Leadership lessons learned from the 1948 movie ‘Command Decision’

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down, and it is clear that things will not return to the status quo ante anytime soon. The pandemic has provided a test for societies and for their leaders.

One dimension of leadership always in short supply is the ability to tell people the truth, even if the message is unwelcome, such as that things will get worse before they get better.

In the current climate of fear and uncertainty, the United States needs leaders who can make strategic decisions independent of politics and do the right thing.  This dimension of leadership is captured in the excellent 1948 movie about strategic bombing in World War II, “Command Decision.”

The film deals with strategy, leadership, corporate politics, and is probably the most sophisticated American war film ever made.  It dramatizes a fundamental strategic conflict between two Army Air Force generals. Both are West Point graduates who committed themselves early on to Billy Mitchell’s schtick of air power as a “war-winner in its own right.”

The younger general commands the Eighth Air Force’s strategic bombing units in England during 1943. He’s learned that the Luftwaffe has begun production of a wiz-bang new jet fighter at three plants deep inside Germany. He believes these factories must be bombed into oblivion as soon as possible, no matter what the cost in bomber and air -crew losses, to prevent the jet fighter program from creating a defensive shield over Germany that will make strategic bombing impossible and threaten the planned 1944 invasion of France.

But his older and more politically savvy boss is convinced that the ultimate success of strategic bombing depends on the size of the bomber force Washington allocates to the Eighth Air Force. This will be determined by how effective they are at producing acceptable bombing results without high loss rates,  which rules out the go-for-broke raids the younger general wants to mount against the three jet fighter factories.

The younger general insists that they must take advantage of a period of clear weather to complete the destruction of the factories if strategic bombing of Germany is to have any future.  The older general believes the future of strategic bombing depends on the Eighth Air Force getting enough bombers.  This will be determined at an allocation meeting in Washington, where heavy bomber losses certainly won’t help their case.

In other words, the younger general fights the Germans in Europe while the older general has to fight the US Navy, which wants bombers for the Pacific theater, and Army ground forces which wants to recycle bomber pilots now in training as company commanders.

These dramatic debates between the two generals are breathtaking; two dedicated pros with very different perspectives about the strategic issue at hand pour out their arguments, hopes, fears, and differing career expectations.

The movie’s sympathies lie with the younger general and show that he was right.  At the time the movie was made, there was widespread public acceptance of Air Force propaganda that its Strategic Bombing concept had been successful.  It turned out in retrospect, that the pre-war strategic bombing advocates grossly underestimated the resources needed for this concept to succeed, so the older general was actually right.

The problem the two generals confront is similar to the Covid-19 crisis.  You can impose a protracted lockdown and harm the economy to the point where recovery will take decades, or forego lockdowns and get the economy moving, but with a significant increase in illness and death.

Few people like to hear bad news, but telling the public what it needs to hear and facing problems is an important test of leadership.  The role of a leader is to do the right thing in addressing a wicked problem that may have no clear solution – only an array of possible approaches, each with deleterious consequences.

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