Editorial: Twelve O’clock High at CCSO

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I was maybe 10 years old when this movie, one of many WWII war films, started showing on the vintage televisions of the day. In the years after the war and during the ‘Korean Conflict’, Hollywood was efficient in producing ‘war stories’ for the big screen. The heroics, tragedies, tensions and overall drama were still in the minds of everyday people. If you didn’t serve in the Second World War, you were connected to a veteran or someone who played a large or small role. Movies were a continuing reminder of home grown patriotism.  It didn’t take long before our vicarious heroes were being broadcast straight into our living rooms. A few other titles those of a certain age may remember are: Battle Cry; The Naked and the Dead and Run Silent Run Deep. There were so many more.

When staying home sick from school, a sniffling kid could almost always find a war movie playing on the tube.  Maybe that’s why I liked being ‘sick’. If my parents and the Sisters of Mercy ever decoded the TV Guide, my early Latin would have been better. “Twelve O’Clock…” was one of my favorites.  It wasn’t as action packed as some—but somehow there was a connection. Probably not the first time I saw it; maybe the fifth or tenth. I saw it a lot. And—there were the usual holiday ‘war picture’ marathons. There were so many TV showings back in the day. And then? Life went on.

Fast forward to 1990. In and out of the Army and twenty years into a police career, having been selected to attend the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville, imagine my surprise when the Police Leadership and Management syllabus contained reference to Twelve O’Clock High*. It was a course presented by Professor Steve Edwards who was part of the adjunct faculty at SPI and other notable colleges throughout the country. He harnessed a Harvard course for presentation to students representing police departments and sheriff’s offices nationally. We would view this drama through a different lens. It was no longer a war movie but rather a university course focused on a troubled organization.    

Frank Savage takes command of the 918th Bomb Group, the mission of which was daylight bombing raids over Nazi Germany. Whereas the 918th heretofore had been a unit of positive results, it had ‘fallen on hard luck’ and wasn’t performing to expectation. Upon assuming command from Colonel Keith Davenport, Savage soon learns the men are demoralized. They had been contagiously affected by the style of their previous leader. The new boss came to think the unit’s heavy losses were due to his predecessor’s emotional involvement with his men. Davenport had become protective and didn’t appropriately discipline personnel. Adherence to policy and procedure was excusable. Mistakes were being made and corrective action in the form of accountability and discipline were unapplied. Sounding familiar?

As a college course, Twelve O’Clock was a long way from the war picture I thought I knew. As students of leadership we were examining: mission, bureaucracy, administration, management, supervision, training, motivation, discipline and the ever elusive ‘morale’.  Savage’s intentional harsh approach was in direct contrast with the easy going ways of the officer he succeeded. I advise intentional—because in seeing the movie you realize Savage needs to adapt to the role of autocratic disciplinarian. This change to a harsh style doesn’t comport with who we initially came to know in the early scenes. How does a leader rebuild a beleaguered organization to ensure the mission is achieved? Reverting back to fundamental training and looking for the best opportunity to instill pride became not so hidden goals. In class we learned morale is subjective and can fluctuate person to person.  The same or similar circumstance can have very different affects depending on the orientation of the individual.    

Throughout class discussions, while listening to so many talented police managers, I came to understand there is no best way to bring remedy. We learned applying the sum total of experience honed through the years, more often than not, made the measurable positive difference. Moreover, what works in one circumstance as applied by one leader, may not be realized in another. Rarely are there two exact situations. In the years after, I found myself reluctantly rolling out ‘Frank’ every now and again. He was reserved for the occasional person, event or events causing such a channeling. General Savage’s challenge was to stay on mission, flying through the expected flak at ten thousand feet, all the while navigating the ups and downs of the human interaction taking shape within the ranks below. The chatter emanating upward from disgruntled airmen was continual. They missed the style of their previous commander. The General’s steely resolve was notable for two reasons: it had the intended effect and in the end he was psychologically debilitated. War is hell!

In tracking the unflattering inner workings of the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office during 2017, my own past experience makes me think Sheriff Prendergast is already engaging his version of Frank. If they haven’t already met, I hope they will—and soon. The ‘noise’ is getting louder. Because the agency had been sliding for a number of years, sources advise many of the troops are clamoring for clarity. A consideration foreign to Savage, but necessary to any modern day leader would be an emphasis toward gender equality and/or diversity.   

Now having so advised, we should acknowledge rarely does the rank and file fully comprehend organizational complexities. Usually there is a myopic fixation on their own singular issue. This isn’t a bad thing. As problematic as some might see their own concerns, applying proper management requires collective action. This in turn drives everyone toward proper resolution. Still, there will always be bleacher pontificators, media included, who rush to simplify the complicated. One such over simplification is the “he said/he said” label applied to the recent Grant Investigation.  In the world I came from the boss almost always had the last word. To those on the field wanting change, the Suncoast Standard advises: find your ethical base while adhering to evolving policies and procedures.

‘Frank Prendergast’ should be employing a lifetime of skill while muffling the noise of the well intended critic—not to mention those who relish failure. Leadership occurs parallel to managing organizational stressors. The challenge will always be directing everyones’ eyes to Twelve O’Clock High, no matter the chatter from 6 O’Clock low.

*still available through CD Universe or Amazon.

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