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Lessons from 12 O’Clock High

Lessons from 12 O’Clock High

I was recently talking with a good friend of mine, Becky Berry, about movies that had valuable business and life lessons in them. At the top of my list was the classic, 12 O’Clock High with Gregory Peck.

First, a little background. This is not your typical WWII shoot ’em up film. Instead, it centers on the very early stages of WWII (1942-1943) when the outcome of the war was very much unsettled. The U.S.A. had just sent the first few squadrons of B-17s over to England.

Through their experiences, The English had decided that only night bombing was feasible due to the high casualty rates suffered during daylight bombing. Many Americans felt that daylight bombing would lead to better results (damage to the enemy) and would require fewer raids, which would result in fewer casualties in the long run. Think one or two big accurate strikes vs. five to ten inaccurate strikes to cause the same damage.

In 1942-1943 the losses to aircrews flying bombing missions in Europe made it statistically impossible for an airman to complete their full 25-mission tour. The aircrews knew that they were either going to be killed or wounded so badly they could no longer fly. Certainly, no full crew would reach 25 missions as a team. The crew of the famous “Memphis Belle” was the first crew to reach 25 missions.

12 O’Clock High takes place right when the Army Air Corps was trying to justify daylight bombing, increasing the number of planes in England, and keeping aircrew morale from reaching mutiny.

Lesson 1

Replace a Burned-Out Leader

When a leader has burned out, replace them quickly. While burn-out can happen for a variety of reasons, burned-out leaders cannot make quality decisions regarding themselves or their teams.

Replacing leaders does not mean that they no longer have value in the organization or team. It does mean that their roles and responsibilities need to be changed for at least a season.

Often, with a change of roles and responsibility and the right mentoring and coaching, the leaders can return to leadership. I think they can often become stronger leaders because of the breakdown and the growth period that follows.

Lesson 2

Back to Basics

Teams and organizations can go through periods of time when losses come every day and wins are hard to find. Blaming luck is useless. Often, when I have had stretches of bad luck, it was because I was being sloppy and needed to tighten things up either personally or professionally.

An example of a team experiencing bad luck is front and center in 12 O’Clock High. The bomb group that Gregory Peck takes over is suffering from poor morale. The general attitude of the group is that they are unlucky.

Peck’s plan of attack to turn around the group involves taking them back to the basics. He puts them through training flights again and requires everyone to do their jobs by the book. The result is that the group eliminates both mistakes and excuses. They start to execute as a team to accomplish each mission with their priorities firmly in hand.

As the group regains confidence, the “bad luck” goes away.

Lesson 3

Demand Accountability from the Team

When Peck takes over command, he demands that the airmen and soldiers perform their jobs per their training. He also eliminates the bad luck excuses as a reason that individuals did not do their jobs. If a soldier missed a target, it was on him, not on bad luck. If someone missed a key turn on the way to a target, that is on him.

Rewarding good decisions and behavior is also a critical part of accountability. While almost everyone ends up in the doghouse during the re-training, leaders must permit people to earn their way out when they take accountability and improve their performance.

Lesson 4

The Importance of a Good Second in Command

A strong second in command is vital in every organization. A strong second in command can serve as the buffer between the team and the general. The second in command is the person people should go to with issues so, the second in command has their finger on the pulse of the team.

In football, the assistant coaches are responsible for their individual units while the head coach is responsible for the whole team. The head coach hears how the team is doing from the assistants instead of from the players directly.

A strong second in command should share in both the decision-making and responsibilities associated with leadership. When the second in command takes over some of the decision-making and other responsibilities, they learn how to lead and take pressure off the person in charge.

Coach’s Wrap Up

12 O’Clock High has been used as a teaching tool in MBA and management courses for years. It is dialog driven and not as much blood and guts. While war movies may not be your first choice in entertainment this is a strong story of leadership with an underlying theme of how much a person can take before they break. It is a universal theme around leadership and management, especially when a person is put into a new or very challenging situation.

I have covered four lessons that I have learned from this enjoyable movie, and I know there are even more. If you haven’t seen this movie or it has been awhile, it is worth revisiting with an eye towards picking up the management lessons presented under the auspices of a good overall movie. By the way, it has 7.8 stars on IMDB and 87% on Rotten Tomatoes.

If you have a question about the lessons covered here or about how to create your own action plan to turn around a trouble area in your business, please reach out and call or email me.

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