Lessons from Holiday Movies: Why We Need More Leaders like George Bailey than Ebenezer Scrooge and Henry Potter

December 14, 2023
Mike Stallard

By Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard

Holiday movies may not be the first place one might look for gleaning leadership lessons we can apply in the workplace. But if we did, what might we see? Think of a movie and see what comes to mind. Off the top of our heads, from Home Alone you could talk about the need to think out of the box and be innovative when facing adversaries or threats to your territory (looking at you, 8-year-old Kevin). Or you could draw inspiration from Buddy’s commitment to pursuing his vision while adapting to a completely different environment in Elf. Comparing two classics, A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, highlights the importance of a leader’s character and motivations. Is he or she a connector who cares about others or a disconnector more focused on personal gain?

A Christmas Carol is based on Charles Dickens’ novella published in 1843. While there have been many movie versions made over the years, the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim plays most often in the month of December. It’s the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a business owner who idolizes wealth and mocks charity. Scrooge’s values, and the behavior emanating from them, isolate him from family and friends, and make him stingy and miserable. Scrooge gets a wake-up call in the form of a nightmarish visit from the ghost of his business partner and then the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. In response to what he is shown, Scrooge’s hardened heart is softened and he begins to invest in relationships, including how he treats his employee, Bob Cratchit.

A Christmas Carol highlights how certain character vices lead to relational isolation, which results in dysfunction and death. This is in contrast to character strengths that lead to human connection, thriving and life. Charles Dickens understood just how powerful human connection is and that it flows out of character strengths, including humility, love and service. These are character strengths and virtues we celebrate during the holiday season (and hopefully live year-round).

The same themes of connection and character are explored in the 1946 holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart and directed by Frank Capra. The community-minded character of George Bailey who runs his family’s savings and loan is contrasted to that of Henry F. Potter, a Scrooge-like figure who is the wealthy, selfish owner of the primary bank in town and has control of other local businesses too.

We see George’s character in a scene when he and his bride, Mary, are heading off for their honeymoon, but choose to turn back to avert a potential crisis for the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan. George prevents a “run on the bank” by reminding people that their money is actually helping each other and that cashing out their shares that day would cause further hardship to their neighbors. Potter has seized on the opportunity to put a further squeeze on the Baileys by calling the bank loan and requiring them to turn over the cash that was on-hand. George pleads with people to ignore Potter’s enticing offer to move their funds to his bank instead, adding “.... Now, we can get through this thing alright. We’ve got to stick together though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.” To help in the short-term and keep the business afloat, George and Mary use what was to be their travel money to meet the immediate needs of their customers.

The Bailey Brothers Building & Loan makes it through the Depression but faces its biggest test when cash is misplaced and a regulator happens to be in town to audit the business’ books. This sets up a meeting between Potter and George. Potter’s comment that George was worth more dead than alive (referring to a life insurance policy) triggers a crisis of confidence in George’s life.

As in A Christmas Carol, the story’s protagonist receives a visit from the other side. When, in desperation, George wonders whether it would be better if he were not alive, an angel named Clarence intervenes. Clarence shows George what life would be like had he never been born and thus not there to help others and consistently stand up to Potter. The misery Potter’s values afflict on the whole town are clear to see as are the ways that lives are bleak without the good deeds and kindnesses extended by George. With his eyes and heart opened to the reality of the impact he has actually had, George pleads with Clarence to return him to his life. In the final scene (spoiler alert), George’s family and friends rally around him, each contributing what they can out of gratitude to George, and together they save the Building & Loan — and the day. We like to think that this experience gives George the conviction of character he needs to become an even greater leader of his business and in his community.

Today’s Leaders: Ebenezer Scrooge, Henry Potter or George Bailey?

When leaders are primarily motivated by financial gain (like Scrooge) and having power over others (like Potter), a culture of disconnection ensues, as opposed to what happens when leaders are dedicated to work being done together in a way that benefits the many. We need leaders and corporate cultures grounded in humility, love and service rather than in greed, envy and fear, not unlike the differences portrayed in A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Real-world examples show us that results-driven leaders who are equally relationship-minded can infuse connection into the culture and draw out outstanding performance of the group or organization for a sustained period of time.

As a contrast, history shows us the downfall of iconic corporations when taken over by leaders with a shareholder capitalism mindset who focus on maximizing short-term stock price (which, coincidentally, benefits them personally because most of their compensation comes from shares of stock and stock options). In a culture that becomes one of disconnection, the new leaders treat employees as expenses and they may put in place the “rank and yank” performance review system to get employees to compete with one another (which, unfortunately, comes at the expense of connection, collaboration and cooperation). The result is that senior management and shareholders win in the short-term but everyone else suffers, including customers. Long-term shareholders lose, too, because the leaders boost stock prices by applying most of the company’s cash flow to pay dividends and repurchase shares of stock rather than invest in research and development and in capital projects that grow the business and pay off over longer time periods. This approach that favors the few has ripple effects that have weakened democratic nations around the world.

Cultures of connection and stakeholder capitalism, in which shareholders, employees and the community all benefit, are not just good for business but are needed to protect democracy and serve the greater good.

What You Can Do

Leaders who create and maintain a culture of connection: 1) communicate an inspiring vision about where the organization is going, 2) value people as individuals rather than treat them as mere means to an end, and 3) give people a voice to express their ideas and opinions. These three actions help unite people and lead to “relationship excellence.” These leaders also orchestrate task excellence by developing plans with measurable goals and reviewing them on a frequent basis to see if the organization is on track to meet the goals or if actions need to be taken to get back on track.

To learn more about what it takes to build and nurture a connection culture, read our books, Fired Up or Burned Out and Connection Culture, now in its second edition. Doing so will give you the knowledge you need to cultivate healthy, high-performing work cultures. In addition, you can take our LinkedIn Learning course, Creating a Connection Culture. The course, now available in 13 languages, recently surpassed 45,000 learners (who rated it 4.7 out of 5.0).  

We hope you will join us in advocating for cultures of connection. The world could use more leaders like George Bailey who serve a cause greater than themselves. Our future depends on it.

About the Authors

Katharine P. Stallard is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

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