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7 Leadership Lessons from “It’s a Wonderful Life”

By December 28, 2018Christians, Leadership

I don’t know in the last twenty years or so if I’ve missed a year watching the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Certainly it is one of my favorites and a part of my Christmas tradition. 

One reason I think so many are drawn to this movie is that it is more than a feel good story. We love movies with happy endings, but this one teaches us things about life. There are tremendous lessons for all of us. I previously wrote “10 Life Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life”.

Perhaps it is the job I have now of helping to improve the standard of leadership in our churches and ministries, but as I watched the movie this year I found some incredible lessons in leadership. 

Here are 7 Leadership Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life:

We should celebrate small wins. When the Building and Loan had $2 left at the end of the day it could have been heartbreaking. Instead, they danced the money to the vault. That’s gold for us as leaders. 

I ended this year with a great illustration I gained from a Seth Godin blog post titled “1,000 little steps”. In it he reminded readers (and me) that most every improvement in life happens in 1,000 little steps put together over time. 

Sometimes the greatest improvements are the least noticed. The smallest changes often have the biggest impact. The person on the team you may have overlooked has the greatest contribution to add. Let’s look for the small wins and let us lead our teams to celebrate the small victories, as we naturally do the big.

Be willing to see value in what is old. The “drafty old house” had character. And memories. And as Mary had loved it from the beginning was loved by George in the end. 

As leaders, we are often quick to throw out the old looking for what’s new – often falsely believing everything done previously was wrong. It could be. I love change. Change is good and fuels the world. But, not everything done before was wrong. In church revitalization, for example, I learned a major secret was to “rediscover more than we reinvent”. I’ve taught that principle to hundreds of pastors attempting to revitalize an old church. It may be the single greatest learning I can offer to the field of church revitalization. Often it is refinement that is needed more than replacement. 

Our greatest asset may be our friends. George’s friends come through for him – just as he had come through for them. Every man’s a winner who has friends. 

As an entrepreneurial leader, I could be quick to think I can pave my own trail, figure out my way, find something no one else has ever discovered – and stand alone in the victory lane. My mom cross-stitched a saying for me in high school. “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” I’ve identified with that most of my life. 

Thankfully, in my mid-fifties now, I have lived long enough (and failed strong enough) to know I am nothing without the people around me. Nothing I’ve ever accomplished in leadership was done without surrounding myself with smarter, more generous, often better people of character than me. (Just consider my wife and you get all three of those.) 

As leaders, let us never forget the contributions of others. We should not lead alone. Everyone we meet has a God-given potential (if they will live up to it) to make the world a better place. Perhaps our mission is helping them discover their greatest contribution to our organizations, teams and world. 

The grass is not always greener on the other side. George thought he knew what he wanted – to travel and discover the world. In the end, he realized he already had everything he ever wanted. In fact, as the quote under the picture of George’s father on the wall says, “All you can take with you is what you’ve given away.”

There is a tendency in leadership to compare what you are leading to something someone else is leading. That’s true whether it’s in a family, civic organization, small or large business, or church. And, there’s nothing wrong with allowing a little healthy competitive spirit to spur you onto new heights. I believe in setting goals, planning big, and stretching oneself to improve each year. But, ultimately contentment is found in learning to be fully satisfied right now with where God has allowed you to be right now. 

Sometimes life is a matter of perspective. Nothing much had changed at the end of the movie. Sure, George was given a great illustration of having true friends and what to really value in life -and that’s valuable. We don’t often get to look back at our life in that way. George, however, already possessed everything he needed for a happy, satisfied life. His perspective was what needed changing. 

Perhaps one of the greatest things we can do every morning is to get up, check our hearts, and put on the right perspective to face the day. There’s no guarantee life is going to turn out as we want it to each time. (Has that ever happened for anyone?) But, the perspective in which we approach life often determines our attitude, mood, and the impact we have on people around us.

When others win you win. The scene at the end, when all George’s friends come through, is the reason we watch the movie every year. Everyone loves a happy ending, but in this one we are reminded why the town was willing to pull together to help George. It was because George (and don’t discount the sacrifices of Mary also) had for years sacrificed for them. George was able to avoid “bankruptcy and scandal and prison”, because he had poured his life into the people of Bedford Falls. 

As leaders, our greatest success should come from what we do for others. The founder of Leadership Network, Bob Buford, had a life mantra “my fruit grows on other people’s trees”. Imagine how our world could change if we all lived our life not for “what’s in it for me”, but for the betterment of others! 

In the right circumstances, someone who is “not a praying man” becomes a praying man. George found himself at the end of his rope, so he turned to God.  

It has been said that desperation leads to innovation. It also leads to prayer.

I wonder, however, if we should discipline ourselves to pray before the moment of desperation. I have often wondered, based on Scripture (such as James 4:2-3 or Matthew 7:7), if every leader, at least every leader attempting to follow God, is one prayer short of what they’ve been searching and striving to achieve. 

As god-fearing leaders, let’s commit ourselves and our teams to being leaders of prayer.

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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  • Jacob Ricker says:

    Great insight on leadership in a classic movie! It amazes me how God can show us things about our lives in the place we have looked before, ie like you watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” for years! This goes to show us how God is alway there to help us become who He wants us to become! Thanks for the post Brother!