It has been a busy start to the year – 2022 is off to the races. A regular topic of conversation that keeps surfacing is both the exceptional difficulty and combined intentionality that is required for a family to pursue a legacy (100+) year time frame, or for a family to continue after already achieving that august accomplishment. Dennis Jaffe’s excellent book, Borrowed From Your Grandchildren, outlines the seriouswork that a family must undertake if they are serious about pursuing this sort of time table, along with developing the family culture to support it (what Jaffe calls a ‘generative’ culture).
With that in mind, families should not presuppose that this is the best path for them. For many the default option is to continue to push ahead towards future generations without contemplating the cost of the journey. Instead, I would caution that families would do well at certain intervals to stop and assess whether shared vision continues to exist within the family. This shared sense of purpose and direction serves as the life blood required to coordinate the family’s activities and governing entities (family council, family foundation, and board of directors).
And yet, if this purpose is not present, the family may be able to continue into the future simply through the relative momentum of the past. But, just as a ball tossed straight into the air sees its rate of assent slow, eventually stop and then reverse direction, the inevitable outcome is the ball’s return to earth. Gravity is far too strong a force to overcome indefinitely. Families that are not putting in the ‘reps’ to provide on-going acceleration and support are tapping banks of family good will that will run dry.
Accordingly, a family would be well served to poll itself to determine if there is a consensus desire to continue, to be candid in its answers, and willing to respond to what the data says. For some families, the correct output of this dialogue may be to engage in a process of ‘conscious uncoupling’ to ape the celebrity divorce term. Far better for a family to soberly determine that there is neither the desire, nor will to become a generative family and choose a path of dissolution, than to have such a decision forced upon it.
A family that consciously uncouples may be able to preserve relational integrity, allowing existing generations to continue to be family. Far too often, divergence in vision combined with the failure to build a culture that is able to adapt to difference of viewpoint, results in the only path forward for a family being a litigious one.
Just as the Hippocratic Oath instructs doctors to first not actually harm the patient, families need a similar commitment that the first thing is the integrity and continuation of the relational integrity of the family. No family is perfect (nor is any member that composes the family) – the question is if the dysfunction present confined at a manageable level? Manageable dysfunction allows shared meals, story telling, and family traditions – all critical components necessary for the flourishing of future generations in a world marked by impermanence and accelerating change.
If the family does not see a path forward as a generative group, walking away still able to talk to each other is a far more preferable outcome than continuing full steam ahead until the train runs off the rails.