“I knew I had to help.”

A photo depicting an unknown New York City cop giving a pair of winter boots to a homeless man went viral after the woman who took it (a tourist and fellow police officer from Arizona) posted the picture to the NYPD’s Facebook page.

This past week, there was so much talk about this amazing policeman who, while on patrol on a cold night, walked past a homeless person who had no shoes.

“I was cold and I had on two pairs of socks,” he said, “and I knew he had to be cold.”

What values are in your mission statement?

He went inside a store in Times Square and purchased a pair of boots and socks. When he returned, he helped the homeless man put the boots on. If that tourist had not been there to take the picture, this simple event would have never created such a media storm.

When I heard about it on the radio, I was impressed. The officer had no idea that someone was watching, or for that matter, recording his actions. The next day I read the full story in the newspaper and I was beyond impressed.

The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

If it were not for that picture, there would have been a terrible void of good news last week in New York City. Every station, newspaper and social media platform had this story.

Out of curiosity, I decided to check the NYPD’s mission/value statement to see whether it was sync with this selfless act.

Under the values section was this statement:

Value human life, respect the dignity of each individual and render our services with courtesy and civility.”

This was the statement that should have been the caption of that photo.

I thought that this was the ultimate campaign poster for recruiting officers. People do not join and engage with organizations, at least over the long term, unless they are about more than just profit motive. People are looking for a bigger hook and some alignment with their lives.

That also translates into the character of an organization. Although that one act of supreme kindness will not change a lot of people’s perception of New York’s Finest, it does go a long way to buff up the current state of their image.

Values created in a conference room carry no value

There are a lot of ways to define what is critical within organizations: the employee value proposition, the mission, the values, and the vision statements.

Is one more important than the others? That is a question that each organization must figure out. A group of words created in the confines of a conference room carry no value if the organization does not eat, breathe, and sleep on what they believe in.

These statements are supposed to be the foundation of their organization and a guiding light, not only in good times, but in bad times as well. Use the Rocher Test principles, think about an organization, and then quickly think about what it stands for. If it is the NYPD, what is your perception? If it is IBM or Google for that matter, what are your thoughts about its character?

The meaning of organizational character

In the search for organizational bedrock, let’s look at this in another way: If organizations were people, what would we wish most to understand about them?

Character is the inner core of a human being. If each of us were and onion and the layers could be peeled back, what we would have left at the core would be our character. It is the center. This core determines how we act when no one is watching or listening. You act because it is the right thing to do. Your definition of the “right thing” is your moral compass.

Should we seek it in our organizations? However you answer that question, it does not matter because the workforce is looking and seeking it. They are looking to attach themselves to something bigger than themselves. If we think it, as Jerry Maguire says in the movie, is all about “show me the money,” we are sadly mistaken.

The word “character” comes from the Greek term “engrave.” In other words, it is etched in stone or our inner being. Once that etching is ingrained, it is not easily changed. It is expressed in so many different ways: words, attitudes, our interaction, our mindset, and in all sorts of behaviors. But like a rubber band, its always comes back to form.

If your workforce is heavily staffed with the same character traits that can easily become the driving force to mask the character of an organization, regardless of your “statements”

I was told by an older man on my first job that you should always live your life as if someone is always watching or listening. An organization survives shifts in people and leadership because the core is there.

When organizations have character, they can build on it. But if they do not begin with a strong character, they will have a hard time ending with it.

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