Can a movie about a businessman help us with recent events?

Most of us know the story — George Bailey, depicted in Frank Capra’s 1940s masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life is a very frustrated businessman who wishes he’d never been born. Provided a guardian angel, he has the opportunity to see what life would be like if he got his wish. The movie takes a dark turn in George’s absence and he sees the positive role he plays in the community and in the lives of others.

But there’s an underlying meaning. George is much deeper than the movie portends, something we recognize when he first rescues his brother after he falls through the ice.  George is a servant leader. Through this service to others, he creates a sound community, good friends, and a strong family.

What is servant leadership? Robert Greenleaf, the philosopher behind the idea of servant leadership, wrote: “The servant leader is servant first…it begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first….”

The brilliance of It’s a Wonderful Life is that George doesn’t want to lead — he is very human in his vision. He wants to travel and put the small town of Bedford Falls behind him. Then, when forced through circumstance to take over the family business, he understands people depend on him and the wellbeing of the community is in his hands. His humanity and the decisions he makes offer modern leaders insight into the challenges that face all of us, every day, regarding whether we act for ourselves or others.

George stays in the small town, gets married, and continues his fight for others in the community, even in the midst of recession and war. As World War II ends, George’s war is just beginning. He begins to ask himself the price for his selflessness as his business is threatened with ruin. His only choice is suicide and to remove the pain of selfless choices by wishing he’d never been born.

Again, Robert Greenleaf:

The other type of leader is the leader-first leader. The servant-first and the leader-first are 2 extreme types. Between them are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

George gets to see not only what would happen if he hadn’t been born, but something deeper — the possible effects of a lack of servant leadership — where everyone and everything is self-interested and we have only those with a concern for themselves. Without his example of selfless leadership, the town is in ruin.

“If there is a single characteristic that stands out in Greenleaf’s essay, it is the desire to serve,” writes Dr. Kent Keith, the CEO of the Greenleaf Center. “In fact, it is the willingness to be a servant first. That means that the leader is focused on the needs of others. This characteristic — being a servant at heart — is the one that truly distinguishes servant-leaders from other kinds of leaders.”

Like a good executive coach or minister, the guardian angel helps George see himself through a different perspective – the servant perspective through which he’s lived his life and the positive outcomes from that decision. Upon return to normalcy, George reflects, “Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!”

It’s funny — George is happy to be returning to a “jail” he’d been in all his life — serving the sentence of servant leadership.

Recent events reflect the presence of George Baileys among us. The helpers. Mr. Rogers, of television fame, had a saying: “When bad things happen, look for the helpers… there are always helpers.” It’s not always possible to know why a tragic event occurs, but we can and must know the selflessness of the servant-leaders who help their communities move through tragic events.

Those servant leaders are the George Baileys of our world. They are the ones who sustain our virtues as a community and allow everyone else to put themselves first. We should think of them now, at this time of year, for although many depend on donations from others, those servant leaders truly are the “richest people in town.”

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