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General Savage and the bishops

This month, in Rome, newly-ordained bishops from all over the world will meet for several days at what Roman wags call “Bishops’ Camp” or “Baby Bishops School.” The idea, launched by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, is to let the new bishops get to know the Roman Curia and to hear from more experienced bishops (again, from all over the world) about the demands of Church leadership today.

The stress, rightly, is on theology. Still, I wonder if the new bishops might not be encouraged to read a book — a classic novel of World War II – that’s having a second life in college and graduate-level leadership courses around the United States: Twelve O’Clock High, written in 1948 by two air-combat veterans, Beirne Lay, Jr. and Sy Bartlett.

Twelve O’Clock High is a great action story. But more than that, it’s a profound reflection on the nature of leadership — and the difference between authority (which is conferred by office) and leadership (which is earned, and earned, and earned again by performance). It’s a story with lessons for the bishops of the 21st century.

As the novel opens, the U.S. 918th Bombardment Group, flying B-17’s out of England, has gotten a reputation as a “Hard Luck Group.” The 918th’s commander, Colonel Keith Davenport, is loved by his men, who appreciate his sensitivity to their fears and his disinclination to impose strict discipline on men already under the stress of combat. But the 918th takes increasingly heavy losses and Davenport finally falls apart emotionally. The new commander of the 918th is General Frank Savage — a former pro ball player, a man’s man, an accomplished “stick-and-rudder” flyer, and the successful leader of the first American bomber group in World War II.

The troops expect Savage (an old friend of the departed Davenport) to sympathize with their shell-shocked condition. Savage does exactly the opposite. He demands discipline and respect. He tells officers and enlisted men alike to stop feeling sorry for themselves. He insists on by-the-book performance in the air. He busts a gold-bricking lieutenant colonel with Pentagon connections down to a lowly airplane commander. He urges the men to criticize their own competence, and his, behind the closed doors of the group briefing room — and then to leave all the hard feelings behind when the room empties.

The pilots, outraged, ask for re-assignment, en masse. But after three Savage-led missions in which the 918th hits its targets without suffering any losses, the men of the 918th begin to believe in themselves again. Then, after Savage deliberately ignores a “recall” order and the 918th is the only group to complete an assigned mission successfully, the men are sold. This is the kind of leader who gets results. This is the kind of man they will follow anywhere.

Why is Frank Savage a compelling leader? Because he earns his leadership: not only with inspiring words but above all with his own performance. Because he has the ability to get others to get the best out of themselves — and the courage to demand of them that they do precisely that. Because he challenges rather than coddles men whose lives depend on their being men, not frightened boys. Because he knows how to turn individuals into a team without destroying their individuality.  Because he believes in the 918th‘s mission — defeating Hitler and Nazism — and communicates a passion for that mission to Kansas farmboys and Ohio lawyers.

One way to think about the crisis of episcopal misgovernance that has become unmistakably and painfully clear in the Church these past eight months is through the lens of Twelve O’Clock High: perhaps we have a few too many Keith Davenports, and not quite enough Frank Savages, among our bishops today. Being a bishop isn’t the same, of course, as being the commander of a B-17 group. But in human affairs, leadership is leadership: the traits are common, and transferable. All true leadership begins with a rock-solid belief in the mission and a capacity to elicit enthusiasm for it among others — even others who will be at risk.

Which is why they just might think of reading Twelve O’Clock High at Bishops’ Camp.

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George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.
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