Now may be an appropriate time to renew the leadership lessons of the past.
Our faith in, and our willingness to follow, our many leaders has been at a low ebb for long enough. We should be looking for ways out of the slump. Dusting off the old saw about past being prologue, we suggest taking another look at the lessons by example that are presented so vividly and forcefully in a movie that premiered 50 years ago–Twelve O’Clock High. Remember it? Don’t worry about dating yourself if you saw it when it first came out in 1949. It continues to play on TV today.
I had seen this movie as an action-packed, exciting adventure of aerial combat when I was in high school. Lots of action. Lots of excitement. Lots of airplanes. I was so interested in the airplanes and action as the U.S. Eighth Air Force bombed German targets in World War II Europe and was mauled in turn by defending fighters and “ack-ack” that the most important message of the film eluded me.
The second time I saw the movie was not for fun. It was required viewing as part of leadership training when I was going through the U.S. Air Force aviation cadet program in the mid-1950s. That is when I was introduced to the real message of Twelve O’Clock High. Some 40 years later, the film is still used in training. The ROTC course syllabus calls it “a classic and accurate portrayal of the problems of leadership in a combat situation.”
As the story opens, things were tough for the Allied bombing effort. The Eighth Air Force daylight bombing campaign had not yet reached into the heartland of Germany, and morale was starting to sag. Washington was getting impatient, and the British–who were bombing at night, when it was safer although less accurate–were pressuring the Americans to give up daylight bombing entirely.
Our instructor pointed out–and replayed more than we thought necessary to get the point across–the focal point of the whole story, the part where Maj. Gen. Ira Eaker, Eighth Air Force, restored the flagging discipline and fighting spirit of one particularly ineffective bomb group based in England by recognizing that the problem was a leader who had lost sight of the unit’s objectives. Without hesitation, Eaker made a command decision. He relieved the group commander on the spot, without being a jerk about it by putting the guy down unnecessarily, with the classic line, “Chip, you’d better get your things and go back with me.” He then told another officer who had accompanied him: “Frank; you’re in command. I’ll send your clothes down.”
Ask anyone who has had to personally, face-to-face, fire one person who couldn’t hack it and replace him or her right there with another one. Chances are they will agree it is about the toughest thing a supervisor can do.
Many in positions of leadership wriggle out of it by doing nothing and letting the situation worsen. Or they pass it on to someone else to do the dirty work, or wait until they can pass it on to a successor–who may be replacing them because they couldn’t do the tough part of their job.
Now, I know that we can’t just march our leaders into a classroom and force them to watch Twelve O’Clock High. But we can keep an eye on cable TV reruns and encourage them to watch it, emphasizing that they need to see it because of the leadership lessons it offers, because today’s leaders need to restore our badly battered faith in them.
In the movie, the new group commander followed through with his reorganization of the bomb group, molding the unit into one with better focus, better morale and a better fighting spirit that paid off with better results and fewer casualties. There are many parallels to today that can be gleaned from it.
It’s still a great movie to watch, and it continues to be a part of Air Force leadership training classes. Watching it with the awareness that there are subliminal leadership messages peppered throughout can be helpful to any supervisor–government, military or corporate–or a potential replacement for a failing supervisor.
For the story behind this great leadership lesson and how it got its title, read “Twelve O’Clock High: Fact to Fiction” in this issue.
Arthur H. Sanfelici, Editor, Aviation History