I’ve been lucky enough never to have witnessed firsthand the devastation of war, or faced a life-or-death situation. Like many people, I’m forced to rely on historical accounts, the news, and movies for a sense of what war is like and its effects on the human psyche. Though I consider myself a peaceful person, I’ve been drawn to certain war movies that I think are particularly good at portraying the leadership skills needed to overcome overwhelming odds and attain seemingly impossible goals. One of my favorites is 12 O’Clock High starring Gregory Peck as Brigadier General Frank Savage, the stone-hard new commander of an American bomber squadron flying missions during World War II.
When Savage first takes over the squadron, its pilots are undisciplined and demoralized. The previous commander was well-liked but too emotionally involved with his men to do what it takes to restore order and confidence. Savage starts out as a harsh disciplinarian, so disliked that all of his pilots apply for transfers. But eventually, after leading a particularly successful mission that demonstrates the squadron’s extreme courage, Savage earns their admiration and respect, and they withdraw their transfer requests.
At the end of the movie, the character who was most targeted by Savage’s zero-tolerance approach, Ben Gately, risks his life for Savage and saves the day for all. He volunteers to lead a dangerous bombing mission in Savage’s place after the commander’s body finally gives out under the intense pressure of having flown so many successive dangerous missions. Savage becomes catatonic from fear that the pilots won’t survive the mission without him, but as Gately and the planes return safely to base, the tremendous sense of relief restores his body and mind to normalcy.
Peck’s performance in this climactic scene earned critical acclaim for conveying so well the depth of his concern for and connection to his men. It showed that Savage’s harsh leadership style stemmed not from cruelty or power hunger, but from a desire to restore a sense of pride and purpose to the group. He knew that, in the end, everyone would be the better for it.
While it’s tricky to compare the wartime arena to peacetime circumstances, I think that some parallels can be drawn between the leadership skills portrayed in 12 O’Clock High and those required to run a business. Needless to say, I don’t plan on verbally dressing down my staff or instituting KP duty, but the idea that sometimes making people happy in the short term could end up hurting them in the end resonated with me. Asking for a high level of sacrifice and grit out of a team, like in the face of a tight deadline, might at times threaten my popularity but it ultimately makes the business, and everyone involved in it, stronger and more effective. The movie’s theme of the primacy of the mission over personal feeling, of making difficult decisions based on what’s best for the whole and not what’s easy, is a universal one that translates to just about any time and place.