Emotional Leadership in the Family Business
3rd February 2021
A year ago I was in Madrid for the yearly conference of European Family Businesses, the institution that represents family businesses in Europe.
During the event a family member who had just started working for the family business told me “I need to demonstrate to my father, to my family, my worthiness. To the employees in the company, that I’m more than the son of the owner of the company, willing to work more than anyone to be respected. I need to demonstrate to myself that I can find my own identity and authenticity, without disappointing my family on the expectations they have set for me”.
All of this hard to deal with for any individual, and difficult to share with others, when everyone around you sees you as privileged. The initial years working for the family business are always tough, because they combine a mixture of desire to fulfill family expectations with the need to find personal and authentic leadership.
Family business and emotions: why do they matter?
Often we ask ourselves why it is so difficult to enable change in family businesses; and why we avoid taking decisions even when we know they are necessary. In many occasions, we avoid dealing with key issues because we think they will bring conflict, and because we tend to associate conflict with separation, we fear it will disrupt family unity.
Leadership of a family business is an emotional process which can create stress and uncertainty. This makes leaders postpone certain decisions. However, if we never find the time to discuss the problem, it will remain there. In many occasions the issues escalate to bigger ones and might be inherited by next generation. As family members and as shareholders of the business, this might create a sense of frustration, around a problem which might be essential to the continuity of the business.
Understanding the family system
First of all, we need to understand and be aware of which are our “family patterns”: how we are relating to each other, and how we are dealing with emotions within our own family. These unique patterns depend on the behaviour of previous and current generations. Being aware of what happened in the past and what is happening now from a neutral place is the initial step.
To become an observer of the family system, we first need to develop self-awareness, and be aware of what we want in our lives. We need to work on our individuality and emotional independence.
That’s the only way to become more neutral and be able to observe with objectivity what it is going on in our family.
The second step is to be willing and ready to lead positively on the challenges and change needed in the family business.
It becomes very important that we educate ourselves not only in a technical way, but emotionally. When we are able to distance ourselves, observe and confront the issues, we start communicating less reactively and more assertively; we have acquired more resources to progress. If we become aware of the light at the end of the tunnel and we start working on a share vision of the family business, this will generate new strength and motivation that will move us from individual to common interests as a family in business. For all of this, we do need family leaders that move for the common good of the family and are capable of leading this process.
What do we need to develop as shareholders - family leaders?
The leader is the individual that walks the talk. The leader is capable of listening, understanding others empathically and communicate assertively. From generosity and openness, the leader works constantly towards a collective vision and interest, generating trust in the others. This path will only be successful if there’s a common project in which every individual has a role and success will be everyone’s. In this process, full of learnings and difficulties, we learn how to grow as a family in business gaining strength, confidence and capacity. We will transform frustration from not taking decisions, in meaningful change that will allow us to progress as a Family in Business.
Borja is an executive coach in the IESE Business School (Barcelona), where he works with high level international directors. He is also a visiting Professor at IE Business School (Madrid) and ESADE Business School (Barcelona). He combines this activity with that of shareholder (16th generation) of Raventós Codorniu, a company with over 460 years and considered the oldest family business in Spain and one of the oldest in the world. He was a member of its Board of Directors for over 8 years.