Leadership Lessons from Commissioner James O’Neill

An Insight from the 2017 Public Safety Summit

Part of a Series

This Insight is a part of the 2017 Public Safety Summit Report.

To see the complete report, click here.

In September 2016, when James O’Neill became the Commissioner of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), he faced significant challenges. To begin with, he had to ensure that the agency was positioned to combat the many threats facing New York City, including terrorism, which, as O’Neill said, is something that is “always on [his] mind.” O’Neill was also making a significant personal transition. He had previously served as the Chief of Department, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in NYPD. As O’Neill said, he had thought that that position, which involved supervising 36,000 officers, had kept him “pretty busy”; however, he would now be taking on a new level of scrutiny and pressure as the public face of one of the most prominent law enforcement organizations in the world. Finally, NYPD was in the midst of a large and delicate organizational transformation. The reform effort had begun in 2014 when Bill Bratton had returned as Commissioner and instituted a “reengineering process” focused on increasing community engagement. Bratton had made significant headway, most notably through the introduction of Neighborhood Coordination Officers (NCOs), who would serve “as liaisons between the police and the community”; nonetheless, morale remained fragile after a 12-year period that had preceded Bratton’s return during which, as O’Neill said, NYPD had become “a pretty beaten-down organization.”

Early in his tenure, O’Neill is already receiving high marks for continuing to keep the city safe while simultaneously improving officer morale and bolstering community engagement. “The crime data couldn’t be better,” said Richard Aborn, the President of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, in an article published in Newsday about O’Neill’s first 100 days as Commissioner. “He has done all this without much upheaval in the department, which is remarkable.” O’Neill has made the transition with such aplomb by embracing a leadership style that leverages his personality and values and draws on institutional knowledge that he has accumulated during over 30 years serving in NYPD. In particular, he has exhibited five critical leadership techniques: maintaining a servant leadership mentality, employing strategic messaging, empowering other leaders, exhibiting and instilling trust, and pacing change.

“It is a spot where you can really, truly make a difference, not just for the cops, but to all 8.5 million people in the city.”
James O’Neill
Commissioner, New York City Police Department

Servant Leadership

One of O’Neill’s most important leadership techniques has been maintaining a servant leadership mentality. His desire to serve others stems in part from his prior assignments with NYPD. On his first assignment in 1983, O’Neill was a transit officer who rode the subway from 8 pm to 4 am every night. Providing a critical public safety service at a time when New York City had a far higher crime rate, O’Neill internalized the look of relief on peoples’ faces when he entered their cars. Explained O’Neill, “I kept that in my heart for the 34 ½ years I’ve been a police officer.”

A subsequent experience as a precinct leader in the economically depressed 44th precinct in the Bronx reinforced that servant-leader orientation and helped to impress upon him “what it meant to be an effective police leader.” “I couldn’t ever work with better people,” O’Neill said. “I had about 300 police officers, and it wasn’t just about the cops. It was about the people and the community too. Not a lot of money there but everybody works hard, and I got a real sense of appreciation for how people feel about New York City cops.”

Now operating in another intense environment as NYPD Commissioner, O’Neill reminds himself of this service orientation when he encounters stressful situations. O’Neill said, “Is it the best job in the world? I think so most of the time. Is it fun? Probably not. I don’t think it’s ever going to be fun, but it is a spot where you can really, truly make a difference, not just for the cops, but to all 8.5 million people in the city.”

The implication is that serving in a prominent and highly scrutinized leadership position can be difficult, but reminders of the potential for positive impact one can have can go a long way toward mitigating that stress and positioning the organization to make an impact.

Strategic Messaging

O’Neill has also leveraged his communication skills—most notably sustained and consistent messaging—to impress upon other officers the importance of their work and emphasize the value of the organization’s mission. “I talk all the time about messaging,” said O’Neill. “Anytime there’s a promotion ceremony, anytime there’s a medal day ceremony, I talk to the officers, and stress the fact that I know why you became a police officer. You came on the job to make a difference, to live a life of significance, and to do good.” As O’Neill added, the officers may not immediately respond to, or even acknowledge, this message, but over time, and through repetition, the mantra spreads through the force. “I think we’re at a place now where the message is being pushed down,” the Commissioner said, “and we’re showing the officers that we respect them.”

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Empowerment

O’Neill has also taken steps to empower leaders across NYPD, especially at lower levels of the organization. For the Commissioner, this is a priority in part because he believes that the top-down decision-making process that previously existed stifled the development of leaders across the agency. O’Neill also understands that developing strong leaders is integral to the success of the agency’s neighborhood policing strategy. The foundation of that effort is the creation of NCOs, who will have to lead community meetings and make a range of strategic decisions about how they spend their time and establish connections. O’Neill has therefore ensured that NCOs receive extensive leadership training. From O’Neill’s perspective, this investment in NCOs will also produce long-term benefits. “This is a way forward for NYPD,” he said, “…[because] it’s helping us build future leadership.”

Trust

Commissioner O’Neill has also leveraged trust to continue to bring about organizational change. He recognizes the importance of trust—and has a surplus of it on which to draw—because he has had more than three decades to cultivate strong relationships with his colleagues. “It’s one advantage of growing up on the inside of the department and not coming as an outsider,” said O’Neill. “I know what everybody’s all about and the people I have in my command staff, I have great faith in them. I think that helps me through the day.” With a firm grasp of the importance of trust at senior levels, O’Neill has striven to develop the same trust with the community and lower-level officers, in part because he knows that that latitude is critical for officers to find fulfillment in their work. “No cops want to be told what to do all day long,” said O’Neill. “They want to have some freedom. They want to feel like they have ownership.”

“No cops want to be told what to do all day long. They want to have some freedom. They want to feel like they have ownership.”
James O’Neill
Commissioner, New York City Police Department

Pacing

While O’Neill has placed a major emphasis on cultivating trust and bolstering individual leaders, he has also continued to advance the broader organizational transformation by developing and expanding neighborhood policing. He has also carefully paced this change (NCOs are currently in a little over 40 precincts, out of 77 total precincts) because he knows that NYPD needs to sustain its core functions (i.e., fighting crime and protecting New Yorkers from other threats) even as it engages in a reengineering process. “As we’re doing all this [change], things still keep coming at you,” O’Neill said. “It never stops. You never get a chance to put the brakes on.”

This approach has powerful implications for leaders hoping to transform agencies: change is a gradual process, and if leaders try to do too much too soon, they risk diminishing their organization’s core competencies and undermining their credibility.

Less than one year into his tenure as NYPD Commissioner, O’Neill’s long-term impact remains to be seen. Nonetheless, that he has deftly navigated a transition from one of the most famous law enforcement figures in the country and then introduced his own style to the department speaks volumes about his leadership ability. O’Neill has leveraged his convictions, communication and interpersonal skills, and sensitivity to the pulse of the organization to sustain a strategic and ethos-based organizational transformation. In a very short time at the helm, he has subtly left his mark on NYPD and enhanced the agency’s impact. That is an example that other law enforcement leaders would do well to learn from and emulate as they too pursue organizational change.

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