Leadership lessons from ‘Twelve O’Clock High’

The two best examples of crisis leadership for contemporary students of management and leadership are World War I and World War II. The former a gold mine of information illustrating virtually every conceivable way of doing things wrong and World II a nice balance between doing thing wrong and doing things right.

World War II was actually three separate wars that took place at the same time: United States versus Japan in the Pacific, the United States and the United Kingdom (UK) versus Germany in Western and Southern Europe, and the Soviet Union versus Germany in Eastern Europe.

Germany and Japan started World War II having great successes by doing things right. Then they lost their way and ended up doing everything wrong.

In contrast, the Allies (US, UK, and the Soviet Union) started off doing many things wrong, mainly out of ignorance and false illusions, including the misuse of air power.  But they managed to get their respective acts together and wound up doing most things right.  They won the war, and in so doing, reshaped the world.

Running a business has a great many parallels with running a war.  To succeed in either, you must set realistic goals, identify and deploy the relevant resources necessary for achieving these goals, and then skillfully implement the options you select.  After that you have to roll with the punches that inevitably whack you from unexpected events and adjust your strategy with dispatch.

Two fine Hollywood movies made in the late 1940s effectively dramatize “war situations” that are also common in business.

“Command Decision” is one of the movies with themes that translate to business.  It deals with strategic decision making at the command level.  The other is “Twelve O’ Clock High,” which is about a manager taking over a failing bomber group and whipping it into shape through a program of stern discipline.

It is the harrowing story of the first B-17 bombers in England in World War II and the terrible losses they took before long-range fighters were available to escort them on combat missions over Europe. The movie was adopted from a popular novel that was, in turn, based on a real event that affected the Eighth Air Force in England during 1942 and 1943.

The new leader immediately incurs the hatred of aircrews when he comes down hard on the lack of discipline.  He deals harshly with slackers, segregating the worst misfits into a crew known as “The Leper Colony”. He openly criticizes mistakes, insists on a high level of professionalism and is a straight talker who appreciates straight talk in return.

Resentful of the new management style, all the pilots ask to be transferred out of the unit.  But the new commander sticks to his principles. As the bomber group develops combat effectiveness and the group’s performance improves, and the loss of life decreases, the pilots change their minds and support the new commander and his leadership style.

This story dramatizes steps the leader took to restore the morale of people who had come to regard themselves as “hard-luck failures” who had accumulated the highest loss rate and the worst bombing effectiveness record and motivated them to become a winning team.

The film highlights timeless leadership lessons such as creating a strategy; setting clear expectations; creating performance standards; giving clear directions; putting the right people in the right jobs; communicating the “why”; restoring accountability, and pushing, pushing, and pushing until the job is done.

Whether commanding a bomber group or managing employees towards making their numbers, these leadership qualities are essential and universal, especially in situations of extreme emergency and crisis.

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