Reflections on Leadership: The George Bailey Effect

by jimowensjr

Every year during this season thousands, if not millions, make the Frank Capra film “It’s a  Wonderful Life” part of their Christmas tradition.  The film resonates so strongly with viewers no film maker has attempted to remake it since its debut in 1947.  It somehow seems to avoid the need to be “updated” or improved upon unlike so many other “classic” movies.  In his portrayal of George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart has somehow touched us in ways we cannot quite explain.  While some may identify with the idyllic community of Bedford Falls, others with the nostalgic Christmases of their childhood, the film also contains a great lesson in leadership, that, while seemingly apparent, warrants further consideration.

While we live in an age where competency and integrity seems to have been replaced by celebrity as a requisite for leadership, George Bailey stands in stark contrast.  A gifted and ambitious young man, he repeatedly sacrifices his own desires to serve his family and community.  He defers pursuit of  a college education to step in for his dead father as Executive Secretary for the Building & Loan.  Later, George remains in that role to allow his “second team All American” brother to pursue his own career opportunity rather than demanding the brother take over his “duty.”  Ultimately, George is willing to sacrifice himself (and go to prison) for the loss of $8,000, rather than let his absent minded Uncle Billy take the penalty for losing that sum.  While numerous other examples are present in the film, these will suffice to demonstrate the willing sacrifice of a man whose leadership changed a community.

Great films and literature, not necessarily the ones that make the most money, often find something noble in us to explore and celebrate.  The story of George Bailey’s unknowing impact on his family and community is, at its core, a parable of leadership.  In a time when leadership has often been seen as a path to privilege, wealth and entitlement, our world could use more George Bailey’s.  While achieving our own goals and desires should should not be deemed inherently wrong, our culture seems to overlook and under value the simple and routine acts of sacrifice that can profoundly impact our families and community.  George’s sacrifice produced a legacy of love, saved lives, restored reputations, built homes, and fostered self respect far beyond his realization.  In the end “the George Bailey Effect” was rewarded by not just by friends coming to his aid, but his own realization of the value of his “wonderful life.”

In the end, honesty, determination, courage, and especially, sacrifice, must be seen as their own reward, lest they become means to an end.   George Bailey’s sacrifice was never motivated by the desire to be recognized or rewarded. He made his decisions out of a much deeper well of conviction.  Those of us who would be “leaders” would do well to follow his example and celebrate those who do.

Keep the Faith!