One Leadership Lesson We Learn from Ebenezer Scrooge

This time of year, we all remember Charles Dickens’ classic story, “A Christmas Carol.” Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and that cruel business tycoon, Ebenezer Scrooge, are the key characters in this timeless story of transformation. Scrooge begins as a heartless, bitter, miserly old geezer, but during a single night’s visitation—from his former partner, Jacob Marley, and three angels—he suddenly sees the world differently. Everything is changed.

While Charles Dickens wrote the story to teach a timeless moral, I sometimes think we fail to remember its central truth. We’ve all watched a hundred versions of the tale, but perhaps we miss the forest for the trees.

May I remind you of the deep message Dickens was revealing to us? On Christmas Eve, Scrooge gains perspective on the value of:

  • Contentment and gratitude
  • Simplicity and freedom
  • Empathy and compassion

Ebenezer Scrooge begins to feel. He’s lived for work and hoarding money, but overnight, he sees what really matters: to step into others’ shoes and empathize with them.

Evidently, this was a timely message for Brits in 1843. I believe it’s even more relevant for us today. Ours is a day where automation has taken over much of our lives:

  • In my neighborhood, I can press my garage door opener, pull my car out, and never speak to a person until I am safe.
  • I can check out at the grocery store without talking to a clerk, because they now allow me to purchase items on a computer screen.
  • I can buy Christmas gifts without interacting with a human because most of what I buy, I obtain online. I usually don’t even see my postman.
  • I am entertained with a screen, I message with a screen, I read on a screen, and on the weekend—well, I will likely sit and watch another screen.

Our Problem and Potential

I’m not saying we’re versions of Scrooge, but we’re being pushed in a wrong direction. Our computerized, automated world has caused our empathy muscle to atrophy. Scientific American reports the results of a study four years ago, revealing that young people are self-reporting less empathy toward fellow human beings and higher levels of narcissism.

In recent studies, Sara Konrath and her colleagues collated data from nearly 14,000 college students, then dug to see how scores have changed over the years. The results were troubling: “Almost 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago.” It seems our empathy just ain’t what it used to be.

Here’s the good news. While our automated world may have reduced our empathy, it’s also the reason we can stand out. We must teach our students that empathy is the new 21st century skill. A growing body of research suggests that empathy has become the most valued and sought after characteristic in leaders. In fact, employees, in general, who embody empathy increase their job security measurably.

In his book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achieving Humans Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will, Geoff Colvin defines empathy as the act of discerning what some other person is thinking and feeling, then responding in some appropriate way:

We shouldn’t focus on beating computers at what they do. We will lose that contest… we must ask the question: what will people do better than computers? As machines rapidly take over the largely mechanical elements of work, our most valuable roles become more intensely social. Empathy is the first element of how all that happens.

Building on this new reality, 13D Research notes:

Rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI), computerization, and automation threaten to displace an expanding share of the labor force—supplanting both blue and white collar jobs. Those looking to secure future opportunities for themselves must identify and develop skills differentiated from the masses of other workers and artificially intelligent automation. Effective empathy is beyond the reach of automations and becoming more scarce—making it more valuable, powerful and essential to success.

So how does Scrooge relate to this situation? The lesson of Ebenezer Scrooge is the same one we must teach our students today: Empathy is a differentiating quality.

My friend, Dr. Derek Mann, has a two-year old daughter named McKenzie. She is intuitive, as well as emotionally and socially aware. McKenzie is drawn to some and distant from others. It’s innate within the human species. But as we mature, I believe we become clouded by our felt need for money, status, fame, followers, etc. In other words, we are conditioned to be un-empathetic and socially unaware. It’s time we re-acquire this valuable trait.

This Christmas season, may we hold fast to the power of empathy—and not require the ghost of Christmas past to swing by and remind us.

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One Leadership Lesson We Learn from Ebenezer Scrooge