Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was published on December 19, 1842. It’s nearly two centuries later, yet millions of us will watch one of the film adaptations this year—with Scrooge, or someone like him, played by everyone from Mickey Mouse to Bill Murray to George C. Scott. (I’ve always preferred Patrick Stewart’s version.)
The story is so familiar, it’s easy to lose sight of its essence: A Christmas Carol is about a wealthy man—closer to the end of his life than the beginning—forced to answer the question: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
Thomas Merton put the same idea into a modern context when he wrote: “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” Seen this way, A Christmas Carol is the story of a man who learns that he had very successfully climbed the wrong wall.
You can dismiss it as sentimental pap if you like, but there is a reason we are entertained, drawn in and even challenged by Ebenezer Scrooge’s existential crisis. Our world may not have much in common with Victorian England, but we have a great deal in common with Scrooge.
Still, you might be asking, what does Scrooge have to do with leadership? Good question: When Ebenezer is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, one of their stops is an office Christmas party thrown by his long-ago boss and mentor, Mr. Fezziwig. As he and the ghost watch the celebration, Scrooge explains why he’s so moved by what he sees—and what he remembers from his own experience:
“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 add and count ‘em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
Notice two things–the verb tense Dickens used—”has the power” and “the happiness he gives” – and where Fezziwig’s power came from “words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant.”
If Scrooge is an everyman, then Fezziwig is an every-boss. As leaders, managers, supervisors of any kind, our power—regardless of whether we realize or even agree that we have it—“lies in words and looks.” How we use those words and looks can be the difference between light or burdensome, pleasure or toil.
When I was a much younger man, I came across an idea that has affected me profoundly: Time is a great teacher, but it kills all its pupils. Of course, Scrooge sees this too in a very personal way on his journey. But Scrooge gets the opportunity to step out of the flow of time and to see that his ladder is against the wrong wall before he finishes his climb.
My purpose here is not to advocate for Victorian progressivism, or to suggest that mankind, to corrupt Dickens a bit, is our business—although as ethics go, you could do worse. My point is that we don’t have to wait for a supernatural event or even a personal or professional crisis to force us to examine how we affect those around us—at work and at home—with our words and looks.
For all of us, there is a gap between who we are and who we wish to be. As this challenging year comes to a close, many will spend some time thinking about resolutions for next year. Let’s dedicate some of that time to thinking about ways we can close that gap.
It’s not at all sentimental to realize that our time here is temporary or to understand that our words and looks have a far greater impact on the people around us than we will ever know.
If we have within us the power to transform toil into pleasure, and we choose not to do it—for whatever reason— our ladder is on the wrong wall.