Though it premiered over 70 years ago, Frank Capra's 1946 classic film "It's a Wonderful Life" continues to resonate with audiences around the world with its timeless message of hope and community. At its heart is George Bailey, a small-town man who dedicates his life to serving others in his community of Bedford Falls. Struggling with difficult challenges both personally and professionally, George is offered a unique perspective that allows him to recognize just how much he has positively impacted the lives of so many. Though a fictional story, George Bailey provides leaders in any industry with valuable lessons that remain highly applicable today.
Today we will explore several key organizational leadership principles demonstrated through George Bailey's example, supported by relevant research, and connected to practical application within specific leadership contexts.
Leading with Principled Integrity
George maintains high ethical standards throughout challenges, never compromising his values for personal gain. Studies show integrity-based leadership breeds loyalty and resilience within teams (Sosik, 2009). When George's business nears collapse, he retains integrity by honestly trying to refund depositors rather than absconding with funds. Later, faced with an opportunity to frame his neighbor for a major mistake, George maintains truth and fairness at great personal cost.
For example, in government increasingly scrutinized for lacking integrity, leaders exhibiting George's principled nature can rebuilding damaged trust in the community. Demonstrating utmost honesty and fairness in all interactions, remaining values-driven amid difficult situations, and holding all personnel rigorously accountable to the highest standards will guide agencies toward restored integrity and legitimacy over time. George reminds us that even in adversity, strong character anchored in principles ultimately leads to greater outcome than expediency.
Leading with Compassion
More than once, George displays limitless compassion - saving his brother's life by donating blood and later dedicating himself to the mentally ill Harry Bailey despite personal despair. Research associates compassionate leadership with strong relationships, motivation, and performance (Kligyte et al., 2013). Leaders like George who genuinely care about people's wellbeing foster a culture where teams feel supported, perform at higher levels, and stay committed during difficulties.
For example, in healthcare facing staff burnout and shortages, facilities led with George's compassion are faring better. Making rounds to sincerely thank overworked doctors and nurses, prioritizing reasonable hours and time off, addressing systemic stressors proactively - all demonstrate George's selfless concern for people's wellbeing. Showing compassion reinvigorates purpose-driven employees and positively impacts quality of patient care, even amid significant challenges. George reminds us the small acts of human compassion can uplift entire communities.
Leading with Empathic Understanding
When others in the tight-knit community struggle, George displays profound empathy by working flexible solutions tailored to each family's needs. Studies show empathic leaders like George forge stronger connections and bring out the best in followers (Goleman, 2004). Those who comprehend different perspectives motivate high performance naturally.
For example, in education now requiring more empathy as challenges intensify, principals demonstrating George's level of understanding fare best. Making genuine efforts to walk in teachers' and students' shoes daily, creating safe spaces to share experiences, and tailoring support based on individual realities nurtures an empathic school culture. This environment where all feel heard and valued positively impacts student outcomes. George inspires empathic leadership that strengthens any organization from the inside out.
Leading with Humility and Gratitude
Despite the significant impact George has on Bedford Falls through decades of self-sacrificing service, he remains remarkably humble, never seeking recognition or praise for his accomplishments. Even in his darkest moments considering suicide, George fails to realize fully all the lives he has positively touched. Studies validate that the most effective leaders practice an "upwardly humble" orientation that gives credit to others and remains mindful of what more can be learned (Owens & Hekman, 2012).
For example, in the non-profit sector dedicated to serving communities in need, leaders who maintain George's humility are likely to foster stronger organizational cultures. Expressing gratitude to front-line workers and donors helps non-profits weather challenges and recruit committed long-term staff. Additionally, being outwardly focused like George prevents non-profit leaders from basking in their own accomplishments and instead drives continued learning, improvement and innovation to better serve clients into the future. George's humble example reminds us that in community-centered work, individual credit is less important than impact.
Leading with Selfless Service
Rather than accumulating personal wealth or pursuing loftier careers elsewhere, George dedicates his life to bettering Bedford Falls through thankless community service. Studies find servant leadership styles focusing outward like George's foster stronger customer relationships and innovation (Liden, 2008). When leaders are more concerned with meeting needs than individual recognition or advancement, organizations naturally thrive.
For example, in the nonprofit sector, CEOs remaining fully committed to their cause like George fare best. Making client outcomes the singular priority over accolades or salaries, modeling humble "servant's heart" attitude daily, and empowering teams to selflessly serve their missions energizes the workplace culture and achievement. George's life of tireless, principled service to his community reminds us that leadership should always center outward on positively impacting others.
People Before Profits
One of George Bailey's defining qualities is that he consistently puts people above profits in his work as a banker and businessman. When others in the banking industry seek only to accumulate wealth and expand their businesses, George's priority is serving the everyday needs of the working people in his town. Research shows this type of people-focused leadership is highly effective. Jim Collins' seminal book "Good to Great" found the best companies are led not by profit-maximizers but by leaders who want to see the company progress and lasting value created, even at the expense of short-term earnings (Collins, 2001). Putting people first builds trust, loyalty, and empowerment within an organization.
For example, in the healthcare industry where patient care should be the number one priority, leaders who emulate George Bailey's example are more likely to foster a culture where doctors, nurses and staff feel empowered to make choices based on serving individual patients rather than quotas or the bottom line. Open-door policies, genuinely listening to front-line staff concerns, and valuing work-life balance go a long way in keeping patient care the focal point. George demonstrates how this people-first focus ultimately leads to greater community benefit and organizational success over the long run compared to a narrow profit-only model.
Adaptability in Times of Change
When unforeseen developments like a widespread illness leave many depositors unable to repay loans, George shows remarkable flexibility by working with struggling families rather than callously demanding immediate payment. He adapts Building and Loan practices on the fly as people's circumstances change. Recent studies highlight the importance of agility and adaptability in leadership during disruptive times (Heifetz, Grashow & Linsky, 2009). The most resilient organizations are led by people like George who are comfortable with impermanence and willing to reinvent when necessary.
For example, in the retail industry presently dealing with massive shifts sparked by the pandemic and rise of e-commerce, leaders must exhibit George-like flexibility. Those guiding large retailers through this period of flux have found success by temporarily changing store formats, supply chains and fulfilling online/curbside pickup to serve customers however they need while brick-and-mortar operations adjust long-term. Demonstrating George's willingness to modify practices on the fly has helped these organizations weather uncertainty in a way that reflects communities' changing realities. Being adaptable like George allows one to pivot nimbly during disruption rather than hold rigidly to the status quo.
Facing Challenges with Resilience
Throughout his life, George experiences considerable setbacks, disappointments and personal tragedies, from the deaths of siblings to the collapse of his business aspirations. Yet he never loses his fundamental optimism or commitment to his principles, continuing to serve Bedford Falls even amid deep despair. Contemporary research emphasizes the importance for leaders to model resilience when facing failure or crises (Coutu, 2002). Organizations falter without leaders like George who can recover quickly and carry on with vision and resolve after hard knocks.
For example, in the education industry presently encountering significant budget cuts, enrollment declines and pandemic-related upheaval, school principals demonstrating George's level of resilience are faring better. Those communicating hope despite challenges, creatively problem-solving with limited resources and motivating staff/students to endure difficulties will guide their institutions most successfully through turbulence. George's example of resilient, principle-driven leadership inspires us never to lose sight of our purpose or give in to despair – even in times that seem darkest.
In the fictional George Bailey, Frank Capra created one of the most admirable and compelling portraits of community-centered leadership in popular culture. Through his unheralded lifetime of service in Bedford Falls, struggling at times but never wavering in his values, George quietly impacted countless lives and made his town a far better place. While a simple story, George's example endures because it encapsulates timelessly relevant principles of putting people over profits, demonstrating flexibility and adaptability during disruption, maintaining humility amid accomplishments, and facing adversity with resilience – all qualities continually vital for impactful leadership in organizations of any industry. Over 70 years since its release, "It's a Wonderful Life" continues educating new generations on what selfless, principle-driven service to one's communities can achieve and inspiring us all towards George Bailey-like leadership.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap...and others don't. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.
Coutu, D. L. (2002, May). How resilience works. Harvard business review, 80(5), 46-56.
Goleman, D. (2004). What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review, 82(1), 82–91.
Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). Leadership in a (permanent) crisis. Harvard Business Review, 87(7-8), 62–69.
Kligyte, V., Marcy, R. T., Windschitl, P. D., & Kaplan, S. (2013). Leading with empathy: The role of leader emotional intelligence and hubris in predicting ethical leadership. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 20(4), 431–444. https://doi.org/10.1177/1548051813486011
Liden, R. C. (2008). Toward a understanding of servant leadership: A multi-dimensional definition and model. The Academy of Management Review, 33(2), 252-274. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20159378
Owens, B. P., & Hekman, D. R. (2012). Modeling how to grow: An inductive examination of humble leader behaviors, contingencies, and outcomes. Academy of Management Journal, 55(4), 787-818.
Sosik, J. J. (2009). Self- other agreement on charismatic leadership: Relationships with work attitudes and behavioral intentions. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 15(4), 382-391. https://doi.org/10.1177/1548051809334197
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.