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Twelve O’clock High Review

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Twelve O’clock High Review


“Hard luck.” This is the term used to describe the United States Air Force 918 Bomb Squad during World War II. At a critical time in the war against the German Luftwaffe, the airmen are subjected to a new strategy dubbed “daylight precision bombing.” As a result, the bomb squad’s accuracy increases, as well as, their casualty rate. Morale of the 918 is continually sinking along with their performance. At this challenging time, command-orders demand “maximum effort” from the squads. Brigadier General Frank Savage is tasked with leading the 918 bomb squad to comply with this order. Short on supplies, equipment, and troop morale, he must provide the leadership required to reach this highest attainable level of performance.
General Savage arrives at the base with a commitment and determination to revitalize the 918 bomb squad. Armed with only a vision, he sets out to provide the crew with something to be proud of and take ownership in. He realizes the crew needs a common goal, a reason to push forward and perform at their very best. In other words, they must perform as a team. General Savage brings a mix of leadership and management to the base in order to accomplish this mission.
The 918 is in bad need of the General’s transformative style of leadership to shape and elevate the motives and goals of the troops. His primary intention is to have leadership at all levels, and this can only be accomplished through empowerment. By enhancing the troops’ competence and confidence in their abilities, listening to their ideas and acting upon them, by involving them in important decision making, and by acknowledging and giving credit for their contributions, the General will enable the troops to take ownership of and responsibility for their own success. He knows that troops who feel weak, incompetent, and insignificant will consistently underperform. Therefore, the General must increase their sense of self-confidence, self-determination, and personal effectiveness to make them more powerful and enhance their possibility of success. General Savage employed several leadership principles to empower his squad:

• Provides choice
At General Savage’s first aircrew briefing, he gave everyone the choice to stay in the 918 or to file transfer papers. Unanimously the crew filed transfer papers, but ultimately they all decided to stay after gaining confidence in the General as their leader.

• Fosters accountability
After the second mission under General Savage’s lead, an aircrew briefing is held where both the good and bad points of the mission are discussed. On the good side, tight formations where maintained and only one aircraft was lost while others sustained little damage. On the bad side, bombing was only fair. The airmen responsible were held accountable for their performance.

• Develops competence and confidence
Air executive, Lieutenant Colonel Ben Gately, was immediately demoted to airplane commander upon General Savage’s arrival to the base. Gately was placed in an aircraft label “The Lepper Colony” along with every other dead-beat crewmen. Having an Air Force pedigree, Gately had the qualifications but lacked the competence to perform his job. The General’s leadership eventually turned Gately into a loyal, performance driven leader.

In a move to develop the squad’s confidence, General Savage continued on a bombing mission under poor weather conditions and without the support of accompanying Air Force squads. Ignoring a command to return to base, the General took a risk that turned out to be a highly successful mission. This resulted in a commendation to the 918 from the top commander, Major General Ben Pritchard, for aggressiveness, skill, courage, and bombing.

• Ensures self-leadership
The former 918 squad commander, Colonel Keith Davenport, offers General Savage advice saying, “Help them by giving them something to lean on.” General Savage replies by saying, “They’re not boys. The group must be men. They can not lean on any one person.” While General Savage maintains strong discipline, he develops the leadership skills in each person.

• Gives direction and sets goals
After receiving the commendation from Major General Ben Pritchard for aggressiveness, skill, courage, and bombing, the squad is happy but does not seem to be celebrating accordingly. A highly regarded squad spokesman, Lieutenant Bishop, is questioned on this matter. He responds that they don’t understand why they are fighting anymore, and they don’t know what good they’re doing. General Savage provides him with direction by discussing the importance of their missions to the war effort and what the war effort means to the world. He talks about the obligation of a man. Then he sets the goal at winning the war.

In General Savage’s wisdom, he recognized and responded to the needs of his young squad. Starting with a belief in their abilities, he was able to establish relationships built on trust. He encouraged risk, built respect, strengthened relationships, and developed a deep loyalty among his troops. The pride General Savage’s squad needed to obtain “maximum effort” came into being.
The film concludes with a scene depicting General Savage’s deep level of commitment to the squad. As a mission is readying for take-off, the General suddenly falls ill and must be taken back to the base. He is devastated to be left behind. So much so, that he falls into an unresponsive state until every airplane is accounted for at the end of the mission. His ground staff realizes he has reached his breaking point and had a total collapse. They note that he has fulfilled his mission for the 918 by delivering a “maximum effort.” In doing so, the General had successfully revitalized the squad.

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