Executive Perspective

Scrooge-Style Leadership With Heart

by Paul D. Houston

Around this time of year we find seasonal movies on television. One of the most popular is the classic "It's a Wonderful Life," which starred Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey and focused on one man's life and the difference his change of heart made to a town.


Another favorite is Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in its various versions. This is the story of one Ebenezer Scrooge, who had the wherewithal to make a difference but chose not to.

One Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his long-dead partner Jacob Marley and by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. The outcome of all these ghostly comings and goings is that Scrooge is scared straight. He awakens as a new man-one dedicated to serving others rather than being served, one who would rather give than get and would rather sow than reap. He discovers the power of living in the present, of finding happiness in the moment. Scrooge couldn't change what already had happened, but by changing how he lived moment to moment, he could alter the future.

George Bailey doesn't find his way any easier. Accused of embezzlement, Bailey loses his faith and contemplates suicide. It is only through the intervention of a rather unorthodox angel that he sees that one life can make a difference and that his imaginary town of Bedford Falls would not have been the same without him. The movie ends with his daughter observing that every time one hears a bell, an angel gets his wings.

Making a Difference
Surely those of us in the school business would have to know we are responsible for thousands of winged angels because we ring bells every day. We also should be aware of the central lesson from "It's a Wonderful Life": Each one of us can make a difference. Education and leadership are about making differences in people's lives. Yet I often wonder if we have become as confused as Bailey. We feel abused, unappreciated and despairing. We wonder who would miss us if we left.


Perhaps if we had lost our way, as Scrooge did, that question is valid. Bailey made a difference because he was kind and helpful to others. He gave generously of his time and resources. He epitomized the notion of servant leader. We can only lead when we have learned to serve. By giving to others, Bailey found that the town gave back. He became the "richest" man in town because of how others felt, not because of what he owned materially.

Scrooge took a different path. He was the richest man in town. He had it all. He was competent and successful. He had resources to squander. Yet he hoarded them and made everyone around him miserable through his selfishness and ego. It was all about Scrooge-what he wanted and what was his. He even squeezed an extra few hours of work out of poor Bob Cratchit when all he wanted to do was go home to the family on Christmas Eve.

It took Scrooge seeing the potential death of Cratchit's crippled son, Tiny Tim, and his own unlamented passing to understand that his way was not the highway he should be traveling. He awoke from his restless, ghost- filled night a new man, one dedicated to serving others and giving what he had to make the world a better place.

Those of us in education have a glorious opportunity. Every day is Christmas for us. Every day presents the chance to give, to serve, to make the world a bit better by our having been in it. Every day we can claim the biggest goose in the window and give it to the children in need. Perhaps that takes the form of fighting city hall, taking on the political forces that would shortchange our children. Or perhaps it is by making certain that our children are blessed with classrooms that are vibrant places to be. Or perhaps it is merely making sure that those who work for us are treated humanely.

Scrooge was a strong leader. He had gained worldly success. He made things happen. But he had lost his soul in the process.

Courage and Heart
Leadership takes courage. We have to be strong and courageous to do the work. But it behooves us to remember that the word courage comes from the French word "coeur," which means "heart." Leadership is ultimately, always about following our heart in leading others. It is always understanding that one man or woman can make a difference if we are willing to be strong enough to give and not take, to know that true success isn't about us, it is about those we serve.


If we can learn that principle, then maybe we will earn our wings and in the words of Tiny Tim, God will "bless us every one."

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail:phouston@aasa.org