The final season of “Succession” offers the latest exploits of patriarch Logan Roy as he gleefully takes on one after another of his children who might carry on the family business. Patriarchs who long to retain their importance in the family business and keep the family focused on them can learn from Roy’s wisdom. His story highlights the many benefits that family conflict can provide.
Lesson 1: A good family feud can help build and sustain a family enterprise. At its best, it keeps the business in the headlines and increases its name recognition. Closer to home, it grabs the attention of all family members and motivates them to keep in touch with each other. And there’s nothing like a good fight to stimulate the adrenaline and give folks a reason to come into the office. Furthermore, as Logan knows, fighting offers many benefits to patriarchs by continually reinforcing their superiority and irreplaceability. A wise patriarch is aware that he is in a win/lose battle with his children over the business, and he never wants to lose! Continual family conflict and uncertainty help him always come up a winner.
While some family feuds are bound to occur naturally, the savvy business owner can guarantee they happen by taking some simple steps. To begin with, you need to plant the seeds of conflict years in advance. Sigmund Freud taught us that sibling rivalry is universal and a given, but it can be heightened and helped along with the right patriarchal behavior. Start by fostering an atmosphere of intense competition, and don’t intervene when things get rough. This helps breed a competitive spirit and will toughen the next generation to fight hard for the prize—not knowing that you, the patriarch, will make sure they can never win.
Now and then, of course, you might want to reward winners. But don’t declare a winner too soon if you want to spur them on when they enter the business and keep your own position safe and secure. It’s also best to never let your children know how you feel about them or what you want from them. Keep such matters vague and open. If they don’t know what you expect or where you stand, they will work harder.
Should your children begin to battle over what is fair or what they want or expect, it’s best to avoid having them all sit down together to work things out. Such talks can get ugly and upset everyone. They can also lead to the kind of coalitions and cooperation that could threaten your control. Instead, take each of your children aside individually to reassure them that they are right but not to tell the others.
The wise patriarch knows that emotions and personal communication are dangerous and ambiguous. So make sure that your acceptance of your children is always expressed in business or financial terms. For example, if they are upset about something in their work, give them a better title or a bonus. And if one of your kids needs money, give them a make-work project that enables them to do as little as possible. But keep these special favors secret so others won’t get upset.
Another way to keep conflict alive is to plant unrealistic expectations in your children. Praise their abilities and talents to the sky and tell them they can do anything they want. Then make sure they don’t have any real responsibilities or accountability in the business. Let them know there will always be a place for them in the family enterprise, and don’t let any of your employees evaluate them harshly—that’s your job—to motivate them to improve. On the other hand, if you want to deliver bad news to them, have an employee or advisor do it. That keeps you above the fray and keeps them away from you.
A smart patriarch knows that secrecy is the milk of conflict. Maintain it at all costs. Don’t share what’s on your mind, and don’t share what you know about the business. Keep secret deals secret so they can’t be undermined by others. Make sure you are the only one who has a full picture of what’s going on. This allows your children to maintain their preferred fantasy about the future and keeps them in line.
Give benefits randomly and secretly, without rhyme or reason. Research has shown that rats who get intermittent rewards keep coming back for more. And if you get your offspring to expect the business to meet their every need, the stage is set for resentment when they find out that there isn’t, in fact, enough for everyone to get what they want.
“Succession” offers excellent examples of how to destroy family harmony. To ensure a real horse race among your children, stay neutral, don’t reveal whom you’re rooting to lead, and keep changing your mind when one of them disappoints you. Encourage competition and rivalry, which are sure to bring out the best in sons. Daughters, however, are a special case. They are your little girls and need to be protected from competition, even if they have earned professional degrees and hold important positions at a bank or law firm. You may espouse equality, but deep down you know that boys and girls should be treated differently. And never forget that in a family argument, compromise is seen as weakness. You want to see winners and losers, not some kind of wimpy peace.
Despite saying you never want to sell the business, conflicts you instigated may rise to a level where you feel forced to sell it, showing once and for all that your children are simply not up to the task. Then you can further prove you are the boss by spending the money from the sale on a superyacht or giving it all away. Either choice lets you show how totally disappointed you are in your kids and punishes them for not living up to your expectations, unstated as they were.
If you’re lucky, someone will write a book about your family, or you will be invited onto talk shows to brag about what you did. You can then tell the world about your heroic efforts and how your offspring just weren’t able to live up to their legacy. You are the last king, bowing out on your own terms. Your children can pick up the pieces.
That’s the world reflected by the actions of Logan Roy. And while we can laugh at how over the top his practices are, the truth is that such behavior is far from uncommon, despite being a disaster for everyone involved—as well as the family business. “Succession” clearly shows us the many ways that patriarchs can instigate distress and conflict. What may be good for them is a tragedy for their children. And what’s a formula for success in a TV show is a formula for failure in real life.
NOTE: A version of this article was first published in Family Business Magazine in Spring, 1998. The author has also written many serious articles on how to avoid and mediate family conflict.
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