The lessons of Scrooge for a modern business world

Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley and Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 classic, "A Christmas Carol."

Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley and Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

The enduring image of Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of Charles DickensA Christmas Carol is of the old codger enthusiastically prancing around in his pajamas after a reforming and reaffirming visit from a series of ghosts.

“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man,” Scrooge exclaimed to no one in particular.

But what of that miserly, cruel Scrooge? What are the consequences of a cold and unhappy childhood? What does he teach us about business and its intersection with humanity? Is there hope that a similar enlightenment can happen among our current generation of business leaders?

Fordham University Schools of Business Associate Professor Michael Pirson sees the lesson in A Christmas Carol, written 171 years ago, as “perennial.”

“Wealth focus,” he said, “is not necessarily the essence of what makes a good life. So that is something, I guess, that people have to learn over and over and over again.”

That lesson is most vividly given by the Ghost of Jacob Marley, tethered by iron chains and strongboxes, before the visit of the three spirits and his impassioned lament shakes Scrooge to his core.

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing his hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

This, for Pirson, is the central principle of the humanistic approach to business, in which leaders focus on societal good as opposed to simply making money.

“Can [Scrooge] be a good businessman by being more generous? It seems, yes, that absolutely is the case. So you don’t have to take on that narrative of ‘people are bad; I need to screw them over, it’s the only way I can make money,’” Pirson said. “You can have an alternative narrative where you use business as a means to another end … where well-being is more important than wealth.”

That well-being is meant in the broadest sense – not simply personal fulfillment, but the betterment of fellow citizens.

“Focusing narrowly on your own benefit and your own happiness, so to speak, you often times fall flat, and I think that’s the whole story of A Christmas Carol as well,” Pirson said.

Scrooge had the luxury of a visit from three spirits to encourage a change of ways. Pirson believes there is a “sizable minority” of leaders who already see the light, but it could take another financial crisis to spur widespread change, to bring about a new generation of enlightened Scrooges who are better than their words when it comes to deeds.

“I think,” Pirson said, “the crisis could be the spirits.”

 

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