What the Dickens?
John Cassidy

What the Dickens?

“…a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint… secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”  Pretty harsh words but they set the scene for the character of Ebeneezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol.  With the holiday season nearly upon us I thought it was worth seeing whether there were business and personal lessons to learn from the story.

For those who don’t know, Scrooge could be mistaken for something of a hero from a Finance Director’s point of view.  He is a successful businessman, with a thriving business, who has a good credit rating amongst the London merchants.  He hates wastefulness, is cautious about cost and ensures he extracts value from his employees.

But there are some real problems.  He is mean, vindictive and joyless.

The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot1

During the story we learn the reasons for his character but it’s worth pausing to consider what we might think of similar characters today – high achievers who seem unhappy.

Psychology Today gives us some insights with the suggestion that sometimes people have to achieve “just to feel valuable or worthy” and that this is a very difficult burden to carry.  Science of People’s work on five types of Impostor Syndrome might lead to speculation that he is anxious about other people finding he is unworthy of his success. What Scrooge doesn’t seem to suffer from is the “fear of success” syndrome, where people fear the consequences of success so much that they avoid it by lacking goals, giving up, procrastinating or sabotaging their own prospects.

The story tells us that the cause of his dislike of Christmas is that he associates it with bad times like loneliness at boarding school, the death of his sister and the loss of his first love.  It takes the Ghost of Christmas Past to remind him of these reasons.  There’s a good lesson here that we all suffer setbacks but should recognize that they have an impact and that we should find strategies for dealing with disappointment and sadness to help us become more resilient.

Christmas Will Be Just Another Day2

One of the most depressing things about Scrooge is that he is a terrible employer.  He has a loyal employee in Bob Cratchit but is begrudging in giving him Christmas Day off despite their being no business to be done.  As every reader of this blog knows TALTRAN Global has strong views about the importance of being able to retain top talent as well as recruit it.

We are also reminded by Rick Wartzman’s book, “The End of Loyalty” that the relationship between employers and workers has changed significantly.  Features such as the Great Resignation, quiet quitting and clandestine contracting have offered recent examples of the consequences of a breakdown in trust, respect and loyalty.  There is an increasingly pressing need for employers to ensure that they onboarding people well,  responding to the opportunities and challenges of building diversity, and considering new working patterns and expectations.

It takes the Ghost of Christmas Present to show Scrooge that Cratchit is neither well paid well enough, or provided company medical benefits that will bring the treatment his unwell son Tiny Tim desperately needs.  Workers will be loyal and top talent can be kept but it needs the right balance of material rewards, recognition of contribution and opportunities for growth.  Basic humanity, good communication and a focus on mutual benefit between company and employee are also good things to consider.

Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)3

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to his possible future of a lonely old age, other rejoicing his death and an untended grave.  We are reminded that earlier in the story he had even failed to take the invitation to join his nephew Fred for Christmas dinner.  As the Dixie Chicks might put it, he is destined to become “a missing person who nobody missed at all.”

Scrooge is desperate and asks the Ghost if he can have another chance but the spirit does not reply.  The moral is, of course, that we all have to make our own choices about the future.  A colleague of mine is keen on quoting the title of a film about the late Joe Strummer of the Clash, “The Future Is Unwritten” but the piece of wisdom that “all that matter is what you do next” also resonates.

It’s a lesson which is built into the DNA of organizations that are creative, innovative and bold but many businesses and individuals have, to a greater of lesser extent, atychiphobia (fear of failure) or metathesiophobia (fear of change).  Scrooge overcame those barriers because the Ghosts confronted him with the realities of his life and what if might mean for his future.  Fear of a miserable future forces him to change.

This reflects the reality that many companies only change their operations when they are faced with near collapse.  Compare this with the compelling article in CFO Magazine about the role of CFOs as Change Implementers who see change management as “a way of life”.  As a business leader, business partner and business change agent the CFO of a company is uniquely well placed to ensure that flexibility and foresight replace panic and pontification.

Happy Holiday4

It’s been a big year for TALTRAN Global and for me personally and I am looking forward to a Christmas with a difference.  I’ll be reflecting on the Scrooge lessons as my family visit from the UK to meet Poppy, the daughter recently born to me and my partner Kate.  I wish all my colleagues, friends, client companies and candidates the very best for the holiday season and new year.


The headline of this blog is a well-known English phrase that is used to express confusion or surprise at a situation, for example, “what the dickens was he thinking when he left the car motor running.”  Perhaps surprisingly, the expression predates Charles Dickens but, according to The Guardian newspaper, the exact origin is unknown.

Notes 1. 2. and 3. about Christmas songs with an alternative flavor are taken largely from udiscovermusic.com.  A site well worth checking out.

  1. Nat “King” Cole recorded many festive perennials but he also recorded one of Christmas’ most heart-wrenching songs, “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot.” Originally written in 1937 and also recorded by Vera Lynn, Cole’s version of this achingly sad ballad (“He sent a note to Santa for some soldiers and a drum/It broke his little heart when he found Santa hadn’t come”) appeared on the flip of his 1956 hit, the notably more mainstream-friendly “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You).”
  2. Georgia-born star Brenda Lee is synonymous with the holiday season thanks to the classic, “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree”. Her signature hit was one of many festive treats on Merry Christmas From Brenda Lee: a U.S. Top 10 hit released through Decca Recordsin 1964. The album revisited choice Christmas fare such as “Jingle Bell Rock”and “Winter Wonderland,” but also included “Christmas Will Be Just Another Day”: a wistful ode to lost love and loneliness which Lee delivered with dignity to spare.
  3. Caustic, cynical, and still effortlessly cool, “Blue Xmas (To Whom it May Concern)” was the brainchild of Miles Davisand jazz vocalist Bob Dorough, who embraced the season’s downside in this 1962 cut built on swinging rhythms and moody horns. Originally released on a compilation titled Jingle Bell Jazz, the track included a scything critique of festive commercialism (“all the waste, all the sham”) and a verse relating to homelessness, which – tragically – remains all too relevant today.
  4. “Happy Holiday” was introduced by Bing Crosbyand Marjorie Reynolds(dubbed by Martha Mears) in the 1942 film Holiday Inn in a scene when the Inn opens for the first time. While it is commonly regarded as a Christmas song, in the film it is performed on New Year’s Eve, and expresses a wish for the listener to enjoy “happy holidays” throughout the entire year.

Image by Biljana Jovanovic from Pixabay