During this holiday season, one of the perennially most popular movies is the classic It’s a Wonderful Life
Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, It’s a Wonderful Life shows how each life has meaning—more meaning than we ourselves realize. It touches our hearts because the film proves that even a common person can make a big difference in the world.
And the hero of the movie is someone like you.
Stewart plays George Bailey, a man who runs a small bank in a small town. You may never have thought about this before, but the hero of one of the most beloved films is a small businessperson—just like most of my readers.
It’s a Wonderful Life not only celebrates the power of one individual—George Bailey—it shows how differing business philosophies shape the society we live in.
In the movie, one approach to business is personified by Henry Potter—owner of Bedford Fall’s bank, buses, department store, and just about everything else. Potter’s view is that the purpose of business is to make money, or as today’s business executives might phrase it: “returning maximum profits to the shareholders.”
You can recognize Potter’s philosophy at work today. Think of some mega-stores and mega-corporations that don’t provide health insurance to their employees, constantly cut prices even if it means forcing suppliers to move jobs overseas, fire workers just to improve their quarterly performance. The only street in America they worry about is Wall Street.
But the movie’s hero, George Bailey, has a different business philosophy. He believes a business has to be part of its community, weighing the impact of its actions on society, even if it means smaller profits.
Early in the movie, Potter attempts to close Bailey’s bank. Potter disdains the Baileys’ history of making loans to those he considers bad risks, including immigrants. Referring to George’s father, Potter scowls, “Peter Bailey was not a businessman…he was a man of high ideals,” evidently believing that business and high ideals can’t exist simultaneously.
George, however, believes that business must not only take from people but give to them. “This rabble,” he says to Potter, “do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him.”
“Sentimental hogwash,” is Potter’s reply (or as one stockbroker said to me, “touch-feely, airy-fairy stuff”). Potter believes there is no place in business to put people ahead of profits.
What happens when Potter’s philosophy prevails? Bedford Falls becomes Potterville—filled with rowdy bars, pawn brokers, striptease joints. Because Potter refused to invest in the people in the community, only the fringe elements thrive.
Instead, Bedford Falls was fortunate to have a small businessman, George Bailey, who invested in his community, who gave people a chance, who looked beyond a person’s bank balance. George Bailey didn’t view the patrons of his savings and loan as “consumers,” each with a dollar figure attached. He saw them as people, as his neighbors.
It’s a Wonderful Life may be fiction, but George Bailey’s philosophy is not. I’ve seen many companies, both large and small, sacrifice short-term monetary gains to act on their values and their commitment to their employees and society.
Like George Bailey, they’re heroes to me. Unlike George Bailey, their businesses do NOT suffer. It is absolutely possible to run a business that cares about its workers and its community and still thrive.
Our businesses help create our communities, and how each of us acts in our own business shapes our neighborhood. When we believe in and help one another, we build stronger communities; when we abandon one another, we all fail.
“Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, it leaves an awful hole,” the bumbling angel Clarence reminds us in the film. While none of us may get the chance to see what the world would be like without us, it’s clear each one of us can make a difference. As small business owners, we create jobs, we create communities. We’re the heroes of our own stories.
Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2018
This article originally ran in USA Today in December 2006