Leadership Lessons from “Twelve O’Clock High”

Gregory Peck   Recently my wife and I watched the World War II classic, “Twelve O’Clock High.” And I realized again what a great study in leadership this movie really is.

Many of you know the story. General Savage, a.k.a. Gregory Peck, takes over a demoralized “hard luck” B-17 bomber squadron in England the early days of World War II. The former commander is a great guy whom everybody loves — but somehow by identifying too strongly with his men, worn down by the danger and death they face every day, he has failed to inspire the kind of courage and pride essential to the mission. The men have stopped believing in themselves, and their performance has begun to suffer. Air crews are being lost through careless and sloppy tactics.

So Gregory Peck takes over the squadron and immediately adopts a “take charge” attitude. His my-way-or-the-highway leadership approach is met with hostility, to the point where every single pilot puts in for a transfer. But by buying time, developing some key alliances within the squadron, and giving the men the chance to learn, grow and perform together, he rebuilds the team into a top-notch unit, with a deep bond of loyalty and shared high standards.

The movie demonstrates the overwhelming power of good, effective leadership. Knowing my personality, I might have been like the former commander, the one who got too close and didn’t set standards high enough. But General Savage knew from personal experience what the squadron needed — a leader who would establish the tone and adhere to it no matter what. So what are the take-aways from “Twelve O’Clock High”? Here are a few.

First, leaders define reality, After all, this was early in 1942, a highly dangerous time at the start of the war when the strategy of daylight bombing was unproven. It was potentially life or death for the Allies. General Savage never sugar-coated the facts: the frightening reality of the situation demanded a hard-edged uncompromising leadership style.

Second, leaders build an inner circle. Almost immediately after taking over, General Savage starts creating a nucleus of key leaders within the squadron and helps them see what his brand of leadership could accomplish — he helps them see and share his vision. He didn’t try to be the Lone Ranger, something ineffective leaders can tend to do. And he learned to listen to these key players, using their valuable insights to adjust his approach.

Third, leaders understand the need for patience. When faced with a virtual mutiny, General Savage did what he could to buy time instead of reacting to the immediate situation. Eventually the entire squadron came around to his point of view, something that would not have happened had he over-reacted. While it’s important to maintain a healthy sense of urgency, an impatient leader is often an ineffective leader.

Fourth, leaders lead by doing. In the film, General Savage trained with his men, flew with his men, and faced danger with his men. He wasn’t an armchair leader content to remain behind in comfort and safety. He knew what could be accomplished because he himself had done it. He led by example.

Fifth, leaders stay the course. There was no doubt in General Savage’s mind that his squadron could perform. He kept an unwavering eye on the prize of excellence, and eventually his team achieved it. Even though many hated him at first, they came to believe in him and trust him because he modeled absolute integrity and adherence to the mission. (After all, what else would you expect from Gregory Peck?!)

So go watch “Twelve O’Clock High” and see what you think. Could you work for a leader like the one Gregory Peck depicted in that classic film? I’ll say one thing for him: he did a great job of defining reality for his men — and in so doing he actually re-shaped reality, creating a whole new belief structure. A classic example of the power of effective leadership!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: