A must see example of leadership & handling the bad news. Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Brian Cummings uncovers dirt & then punishes himself.

Previous coverage of this story from FireTruckBlog.com here & here

By now I am sure you are all aware of the recent to do involving the Los Angeles Fire Department and female porn star Charley Chase. It was sort of old news when a Los Angeles TV station uncovered the video of Chase posing naked on an LAFD rig. The video had been made in 2008 and the fact that it was that long ago put it beyond the statute of limitations for disciplining the firefighters involved.

Now, comes word of an even older incident. One that occurred 13 years ago. And it involves the current LAFD chief, Brian Cummings. Cummings was the captain of the Venice fire station when the firefighters asked a bikini clad woman walking by to pose with them. According to KTTV-TV, at least one photo was taken of the woman appearing topless while on the fire truck.

So, who broke this news? Who was dredging up this dirt on a fire chief who took office just a month ago? The best we can tell from the articles we've read so far, the answer is Brian Cummings. Yes, it appears the chief blew the whistle on himself. In addition, despite the incident being well beyond that two year statute of limitations, the chief has also punished himself. He will be doing 120 hours of community service at a women's shelter and a youth mentoring program.

Here's some of what Chief Cummings had to say (from KTTV-TV):

"I apologize to the residents of Los Angeles, Mayor Villaraigosa and the brave men and women of the Los Angeles Fire Department for this incident," Cummings said.

Cummings called his part in the photo incident "irresponsible and inappropriate" and said he came forward with the picture for accountability.

"This is an opportunity for a teachable moment," Cummings said. "To be able to use my personal experience of what happened to me to be able to help my young firefighters, to keep them from making the same type of mistake is invaluable." 

To anyone in a position of leadership who reads STATter911.com, do yourself a favor and take note of how Chief Cummings dealt with this situation. Even if it turns out that a reporter had been asking questions that brought this response from the chief (again, there is no indication of that at this point and, in fact, the chief said he self-reported this information to the department's professional standards division), the chief has shown great leadership in his actions and message to the department and has provided the rest of us with a great example of an extremely effective way to handle bad news.

Watch the video above and read the KTTV-TV and Contra Costa Times stories on the chief's announcement. Now, picture how this story would have looked to the public and his firefighters if Chief Cummings did what so many leaders still do when there is embarrassing news about them or the department (think of former Congressman Anthony Weiner). Here's what you don't see or hear in this story:

  • A reporter chasing the chief down the street yelling questions about some racy photos.
  • A reporter saying they have uncovered a department scandal.
  • The chief reading from a statement or issuing one through his press office and then refusing to answer questions.
  • A "no comment" from the chief or a PIO.
  • A "we can't talk about it because it's a personal matter" type statement issued from the press office.
  • A union president saying there is a double standard on how discipline is handled in the department.

What you do see is a chief in charge, admitting he made a mistake, taking responsibility, apologizing and then explaining his proposal on dealing with these type issues in the future.

There is a great deal to gain by releasing bad news yourself rather than wait for it to leak out to reporters. It allows you to take some control of the story and puts you ahead of the game in the ultimate goal of getting this news behind you so you can move forward. For this to be effective, it means you really have to come clean. If you don't get all of the bad news out, it can, and likely will, come back to haunt you.

Besides the problem of lawyers telling you not to say anything about a sensitive subject for fear it will cost you later in court, the biggest obstacles in handling bad news this way tend to be the ego and emotion of the person in charge (again, think Anthony Weiner). From what we can see in our vantage point all the way across the country, Chief Cummings had no problem with any of this. As long as there are no other similar skeletons in his closet that we are not hearing about, Chief Cummings has turned a story that had potential to seriously damage his career into one that will likely do him a world of good.