry.

Recently an account from a former master of a close encounter that under other circumstances could have led to a collision sent MAC scrambling to Google to find out what information was available on toxic leadership at sea resulting in an accident. There were precisely five results, out of a potential of 132,000 hits on maritime accidents and of those on the top of the list was MAC’s post on the Maria M incident and the IMO model course on leadership and teamwork. That drilling into the remaining three results produced nothing on maritime accidents and toxic leadership suggests that it is an under-researched area of maritime safety.

A member of MAC’s LinkedIn maritime accident investigation group provided this account of a close call:

“…we were passing Manila and second mate calls me just after midnight to the bridge where I was informed vessel was overtaking us but CPA was 0.0 using AIS we identified ship and called asking what their intention was. The mate on overtaking ship advised us that he had strict instructions not to deviate from RED line. When I asked him if he was aware that we will collide in 15 minutes he reiterated that he must stay on the red line and the captain does not like being called to the bridge after midnight.  I asked him if he was aware of his obligations under Colregs as an overtaking vessel. He recited them verbatim but was still not prepared to deviate from the RED line

The vessel in question was a tanker and I am sure this is not an isolated case “

MAC enquired further with the following response: “ I remember the conversation clearly. He made a decision to alter course by 2 degrees, I informed him his action will delay the collision by 5 min and unless he alters course by at least 15 degrees until clear, I would make sure the (certification) authorities are made aware of his actions and the master’s standing orders. He made the alteration and then preceded to cut across my bow to get back to the red line I assume.”

Basically, chief officer was more afraid of upsetting his vessel’s master than he was of a catastrophic collision. When a subordinate is so obedient he’d prefer to be obedient and knowingly risk the vessel and crew than question orders that endanger the ship that’s a case of toxic leadership.

One often thinks of ‘poor leadership’ as weak, ineffectual leadership, a master who does not keep his crew in line, for example.  Toxic leadershipis, in many ways worse because the toxic masters appear to be, well, masterful, in charge, at least to those that hire them. Toxic leadership is a poison that hides itself in expectations.

Such was the case with the fire, explosion, sinking and loss of life of the Bow Mariner, the subject of this week’s podcast.

IMO’s model course on leadership and teamwork says: “(toxic leaders) abuse the leader-follower relationship.

“Common traits of toxic leadership are:

  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning/manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Callous/lack of empathy
  • Shallow emotional affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions.
  • Many are authoritarian (control freaks) tending to use micro-management, over-management and management by fear.
  • Micromanagers usually dislike a subordinate making decisions without consulting them, regardless of the level of authority or factual correctness.

“A toxic leader can be hypercritical of others in trying to hide their own faults. They can also be both frightening and psychologically stressful to work with.”

Toxic masters bully and brag while demolishing team coherence and initiative.

Consider this: “the master was a man with authority and a commanding presence who, on at least two occasions, called someone on the bridge an idiot.. Consciously or unconsciously, the Italian master with his authority did obviously not take in the information and knowledge from his … officers about the equipment on the bridge.”

That was not the master of the Costa Concordia, it was the master of the Maria M.

Toxic leaders are often admired:. Capt Fredrik Van Wijnen, the general secretary of the Confederation of European Shipmasters’ Associations says of the master of Costa Concordia: “The biggest problem is not his seamanship, it’s his personality. He has come over as a bit of a playboy and a joker. He’s not. He’s a very capable seafarer” –

Toxic masters are a personality problem, one that seems largely unaddressed within the industry. When an instructor at a maritime training facility asked a master what he would do if a junior officer challenged a he decision the response was “That would be the last time he’d be on my bridge”.

There are a lot of toxic masters out there and they poison every bridge they stand on.


  2 Responses to “Toxic Masters and the Bully On The Bridge”

  1. Fortunately they appear to be a dying breed but sadly one stills comes across them far too often as a pilot. It has to be said though that there no doubt too many pilots (and indeed Chief Engineers) that will fall into the same category. Its also probably very unlikely that the individuals concerned are even remotely aware of their own particular personality traits. After all, how many of us are?

  2. I work in offshore , here with present climate of less contracts, It is a fertile ground for such Toxic leaders to thrive .

    I am very familiar with such one operation where this very cost has made the middle management remove a challenging Master and another not so challenging but who would at least use the statutory regulations in e-mails slowing down their decisions.

    Both have been replaced, out of two , one Master has some of Toxic traits highlighted above.
    it is very funny that MAC came with this article,because only few days ago I said this to colleague “The fact he belittles the hazardous situation when brought up by a Junior is extremely worrying because not only he hasn’t thought of this to be discussed with Bridge team , when it is brought up he dismisses it with cavalier attitude , that scares me, that is Toxic “.

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