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  • Marnie Suss

the art of crisis decision making: honoring First Deputy Commissioner Calvin Drayton

Updated: Feb 26

Calvin Drayton sitting in front of screen showing weather radar for NYC.

Summary

Learn about New York City's "godfather" of crisis management, First Deputy Commissioner Calvin Drayton.

  • Learn from Calvin's leadership to rebuilding the city's resilience following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the destruction of Superstorm Sandy.

  • Learn how Calvin mentored multiple generations of crisis managers and shaped the field into what it is today.

  • Learn about the leadership lessons of Calvin's legacy.



On January 31, 2024, New York City Emergency Management and the world lost one of its most influential leaders in emergency and crisis management.


First Deputy Commissioner Calvin Drayton’s impact extends far beyond those who worked with him.


Anyone who has lived, worked, or visited New York City was safer because of Calvin. His leadership and unwavering commitment propelled the city’s resilience through some of its darkest days including September 11, 2001 and Superstorm Sandy.


Calvin questioned, endured, sacrificed, pushed, challenged, and shaped the profession into what it is today. He felt his responsibility to protect the city so deeply that he appreciated the best and worst moments equally.


It was all part of the job.


And he loved it. 


And, like so many of my colleagues, I lost my mentor and friend. 


We created my dream role.

I had the honor to serve as his Chief of Staff for several years. When Calvin and I created the new role, he said to me, “I have my [work] style and you have yours. I want you to do this job your way.” It is a rare gift for a leader to truly embrace another person’s style so genuinely, but Calvin was a rare leader. I grew the most as a person and professional during these years because Calvin not only believed in me, but insisted I be myself, and do things my way


We solved complex problems.

Emergency managers came from all over the world to learn from NYCEM. Calvin loved the art of bringing people together to solve complex problems and help people on their worst days. He had the highest standards. At the heart of his pressure and intensity was his compassion and commitment to the people of New York. We had to be the best, because they deserved the best. 

Group of people around a table during a crisis response.

We laughed, a lot.

And after a long week, he (usually) told us to take Saturday and Sunday off. :)


We laughed a lot. He had a great sense of humor. There were many meetings he’d walk out saying, “You can’t make this up!”


We navigated crisis decision making.

It was an honor to watch him lead and navigate tough decisions in crisis. His crisis decision making was equal parts confidence and humility. He leaned on his experience, but also knew he had to evolve with the risks we faced. In the midst of a response, usually behind closed doors, he would reflect and create a list of questions to challenge himself, our partners, our team, and our leaders. He valued and encouraged debate because it resulted in better decisions.


sign on a conference room with the name Calvin Drayton Situation Room

We supported our team.

And when there was a misstep, he always stood with his team. When the dust settled he wouldn’t assign blame, he would simply ask ‘what happened, what can we do to prevent it from happening in the future, and what can I do to help?’




Calvin lived and led by his values of respect, integrity, and being tough, but fair.


Not a day goes by that I don’t lean on his wisdom or hear his voice guiding me. It's hard to imagine the world without him.


But like so many great people, he will live on in the wisdom he shared with us.


These are (some) of my favorite lessons I will continue to lean on and strive for:


  1. Never lose your edge because the impossible is possible. This is true for crises, but also great opportunities. The odds don’t apply in crisis management or in life.


  1. Stand with your team. Leading a team requires responsibility and accountability. The strongest teams are not afraid to fail because they know their leaders respect them and will have their back. 


  1. Lead with integrity. Define your values and stick to them when things get hard. There will always be an easy way out, but often at the expense of your values. Hard decisions become easier when driven by integrity. 


  1. Stay curious. Never stop questioning ‘why.’ The easiest path is to always say ‘yes.’ But great leaders know confident decision making and progress comes from asking ‘why’ or ‘how about we try…’ or ‘what if we changed…’


C, thank you for everything. You changed my life and made me a better person. You will be deeply missed. 


Blog post author Marnie Suss hugs Calvin Drayton.

June 16, 2022 - Dedication and naming of New York City's Situation Room.



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