I have been screwed by a lot of people over my 32 years in business. I have always been amazed by the capacity of the human mind to rationalize bad behavior in order to justify a decision that is beneficial to the person doing the rationalizing. (How’s that for the opening lines of a Christmas themed blog post?)
Throughout my career, I have tried to do the right thing. I have tried to take the high road. I have tried to live by the golden rule (no, not “he who has the gold makes the rules”; the other one) – treat people the way you would like to be treated. I have tried to picture myself “on the other side of desk” and act accordingly. I have not even remotely come close to achieving this standard consistently. But, I have tried. As the immortal Coach Eric Taylor said, “Character, it’s in the trying.”
A few years ago, I was bemoaning to a close friend about the circumstances of me being screwed by a particularly unscrupulous person that I had been in business with. He had lied to my face, stabbed me in the back, and then came back down the chimney and stole my last piece of roast beast! (Oh, sorry, that last part was The Grinch) I said to my friend, “When does doing the right thing pay off? When does taking the high road generate a dividend? When do I get my “George Bailey Moment”? You know, that moment when trying to do the right thing all the time results in an unexpected positive outcome?” My friend said, “Well, don’t you think that time you fell off of your roof and walked away without a scratch was your “George Bailey Moment?” I replied “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I just thought it would be more… cinematic.”
As we watch It’s A Wonderful Life this Christmas, the movie has a number of great lessons for business and life. Here are a few that stand out to me:
Ask Dad. He Knows. Those are the words on the ad sign hanging in Gower’s Drug Store that inspire George to seek his Dad’s advice when he knows Mr. Gower accidentally put poison in the capsules. None of us have all the answers. We aren’t supposed to have all the answers. The key is having the guts to ask for help. Dad, Mom, Mentor, Friend, Teacher, Colleague – Ask Them. They Know.
Hire People Capable of Taking Your Job. Many executives pay lip service to “hiring the best and the brightest”. Most executives are too insecure to do that because they fear they will get passed by. True leaders are comfortable in their own skin and with their own abilities and recognize building the best team shines as much of a halo on them as it does on the performers. Had George hired the best and the brightest at the Building & Loan, he might have avoided his plunge from the bridge.
We Will All Have a Mr. Potter in Our Life. There are always people who do not play by the rules and appear to have benefitted from their transgressions. I believe one of the most important characteristics to have is the ability to maintain your values and your standards when everyone around you is lowering theirs and, apparently, benefitting as a result. When you see it happen in life ask yourself one question – Would Mr. Martini “busta” the juke box for that guy? If not, then keep doing what you are doing.
Believe in Guardian Angels. I think the best part of the George/Clarence dynamic is not when Clarence saves George. It is when Clarence tells George, “Oh, I’ve been watching you since you were a little boy.” You never know when the curveball will come. You won’t see the sucker punch. But, your Guardian Angel is watching and he will step in when you least expect it. Live your life and handle your business as if he is always watching.
Celebrate the Joy of Life, Family, Friends, and Work. There are two scenes in IAWL that choke me up every time. One is when George “comes back to life” and runs through Bedford Falls shouting “Merry Christmas!” He hugs Burt the cop (Friend). He cheers when he sees the “Welcome to Bedford Falls” sign (Life). He yells “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!” as he runs past Bailey Brothers (Work). And, he runs home, past the reporters and the sheriff, up the stairs to hug his kids (Family). Success is not a “Chinese menu”. You can’t just pick one. True success is the ability to celebrate all of the aspects of your life. I hope it doesn’t take a Christmas Eve dive into an icy river to learn that lesson.
Let Yourself Be Embraced. The other scene that chokes me up is when Harry toasts, “To my big brother, George, the richest man in town!” That scene, that moment, is literally the mental picture I use when I am making a tough decision. It is the culmination of every basic, decent, loving, generous, faithful, selfless act that George Bailey ever made. That is what generates true success in business and in life.
As you watch It’s A Wonderful Life this year, I hope that some of these lessons and thoughts help you and your family achieve a greater level of peace and a true definition of success. Who knows? Maybe someday when you hear a bell ring, you’ll wink and say “Atta boy, Michael”.
Wait, wait. Don’t leave, yet. I forgot the single, most-important, unequivocally universal lesson from IAWL that will truly bring you riches and rewards beyond your wildest dreams…
Find Your Mary.
Michael C. Marcon is the founder of M3K Holdings, an Operating Partner of Altamont Capital Partners, Chairman of The Marcon Foundation, and the former founder, Chairman and CEO of Equity Risk Partners.