Yes, It's a Wonderful Life Is a Lesson in Diversity, but What If George Made a Different Choice
Updated: Feb 27
In our previous blog, “It’s a Wonderful Life Isn’t a Holiday Movie, It’s a Lesson in Diversity,” my colleague Ed Dwyer shared the story of how his career choices paralleled George Bailey’s. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George demonstrates leadership qualities despite his lack of experience in financial services, and Mr. Potter, a begrudging miser, realizes the transferability of those skills and offers George a leadership role with his firm. As we all know, George declines the offer and goes on to use his talents to serve the customers at his family’s Building & Loan. The town is saved, and George becomes a local hero for leading his customers and the community back from the brink of bankruptcy.
Unlike George, Ed pushed aside his inexperience and took that stretch position, leading to a fruitful — if unexpected — career path. Of course, Ed’s decision was a bit easier than George’s, as Mr. Potter’s business model presented ethical challenges for George. However, in both cases, George and Ed thrived in their personal and professional aspirations after choosing to use their leadership skills in different ways.
But what if George’s decision to decline the offer had nothing to do with ethics? When Mr. Potter initially proposes employing George at his business, George reacts with excitement. If ethics had been George’s only concern, this response would not make sense. As the conversation continues, George’s face changes, perhaps he begins to realize that working for Mr. Potter would be a step back in his career? His brow furrows, and his lips curl downward, maybe because he imagines himself working for someone else, and no longer in the leadership position at the Building & Loan? After watching the movie more than a dozen times, I began to ponder if George refused the stretch assignment with Mr. Potter because he considered it to be a step down from his current position?
I also wonder what may have happened if George had accepted that position with Mr. Potter. Would he have changed Mr. Potter’s approach to doing business? Could George have helped even more people by altering Mr. Potter’s perspective? Would he have been driven to despair, since the run on the Building & Loan would never have occurred? I have so many questions, but I doubt the classic ending to the movie would have been quite the same had George accepted Mr. Potter’s offer.
As I look back at my career, I recognize I, too, was in a similar situation as George when I was a leader at a major bank. I was asked to move down a career band level and accept a position in an area of the bank for which I had no experience. The role was a learning opportunity, a stretch that would lead to advancements in other fields of banking. But I had other thoughts for my career and didn’t understand why I needed to take a “demotion” in order to move ahead. It wasn’t that I was afraid of learning something new. I love challenges, in fact, the position held a significant interest for me. My concerns were with the impact on my carefully crafted career, and people’s perceptions about my willingness to take such a step back. When I look over my career choices at that time, I often wonder what might have been if I had taken the role and expanded my skills and knowledge, rather than applying importance to a career band level. As with George, I’m sure my story would not have turned out the same if I had made a different choice.
Often, for women and people of color, the risk of taking a step back — and the negative views that might come with doing so — feel too great. I agonized over my decision, asking myself the same questions George Bailey may have considered. How would my life be different if I had taken the job? Could I have made a bigger impact with the company in that role? Would I have been able to bridge into new territories with the community on behalf of the bank while I was in that role? Could I have influenced and helped more people, colleagues and mentees? These questions have stuck with me for a long time.
When I eventually left the bank to start Vigeo Alliance with the intention of helping organizations identify, develop, and promote diverse employees, I knew the path I eventually followed was the right one. Still, I wish I hadn’t let fear guide my decision-making. In hindsight, I would tell anyone in my shoes to be open to risks and consider all possibilities — some which may not follow a linear path. Weigh your options — do the stretch, gain new skills, grow, learn and become more than you currently imagine you can be.
And so, it turns out George and I have plenty in common. To be an effective leader, you must have a strong sense of self and a vision of what you want your career to be, but don’t let that vision prevent you from taking on new challenges. My partner Ed made a different decision and took the role offered to him. He followed his inner voice and took on the challenge of working in unfamiliar territory. For all of us, we are getting the Hollywood ending we wanted — with George maintaining the family business, while Ed and I are following the passions that led us to starting this firm.
Have you ever let fear or ego get in the way of your development at work? Are you considering declining a new job opportunity because it does not fit perfectly in your career plans? Maybe the decision you made turned out great for you as it did for me, or perhaps you are still agonizing whether it was the right thing to do. I’d love to hear your stories and lessons learned. Check out the comments section and share your perspective.