12 O’clock high - Be, Know, Do

This trip down memory lane - the backdrop of the 1949 movie 12 O’clock High - serves to illustrate several provocative insights to the concept of leadership. Although in the military realm leadership is at an entirely different level, the principles of leaders as a change agent remain the same. 12 O’clock High depicts the importance of teamwork, the problems of indiscipline, and the value of confidence. The main differences between military leadership and secular/civilian leadership lie in the fact that decisions are combat related resulting in life or death. For this reason leadership development is much more systematic, much more of a priority in the Army than in the corporate world (Shinseki, 2004, p. 3). Often orders given are non-negotiable carried out by soldiers for fear of court marshal or imprisonment. This film demonstrates that even under inhumane situations leadership responds. The similarities between military and secular civilian leadership rests on the accomplishment of the mission, the danger of over-identification with subordinates, and the inexcusability of a lack of judgment.

12 O’clock High Backdrop

In the film, the backdrop was set when Colonel Keith Davenport the group commander was preparing for a mission but the physician felt they were not ready. Twenty-Eight men asked to be excused from the mission. In particular, one man Zimmerman suffered from severe mental stress. The leadership question was, how much can a man take? Davenport addresses his concerns to his superior, Brigadier General Frank Savage assistant chief of air staff.

Knowing the problems faced, General Savage gave the order. Davenport accepted the order, explained his perception of the problem, and battled for his men. Those boys are flesh and blood, they will die for you if given a chance but somebody has to give them a break (Zanuck, 1949). To the untrained civilian eye, Davenport’s concern for his troops would draw much praise. Yet the well-trained leader, the General (the old man) recognized Davenport’s weakness. The old man stated that Davenport’s problem was his over-identification with his men.

The Danger of Over-Identification

The old man addressed Davenport saying, “Let us talk about luck. Luck, I do not believe in it. I believe that to some degree a man makes his own luck. Your luck has been pretty bad. What are you going to do about it (Zanuck, 1949)?” Davenport thought he was protecting a Lieutenant. What seemed like a leader standing up for his subordinate had deeper implications to the mission. Even though the Lieutenant made a mistake, Davenport in good conscience could not relieve the Lieutenant Zimmerman of his duties. Because of his over-identification, Davenport was relieved of his duty. Davenport’s fears were realized when Zimmerman, the Lieutenant navigator who Davenport was protecting, committed suicide. Nevertheless, the suicide proves that Zimmerman was ill equipped to accomplish the mission. His removal likely saved lives. It became clearer why Davenport did not make his own luck. His leadership decision-making clouded by his over—identification made him a liability to the mission. As a result, Brigadier General Frank Savage replaced Davenport.


Shinseki, Eric. Be Know Do. 2004

Zanuck, Darryl F. 12 o'clock High. 1949