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Values-based actions will show FDNY leaders' dedication to their mission.

culture fails Jul 29, 2020

Businesses that drive their people to be the best they can be inevitably have cultures where the energy and positivity is impossible to deny. When an organization's culture comes alive like this, you know the leaders exude passion for the CorePurpose that makes everything possible. So when I heard about the FDNY brawl last summer, I had to wonder where its leadership went wrong.

This is one of the most respectable public institutions in the world, whose members saved hundreds of lives on September 11th. But on the evening of June 6, 2018, several firefighters not only disrespected each other but also the values that hold this group together. As I learned more about the details of that evening, I realized this was more than a few folks having one too many beers. This was a failure of leadership to bring CoreVals alive in the hearts and minds of the members of this famed institution.

On the day in question firefighters from around the city gathered at a bar in the Bronx, following a ceremony for Matthew Murphy, who was awarded medals for heroism. According to the New York Daily News, the celebration was marred by "a racial slur thrown at a black firefighter," and a bar fight broke out between rival boroughs. The fight eventually escalated when some firefighters headed to a rival station later that evening. Apparently the negativity that arose went beyond borough conflicts and despicable racial divides. Petty jealousies between units— supposed teammates— may have widen the rifts even further. The reporting from the Daily News included a source suggesting that "the ladder and engine guys were... upset that Rescue company members get all the glory on Medal Day."

In the aftermath of the brawl, FDNY Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro promised that, “everyone and anyone who engaged in this outrageous behavior will be held accountable.” A week later the FDNY announced that they had suspended eight firemen without pay. But the story took a turn for the worse when reports of a video from the evening emerged. The worst beatings that night happened not at the bar, but at the firehouse, with a group of sober, on-duty firemen brutally beating their inebriated challengers. “They can’t believe one of the guys wasn’t killed," the New York Post reported. According to their sources, "the tape shows Adam Soler, 35, of Engine 68, being held down by two firefighters from Rescue Co. 3 and repeatedly kicked by a third." The source also said that, "someone grabbed his head and started pounding it into the pavement," resulting in a concussion.

This story leaves no room for excuses from both the firefighters and the leaders of the organization. At least one firefighter remained on medical leave a month after the incident, yet to this day not a single person has lost their job or faced any criminal proceedings. This inaction infuriated the Post source, who said, "They shouldn't be getting a paycheck… they should be getting a prison cell." While all of the offenders have now returned to work, they required "no additional training about workplace rules or substance-abuse issues." An internal investigation into the incidents remains ongoing. That means the leadership FDNY still has time to lead their culture to a better place.

Service. Bravery. Safety. Honor. Dedication. Equity. Preparedness.

These CoreVals serve both FDNY service members and their communities well. Having clearly discerned CoreVals will also help serve leadership in times of strife. As the investigation into these incidents concludes, I expect the leadership of the FDNY to lean on their mission and values and not only take responsibility for their failures, but take positive steps to improve the culture of this proud institution. The first value listed, Service, highlights its members "unwavering call to protect and serve." While we generally understand this to mean a commitment to the community, when these firefighters fail to serve and protect each other, it exposes a serious rift in their culture.

FDNY leadership must begin by reflecting Bravery with the same courage that their first responders show. They need to reflect the excellence of character expected by their promise of Honor, knowing that when violent acts occur between fellow service members, these actions affect the legacy of all members, past and present. To be at their best, to love their work without resenting the recognition of others, they need to see Dedication to the mission from those leading their cause. I have seen organizations bring their culture alive by implementing solutions that helped their workers thrive. Regular meetings to talk about CoreVals can help reinforce them. Perhaps instead of recognizing individual heroics, FDNY's medal ceremonies can celebrate whole units. Whatever their final decision, they need to implement real change. By taking direct actions, leadership at FDNY can honor those that came before them with positive steps that improve the organization going forward.

Will Scott is passionate about creating environments where people thrive to become the best they can be. Great corporate culture drives great performance and investing in culture yields the highest returns in terms of revenue growth and employee retention. Author of the forthcoming book, The Culture Fix: Solve C-Suite Problems at Ground Level with 9 Deeds in 90 Days, Will regularly holds workshops and speaking events on corporate culture and can help you transform yours in just three months. His two key workshops, Discerning Your Core Values and From Core Values to Valued Culture, are now accepting registration for attendees. Click here for more information. 


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