Why was George Bailey ‘the richest man in town?’

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

We all know the story and you can see it on TVs anywhere on the dial.  George Bailey, depicted in Frank Capra’s masterpiece, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is a very frustrated businessman who wishes he was never born.  Provided a guardian angel, he has the opportunity to see what life would be like if he had gotten his wish.  The movie takes a dark turn due to George’s absence and he sees the positive role he plays in the community and in the lives of others.

But there is deeper 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 writes:

The servant leader is servant first…it begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first….

The brilliance of the story is that George does not want to lead first – 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 goodness of the community is in his hands.  His humanity and the decisions he makes offer 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 had never been born.

Again, Robert Greenleaf:

The other type of leader is the leader-first leader.  The servant-first and the leader- first are two 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 had he not 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 role model of selfless leadership, the town is in ruin, the reflection of Mr. Potter, the banker who, in renaming the town from Bedford Falls to Pottersville, reflects his true and dark nature.

According to Dr. Kent Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Center,

If there is a single characteristic that stands out in Greenleaf’s essay, it is the desire to serve. 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 has 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 had been in all his life – serving the sentence of servant leadership.  George Bailey was a servant leader — one who dedicated his life to others.

Recent events in Connecticut, in a town not unlike the Bedford Falls depicted in the movie, 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.”  George Bailey, like the teachers in the school, the volunteer firemen, the state police, and all the parents and ministers who make the community, are the helpers.  We will never know why this occurred, but we can and must know the selflessness of these servant-leaders, these ‘helpers’ who will help this community move through this tragic event.   

Those servant leaders are the George Baileys of our world.  They are the leaders who sustain our virtues as a community and allow us to put ourselves 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.’


About Clemson Turregano

Focused towards leadership excellence in Government and Public Service, Clemson designs and delivers leadership programs for senior military and government officials. With over two decades of government service, both in and out of the military, Clemson's passion is to empower government leadership with exciting training programs, insightful writing, and thoughtful research. Clemson's current research involves effective mentoring practices within the public service sector, and creating adaptive learning opportunities for leaders.
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One Response to Why was George Bailey ‘the richest man in town?’

  1. Great article about servant leaders! My experience in business and personal life has always shown the servant leader to be more effective in the long-term. However, many people will underestimate the servant leader’s role and contribution to improve an environment or situation.

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