Words and Looks: Leadership Lessons from A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol First Edition

Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, was first published on December 19, 1843. So it’s close enough to roll this blog out again. Happy Holidays to all!

Management gurus have drawn lessons on leadership from diverse sources, ranging from the practices of Attila the Hun to the fictional events in Star Trek. Yet they seem to have missed one of the finest accounts of transformation and change familiar to us all. It is Charles Dickens’ best-loved story, A Christmas Carol. He said that he himself laughed and cried over it more than anything else he wrote, and it can still have that effect on us today. For there is a little bit (perhaps more than a little) of Ebenezer Scrooge in each of us and Dickens’ penetrating observation of the condition of our “shut-up hearts” is as relevant now as it was 179 years ago. As everyone knows, it is the story of personal renewal, of the conversion of a grasping, joyless taskmaster into a public benefactor and caring friend. Dickens also outlines a process of change, which many modern organizations might try to follow. Indeed, as a story of personal and organizational transformation, it reports results that would delight any change consultant. Of course Scrooge had three consultants…

Scrooge’s transformation begins in crisis, with the disturbing appearance of the ghost of his former partner, Joseph Marley, seven years after his death. It seems that real change often demands a crisis – a manifest failure of the status quo – to smash the constraints, imagined or real, that bind people and their organizations. Shocked out of his comfortable routines and intellectual self-assurance, Scrooge is prepared for the visions to be shown him of the Past, Present and Future. For change in behaviour takes experience, not just exposure to ideas, and Scrooge has to be immersed in each of these dimensions of time if he is to be changed. He must relive the past, truly experience the present and anticipate the future.

In his visit to the Past Scrooge sees himself as the lonely young boy he once was: neglected by his family and bullied at school, but full of imaginative ideas and youthful enthusiasms. He sees his beloved sister Fan and old values and aspirations are reawakened. Following the chronology of events, he revisits the firm where he was apprenticed under his first master, Mr. Fezziwig. Here he experiences once again the excitement and warmth of that small community at the office Christmas party. When the Spirit disparages Fezziwig’s contribution and the small expenditure involved, Scrooge defends his former boss with powerful insight into the role he plays: “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy, to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks, in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to count ‘em up; what then? The happiness he gives us is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” And the sudden recollection of this old role model makes Scrooge strangely thoughtful.

The sustaining power and warmth of community wherever it is to be found is the central theme of Scrooge’s experience of the Present. He sees the family of his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit, busily preparing for Christmas dinner. Bob Cratchit has few material possessions, but he has a rich life with his family, all of whom care deeply for each other. Dressed in their threadbare best, each member of the family has their own special role to play in the great ceremony. Scrooge is right there with them, participating in every activity. All his senses are alive again: the smell of goose and applesauce, sage and onion, and the steamy aroma of the pudding. After dinner, as the family sits in a circle round the hearth drinking each others’ health, he hears Tiny Tim, physically crippled but spiritually whole, give his brave blessing. The joy of community continues at his nephew’s house, his nephew who is now the only connection left with his dead sister. Indeed, the story is now about the development and sustenance of relationships. The small group entertains itself with music, song and games in which Scrooge takes part. Once again he feels at first hand what it is like to belong among a community of friends.

The Spirit of Christmas Future comes to Scrooge hooded and silent, part of the darkness, reflecting its mysterious, unfathomable nature. The future that Scrooge sees is a jumble of events, a series of scenes (we would call them scenarios today) in no particular order, and yet he has more control here than he had in either the Past or the Present. He is able to move about, to explore and to ask the Spirit to wait a while. It gradually becomes clear to him that the Future he is seeing is not something that inevitably will be: it is something that may be. The Future can be changed. And with the realization of what he needs to do to change and through an effort of sheer Will, Scrooge succeeds for the briefest of moments in grasping the spectral hand of the Future. “I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future”, he cries “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that teach.”

At the end of A Christmas Carol then, we begin to understand our own condition. To have a shut-up heart is to be stuck in Time, to be chained on the treadmill of the Present, without an appreciation of Past and Future. It is to be locked up with our own concerns; senseless and separated from the community of others. It is to be obsessed with superficialities and abstractions, for our spirits, like Marley’s, never to rove beyond the narrow limits of our “money-changing holes”. We also gain insight into the nature of leadership and even of how change consultants might help the process. Leadership is about the recreation of community, about reconnecting the narratives of people’s lives: giving meaning to the past, explaining the present and supplying guidance for the future. The best leaders are continually aware of their place in time: they are always dealing with endings and beginnings. Too often, as managers, we just seem to muddle along in the middle.

There are crises a-plenty in our organizations and institutions today: but the message of A Christmas Carol is that in crisis there is opportunity. It is a sobering thought, but in that realization there is redemption. As Dickens put it, “Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!” And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

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