Leadership in the Movies:
Twelve O’Clock High

The merits of command and control leadership

leadership in the movies

This is part of a series of articles that combine two great passions of mine: leadership and movies. The series seeks to explore leadership through the lens of selected movies. Today we are looking at the 1949 movie Twelve O’Clock High directed by Henry King and Gregory Peck as Brigadier General Frank Savage. I always recommend you watch the movie before reading the analysis (so as not to spoil a great movie).

Command and Control leadership gets bad press but all leadership styles are effective in different contexts. A command and control style is effective in situations of extreme emergency, “burning platform” scenarios and crisis. Twelve 0’Clock High is exactly such a scenario. It is the story of US flying squadron based in England during World War II. The squadron is performing badly (planes are being lost and experienced pilots are losing their lives). The assessment of these failures by the High Command identify issues of leadership as the problem. The Group Commander is an empathetic leader who tries to get on the good side of his men (in the movie it is referred to as “over identification”). He has a classic Laissez-faire leadership style where he has a firm belief in the abilities of his people and supports them where needed but also gives them slack where needed. His leadership sets the general tone in the unit of being laid back, overlooking certain regulations and procedures, extreme comradeship (“we are all in this together”) and compassion (not addressing failures and mistakes). The behaviours this type of leadership promotes are both positive and destructive (+ive there is no clear hierarchy in the unit, people care and look out for each other –ive the unit lacks discipline and structure, care for people is put before mission and objectives which has led to operational failures and loss of life).

The Group Commander, Colonel Keith Davenport, clearly feels he should be an empathetic, supportive and caring leader who overlooks minor mistakes and indiscretions because he feels the men are at breaking point because of the extreme pressure they are under and need to be treated with compassion. High command disagree and feel this leadership style is not appropriate in a burning platform scenario and is distracting the men from their professional duties and endangering lives. High Command dismiss Colonel Keith Davenport as Group Commander and appoints in his place a strong disciplinarian who holds the rank of Brigadier General, Frank Savage. This new Group Commander is a strong command and control leader. He disciplines and demotes personnel who violate procedures and compliance, he openly criticises mistakes and failures, he insists on a high level of skill and professionalism, he is a strong task master and micromanages operations and he drives performance by not allowing anyone to slack. He is a straight talker and appreciates straight talking in return. All classic command and control type behaviours.

In practically all non-burning platform scenarios, of course, this leadership style simply does not work; it leads to high stress, divided and unhappy teams and resignations. Indeed, in the movie Brigadier General Frank Savage is at first despised by his men and they all file for transfers. The way he deals with this dissatisfaction is to identify one of two key players and to spell out a clear vision and purpose for the unit (the need to defeat the enemy), a focus on the big picture (to increase discipline and professionalism in order to save lives) and to justify why such command and control behaviours are essential to improve performance and operations within the unique context of crises and loss of lives.

The story ends positively. The unit’s performance improves dramatically – it becomes more professional, disciplined and successful. The ultimate proof of this is when the unit fly a 100% successful mission without the command and control leader dictating from the front. In transactional analysis terms (See here for definitions), a strong dominant parent has produced strong independent task and performance orientated followers.

As performance improves and loss of life decreases, the men begin to see the effectiveness of command and control leadership behaviour and their morale increases and they start to understand and respect their leader for focusing on the bigger picture and vision of a professional unit that operates with minimum loss of life.

Command and Control behaviours do not work in most modern business settings where collaboration, empathy and enablement are key. But in a scenario where it is important for personnel to be compliant to ensure the safety of themselves and/or others or in extreme crisis situations, it may be a necessary approach for leaders to take. It will not make them the most popular leader but it will make them (in that particular context) effective; and being effective and enabling others to be effective and successful is surely what leadership is all about.

Ric Kelly PhD.
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