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The Single Worst Question to Ask in Family Legacy—Part I

There’s one question that’s a killer when it comes to preserving family legacy. I’m not going to delay it. I’ll get right to it.

It goes like this: Why can’t you be like me?

This single question prompts more misunderstanding and breeds more mistrust than any other single question. Let me explain.

The question starts with a presumption: Your personality is different from mine, but mine is better, so you should be like me. More bluntly, it assumes, “I’m better than you, so be like me.” Those statements bear some explanation.

Personality is how a person is wired. Personality is not inherently good or bad. It just is. The Bible describes that “we are fearfully and wonderfully made” and that I was “knit together” in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139.13-14).

Misplaced expectations

Let’s describe it more real to life. Let’s assume you have the patriarch of the family who founded the family business. Often the characteristics of the founder include visionary leadership traits. Those visionary traits, which make the founding of the business possible, are part of his personality. They are hard wired.

Let’s assume that patriarch has two sons. His first son is highly detailed, conscientious but presently pragmatic. He’s not a visionary. He’s wired to be an engineer or CPA. The second son is a creative, people-oriented person. He loves to be around people and create things—he’s an artist.

At face value, none of these traits are good or bad. The dysfunction enters when the dad is looking for a next leader of the company. He may unnecessarily conscript the sons into the business. But the high-detail, pragmatic son is not wired to lead a group of people or drive the company forward. Similarly, son No. 2, the artist, may feel suffocated in the day-to-day discipline of running the company.

And it becomes the crazy cycle. The dad wonders why the sons can’t be like him. The sons wonder why the dad can’t back off and let them be. The harder they push, the deeper the divide—and ultimately separation.

As I write, it occurs to me I’ve described many family business situations I’ve seen. Have you seen similar ones? Please feel free to share them here.

How do you end the crazy cycle? Look for my next blog.

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About Bill High

Bill is CEO of the Signatry: A Global Christian Foundation. He works with families, individual givers, and financial advisers to share the foundation’s message regarding biblical generosity and charitable giving. » Learn More. He is the co-author with David Green of Giving It All Away and Getting It All Back Again: The Way of Living Generously.

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