In the movie, “Twelve O’Clock High,” actor Gregory Peck plays the role of a World War II Brigadier General charged with taking command of an American B-17 bombing group stationed in Britain, and suffering from a bad case of “hard luck.” To make matters worse, the men of the group hold a fondness for Peck’s predecessor, yet were prone to making mistakes and missing targets. As a result, the group experiences heavy losses and morale worsens. As Peck takes command he makes it clear to his group he doesn’t accept the concept of “hard luck,” that the men should stop feeling sorry for themselves, and they need to build their confidence.
Remarkably, this movie represents a text book description of leadership. So much so, for many years it was considered mandatory viewing in the Officer Candidate Schools in the military as part of their curriculum on leadership. It is also something managers should observe in business, even today.
Due to the nature of the war at that moment (1942), Peck has no time to coddle his young flyers and realizes they have to mature quickly. If his bombing group folds, others could potentially do likewise which could impact the outcome of the war. So, he explains this to the group and why it is necessary for them to take on a professional attitude. Recognizing the discipline and work involved, the young soldiers resist Peck at first, but eventually succumbs after realizing Peck’s refusal to compromise.
Peck finds it necessary to replace elements of his management team, specifically his #2 man, the Air Exec. Interestingly, Peck selects a man who, at first, shows contempt for Peck, but recognizing the flyer’s impeccable credentials, he promotes him, a decision he doesn’t regret as he realizes the job was more important than his personal feelings.
Next, Peck halts all bombing runs so he can hold practice missions to determine the skills of his crews, and identify their strengths and weaknesses. Finally, Peck weeds out the weaklings of the group and puts them in a separate dead-beat team labeled the “Leper Colony,” where they are forced to turn things around.
From the outset, in order to change the psychological dynamics of the group, Peck recognizes he must instill a sense of pride and confidence in his men; that they are not “hard luck” misfits, but professional soldiers who can get the job done with an esprit de corps.
Aside from being an interesting tale about World War II, “Twelve O’Clock High” is a worthwhile management read teaching several lessons:
- A manager should try to earn the respect of his workers, not their love. Any manager who tries to win a popularity contest is courting disaster. In the movie, the demise of Peck’s predecessor could be traced back to his close attachment to his men. Instead of looking at problems objectively, his mind was clouded by too much empathy for his men. Managers must walk a fine line between jocularity and discipline. Too much familiarity breeds contempt for the manager, and too much discipline can make life unbearable for workers. In Peck’s case, his men initially exhibit slovenly behavior. To curb it, he deliberately intimidates his men to teach them such behavior was unacceptable and discipline would be enforced.
- A manager should design his department in such a way as it can function without him. Basically, a manager’s task is to do himself out of a job. By doing so, he is displacing the management responsibility on a group of people as opposed to just one. This is a clever way to communicate to workers this is the will of the group, not just one person. If it becomes dependent on just one person, the whole group will fail if the manager fails.
- Open the lines of communications. The manager must effectively communicate the necessity of a task to his workers, along with its urgency. Only then will they put forth the proper amount of effort it deserves. In the film, Peck gives his men the shock treatment by telling them they are in a “shooting war” and there is no time to coddle them, plus he believes in their abilities. Beyond this, Peck develops a rapport with a young Lieutenant who acts as a spokesman for the flyers. He does this in order to get a pulse of what his young men are thinking.
- There is no such thing as “hard luck.” The morale of the bomb group plummets under Peck’s predecessor. As much as they liked their Colonel, they felt sorry for themselves, and lacked confidence in their ability to do anything correctly. Such an attitude can be very demoralizing and contagious thereby causing workers to make more mistakes than necessary. A change of attitude is warranted, which leads to the next point…
- Managers need to build self esteem in their workers, thereby fueling their confidence and building pride in workmanship. The message, “There is dignity in all forms of work,” must come across loud and clear. Sometimes it is beneficial for management to pay special attention to his workers who should respond positively to such attention. Somehow the manager needs to communicate how important or challenging the work is. This means investing such things as time, money, clothes, changing the surroundings, or improving the technology to perform the work. Such token gestures are noticed by workers who appreciate the recognition of management and respond accordingly. With rare exception, workers rise to the occasion when faced with new and exciting challenges, as opposed to tedious and repetitive tasks.
- Managers must encourage workers to strive for perfection, but realize they may never achieve it. A program of continued practice helps to identify minor flaws in workmanship which can be corrected. In the movie, Peck orders several practice bombing runs to correct weaknesses in targeting and flying in formation. Such practices also raise the awareness of workers to think about their work product and the processes involved with producing it.
- It is easier to lead workers if they trust you. Quite simply, workers are more likely to follow you if they have confidence in your abilities and decision making skills. This means managers must demonstrate they know what they are doing. Talk is cheap, action is more visible to workers. As such, managers need to go the extra mile further to earn the confidence of their workers. Immoral behavior is not tolerated. If workers suspect the manager is a liar, cheat, or does not support them, they will quickly turn on him.
- Develop a skills inventory. In the picture, Peck reviews the dossiers of all of the members of the group, studying their strengths and weaknesses. From this, he makes decisions as to assigning people to their area of expertise. In the corporate world, skill inventories are used to track the talents and experiences of workers, along with their level of proficiency. Such a tool is invaluable for selecting people to suitable assignments, not to mention identifying the need for additional training.
- Identify your weakest workers and encourage them to perform better. Peck assigns a B-17 as the “Leper Colony” where all of the dead-beats of the group are placed. Such recognition encourages them to try harder. In this day of political correctness though, it is unlikely Peck’s tactics would be used. However, it is necessary to somehow put a spotlight on workers who are not performing to their fullest potential. Today, Employee Evaluations are used to document worker strengths and weaknesses, which is normally reviewed between the manager and worker in a one-on-one basis.
- Get some wins under your belt to build confidence. In the movie, Peck’s group bombs a target that others couldn’t. For their efforts, they were awarded accommodations for distinguished service. This helps build their confidence. This also explains why sports teams have preseason schedules to not only judge the ability of players, but to instill confidence. The same is true in business where it is wise to start small before tackling major assignments. Mentors and coaches should be nearby to offer advice.
- As manager, articulate your objectives, their urgency, your plan of attack, then lead your workers into battle. Today, it shouldn’t be so much about micromanagement which can stifle worker creativity and initiative. Instead, the manager should establish the right working conditions (corporate culture), provide them with the best training, tools and techniques available, empower them, and turn them loose.
It’s amazing what workers can do with a little leadership, such as conquering the skies over Nazi Germany.
First published: April 7, 2014
Keep the Faith!
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