My Family Business: is Mum a Mum, Matriarch, or Monster?

Every family business has a business family sitting behind it, and because family business makes no sense each and every one of them is a vibrant and complicated mix of colliding commercial, financial, relational, and emotional systems.  Sometimes this results in an all-conquering family team, sometimes in a conflict-infused misery and, at all times: an entity that sits somewhere on the spectrum between those two extremes.

Inside the family it’s quite baffling.  Families are “supposed” to be places of love, respect, nurture, and trust – where Mum plays the role of CEO:  Chief Emotional Officer, holding everything, and everyone, together.  Mum is the family’s rock, and everyone climbs onto her when they need safe harbour from life’s shark-infested custard.

So what’s happening when Mum is doing things that dismay family members, destroy the family, and adversely impact the business?

Case Study – Oakheart Family

Successful business in SA with interests in property, manufacturing, and wineries.

Mum is 69, Dad is 72.  3 children:  Donald (42); Micky (40) and Minnie (32).

Donald and Minnie are married, with children.  Micky is a dilettante with no permanent attachments.  Donald and Micky work in the family business in vaguely-defined, seriously over-paid roles.  Minnie is on maternity leave from her psychology practice.  She’s been receiving therapy for the past 15 years.

Mum had a privileged and beautiful childhood, until she didn’t.  When she was a teenager the father she adored contracted a terminal illness.  Before he died he confessed to living a double life with a secret second family based in another country.  The betrayal destroyed her mother through swift and brutal drug abuse and her family unit collapsed as soon as her father died.

As a result she has no trust in people and, in the early days of the business, stuck like glue to Dad on his frequent business trips, leaving her young children in the care of nannies employed for a few days or weeks at a time.  No matter how well the children got on with them, the nannies were all dismissed on her return, through fear of having a competitor for her children’s affection.

To this day, all of Mum’s emotional energy is spent on self-protection, leaving very little for her children, other than loudly declared good intentions.

Dad is a driven entrepreneur who’s always shown more concern for his business than for any of his children.  Charismatic and charming, but remote and emotionally constipated, he projects expectations none of his children could possibly achieve.  This makes him a distant and feared father-figure, and an awful boss for the 2 sons who followed him into the family business.

What is Mum doing?

  1. Favouritism: Mum has always appeared to favour Micky over the others, probably because he’s the carefree soul she wishes she could be. Her overt favouritism has created tensions and resentments within the family, for many years.
  2. Protection: Micky’s lack of focus, application, and resilience screams “vulnerability” to a mother who’s emotionally fragile, herself. She’s always been overly protective of this “bird with a broken wing” – maintaining Micky’s dependence on her by reinforcing his awareness of his own lack of worth.  Micky’s siblings have resented this for years.
  3. Control (1): Mum is a micromanager of the first order and the 2 boys have almost no practical problem-solving or domestic skills as a result. Her powerfully overbearing manner is used as a protective shield to prevent anyone from sensing her inner fragility.
  4. Control (2): Although she has no official role in the business, Mum exerts considerable control over its operations, through Dad. Being risk averse this has limited business growth and development, frustrated executive staff, and repressed family members working in the business.
  5. Emotional Baggage: Mum’s decision-making for the family and the business is more often based on her own emotional baggage than on what’s best for those affected by her decisions. This makes her motives hard to understand and even harder to overcome.
  6. Emotional Manipulation: Having no formal authority, and living with a rampant entrepreneur, made Mum an expert emotional Manipulator. She plays individuals off against each other, on a reactive basis, causing senior employees and family members to feel they must constantly change positions as Mum’s needs and moods change.
  7. Emotional absence: Mum’s egocentric thinking and poor emotional intelligence deny her any realistic appreciation of her children’s character, abilities, and emotional needs.  Her emotional absence makes the collective family dynamic flow more like a washing machine than a river.  Nobody except Dad is emotionally grounded, and all things emotional exhaust him, so there’s no solid bedrock anywhere in the family.  All 3 adult children are on, or have been on, suicide watch at some stage.
  8. Lacks Boundaries: Mum makes no effort to separate family from business in her thinking, which often leads to inappropriate behaviours and bad decisions.
  9. Interference: Mum has good intentions but poor judgement when she interferes in relationships and interactions between family members working in the business, creating another cause of tension and conflict.
  10. Inflexibility: Mum knows everything – age and lack of intellectual curiosity made this Mum highly suspicious of new ideas and resistant to change. Powerfully projected disapproval of any form of innovation limits growth and development in both the family and the business.

Is Mum a Mum, a Matriarch, or a Monster?

Short answer: it depends.  At different times she can be one, two, or all three characters.

Biologically, she’s always Mum, although emotionally, this Mum doesn’t tick all standard requirements for an ideal Mum.  She holds the CEO title in the family, but instead of acting as the family’s emotional rock, she acts more like an emotional landslide.

Practically, this Mum is a Matriarch, being a female person who actively directs the family and its business by wielding assumed and ascribed power over them.

Realistically, she’s also a Monster, being a creature that acts unnaturally to inflict pain and suffering on others (whether by intent, or unconsciously).


The Oakheart family’s attitudes, positions, and behaviours are so deeply entrenched it will take a lot of effort to make significant changes, especially while Mum and Dad are alive.

After their passing it’s highly likely the family will disintegrate, with negative connotations for the family’s business interests unless good succession plans are in place in good time. These may not allocate business leadership roles to any family members.

A deep unravelling of each individual’s psyche (emotional narrative) is required, to feed into a plan for the future that includes genuine commitments to change current behaviours, roles, and responsibilities along more constructive lines.  Individual coaching and counselling will almost certainly be needed.

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