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It’s a Wonderful Life Isn’t a Holiday Movie, It’s a Lesson in Diversity

Updated: Mar 9

By: Ed Dwyer

Image courtesy of Insomnia Cured Here/Flickr.

After reading that headline, I know what you’re thinking:

“We just celebrated the unofficial beginning of summer, and you’re writing about It’s a Wonderful Life? You know, that old movie with everyone shouting Merry Christmas and Happy New Year under glistening snowflakes? And you’re talking about It’s a Wonderful Life in the context of diversity? Did you see that movie? It’s not exactly diverse.”

I can understand why a reader would be puzzled, given the way the movie has become synonymous with Christmas, not to mention the obvious lack of ethnic diversity common to films of that era. But when you dig deeper, one can argue that It’s a Wonderful Life is neither a holiday movie nor a complete failure at showcasing diversity.

When we first meet George Bailey as a teen working at the local drug store, he oozes enthusiasm for his future: “I want to do something big, something important!” George expects to go to college and become an explorer. As a young person, George focuses on his desire to be a BIG and IMPORTANT person. In fact, after George finishes his schooling, you never hear him express much interest in leading the family business at the Building & Loan. George does not appear to be particularly educated about lending and finance. He’s been studying people and cultures and yearns to travel far from Seneca Falls! Sure, it’s clear he is personable, responsible, and well-loved by his community, but George has other plans for himself. He wasn’t going to settle down, get married, and lead a “typical” existence. That is, until life threw him a curveball with the death of his father, Peter, who owned Bailey Bros. Building & Loan. It’s at that point that we see George’s true character when he decides to stay in his hometown to lead the family-owned company despite his strongest desires. Did you wonder if he would be successful that first time you saw the movie?

As the new leader of the Building & Loan, George has a lot to learn, but he immediately adopts his father’s unyielding customer focus. He continues his father’s legacy of financing the American dream for his beloved neighbors in Seneca Falls. During a run on the bank, he reminds fearful customers that he has a track record of protecting their money and lent to them generously as their families have grown. He exhibits credibility, kindness, and grace. Despite his misgivings, he closes accounts for the customers who don’t hear his pleas. Even during the toughest time, the townspeople prefer doing business with an inexperienced George rather than the other lender in town, Mr. Potter.

While George frequently butts heads with Mr. Potter, the old financier realizes George’s leadership potential and offers him a well-paying job working directly for him. Mr. Potter had observed George’s leadership qualities — customer focus, personable demeanor, responsibility, credibility, grace — and knew they would be assets to his organization regardless of George’s lack of business credentials. Plus Mr. Potter knew that if he could bring George onto his team, that the Building & Loan would most certainly fail. Although George declines the offer, give credit to Mr. Potter for recognizing good talent — especially since that talent is so dramatically different from himself. George demonstrated tremendous courage to stick to his values and to not succumb to the riches being handed to him by Mr. Potter.

Unfortunately, even George doesn’t recognize how his innate leadership skills have improved the lives of the people around him. Failing to achieve his childhood dream, George falls into despair after several unlucky breaks. Fortunately, Clarence the angel knows George’s value and takes the necessary steps to restore George’s faith in himself.

By the end of the movie, George may not be a world explorer, but he certainly accomplished his goal of being a big and important person. He is beloved by the community for the unique leadership qualities he exhibits. He may not be a traditional banker, but that’s exactly why his customers love him. And while George may not care about Mr. Potter’s opinion, the job offer proves George is not only successful in life but also in business. George could have thrived in nearly any industry in any town because of his leadership abilities. Had you only considered George’s education and desires when he first inherited the Building & Loan, you may have predicted his failure. However, in remembering the way George led people during both good and bad times, it’s easy to see why his customers return for repeat business again and again.

When I think of George Bailey’s journey, I am reminded of my own career in financial services. I started as a commercial banker , which, to be productive, requires many similar skills to those George possessed — customer focus, personable demeanor, responsibility, credibility. Given that I gravitate towards these strengths, I felt confident and comfortable climbing the corporate banking ladder. Several years later, the company asked me to head a Community Banking operation which included branches and all aspects of consumer banking along with commercial. Like George, I was puzzled about why the executives would consider me, given my lack of experience outside of commercial. When I asked why they chose me, they said my leadership qualities distinguished me, and this opportunity would allow me to learn how to run a bank within the bank. Years later, the company would tap me on the shoulder to lead a FDIC-assisted failed bank acquisition because of the same leadership skills and my further developed holistic understanding of our entire bank’s operations.

I had never been involved with an acquisition, much less one that occurred in the great recession with all of the challenges that existed then. It was a big leadership test, but I look back fondly on the experience as one of my greatest achievements. Years later, the bank asked me to take on the brand new position of Chief Risk Officer for the Consumer business line. Once again, I had no direct experience in Compliance and Audit. Yet, over the years, I had become so in touch with the culture of the organization that I felt confident that I would lead through the challenges ahead. With each job change, I fretted about whether I could learn the work processes. But after taking the plunge, I became more confident that my leadership skills would steer me toward success. My unique combination of characteristics ultimately benefited both the company and me, but I would not have recognized my potential without management fostering it first.

My unique combination of characteristics ultimately benefited both the company and me, but I would not have recognized my potential without management fostering it first.

Often, when we think about diversity, themes of race, gender, physical ability, and religious background rush to our consciousness. However, like George Bailey, people we hire and promote offer far more nuance than this. When looking to augment the talent pipeline in new and different ways, have you asked yourself what perspective the dreamer can give to your organization about innovation? Have you considered that the kind-hearted employee can learn tough leadership skills and grow into a superleader under your guidance? What about that employee who constantly seems to be challenging you? Are they viewed as a “problem” or as an outside-the-box leader bringing new ways of thinking to the workplace? Diverse people bring diverse ideas to an organization. Successful diversity and inclusion programs delve beyond the obvious traits and focus on identifying people with remarkable, perhaps hidden, strengths.

Next time you watch It’s a Wonderful Life, perhaps you’ll view the movie not as a predictable holiday storyline but as a tale of diverse talent struggling for success in the world. I also hope you’ll think about the not-so-obvious lessons of the film and how they apply to your workplace.

What are some ways you can identify, hire, and promote diverse thinkers to leadership roles? What are the nuanced qualities you look for? I’d love to hear your thoughts, successes, and challenges in the comments.

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