Every family business has a business family sitting behind it, BUT: family business makes no sense – because what makes for a great business generally conflicts with what makes families happy. This fundamental dichotomy can produce an all-conquering family team, conflict-infused relationships, or something in-between.
Families get very confused – families are supposed to be places of love, respect, nurture, support, growth, happiness, and trust – where parents are expected to love, lead, support, and keep everyone safe. When this isn’t happening, it challenges our faith in how we believe the world should operate.
If the nominally dominant male is creating problems for some or all family members, are they acting as Dad, Patriarch, or Monster – and why does it matter, which?
The classic Patriarch is an autocratic, male family leader. In the world of family business, they also lead the family’s business operations and activities. Patriarchs are supposed to be stern, wise, and fair in their family and business dealings.
“Dad” is an informal name for a father, derived from baby talk. The traditional Dad’s role is that of physical provider and protector, where “Mum” provides emotional support and nurture. In a modern family context, sexual differentiation is less important than the division of labour and functional responsibilities.
Dad’s role in a family doesn’t translate well into a business org. chart. There’s no role for a Dad in a well-run business, even if a male individual has a clutch of sons and daughters working there. The Dad person should have clear commercial responsibilities towards anyone working in the business, including family members, which they should discharge in a businesslike manner. Of course, as soon as they’re off the premises, they can be Dad again.
Hence the old joke: From behind the desk, “Son, as your boss, I have bad news – you’re fired from this business.” Back at home, “Son, as your father, I’ve heard your bad news – how can I help, outside the business?”
So, what’s happening when a senior male does things that dismay family members and employees, damages the family, and adversely impacts the business? Is he just being a difficult Dad, or a demanding Patriarch, or has he broken under the strain of leading the family and the business, to become a Ruthless Monster?
Loving Dads are revered as supportive fathers who prioritise family safety and well-being above all else. They understand the importance of healthy family dynamics – encouraging reflective self-awareness, open and honest communication, emotional resilience, and constructive problem-solving. Loving Dads create family cultures where everyone feels valued and heard.
Admired Patriarchs work tirelessly to build successful businesses – to secure financial stability and create a legacy for future generations. They encourage personal growth, both inside and outside the family business, and take pride in seeing their children becoming happier and more successful than themselves.
Patriarchs recognise the importance of work-life balance, especially work commitments vs. family time. They create cultures where everyone knows where things are going, and what’s expected of them on the journey. They provide excellent role models for their children – demonstrating values including strong ethics, principled work practices, empathic leadership, perseverance, and integrity.
Admired Patriarchs are natural mentors – providing guidance and wisdom to their children as they navigate their own paths through life, and within the business.
Monsters come in 2 flavours: (1) Ruthlessly Rational and (2) Irrationally Ruthless (where “ruthless” means harsh, cruel, and dispassionate).
Ruthlessly Rational Monsters prioritise their own material success over the well-being of individual family members, the family as a whole, and/or the future success of their family enterprise. Their relentless pursuit of personal success encourages increasingly immoral behaviour as they age, including failure to honour succession promises that they perceive would reduce their power and control over both their families and their businesses.
Ruthlessly Rational Monsters create toxic work and family environments through their lack of empathic understanding of what drives others and the creation of cultures of fear, mutual suspicion, confusion, envy, low trust, and stress.
Irrationally Ruthless Monsters have lost the plot (assuming they ever knew what the plot was). They’re usually, but not necessarily, 70+ years old and their monsterhood is driven by major personal insecurities including: loss of status, image, and relevance, fear of failure as a human, and/or as a family or business leader.
They cannot face, much less overcome the perceived void of life after work and are willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to fill the black hole before them to secure their own safety and survival.
Irrationally Ruthless Monsters create toxic family environments by putting family members down, creating family cliques and conflicts, inconsistent and interfering micro-management, and by stifling creativity and innovation both within the family and the family business. These negative behaviours inevitably result in resentment, strained relationships, and lack of motivation among family members and employees.
Monsters prioritise their own egos and personal gains above the collective success of their families, and their family businesses. They usually refuse to delegate authority, or share decision-making authority – all of which render them incapable of making wise decisions, when they’re most needed.
Whether someone is Dad, Admired Patriarch, or Ruthless Monster” is seldom easily answered. We could say “it depends”, but that doesn’t help.
Perceptions are subjective: different family members will have contrasting experiences and viewpoints, depending on their roles within the business and their personal relationships with the patriarch.
Objective observations of actual actions and behavioural trends, measured and assessed against informed norms, are probably the best way to understand and respond to serious decisions and actions (or lack of same) that are damaging individuals, the family, and/or the family business.
Ideally, there’s an Uncle Bob in the family that everybody trusts to fix the problem. If not, trusted external advisers may be able to help. It’s highly unlikely the family will be able to agree what’s going wrong, or what needs to be done.