A new theory of family business rivalry

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By Jim Grote (jimgrote@hotmail.com)

Published in Family Business Review 16, no. 2 (June 2003)

(article can also be accessed at www.ffi.org)

Anthropologist Rene Girard’s theory of triangular desire and modeling makes a major contribution

to the theory of family business rivalry, especially when understood within the context of Ivan

Lansberg’s theory of succession planning and mentoring. In Girard’s theory, human desire is

always dependent on the desire of an envied model. The dependent nature of desire inevitably

leads to the double bind conflict between parent-child and employer-employee, making succession

planning particularly troublesome. Lansberg’s theory of mentoring provides a practical solution

to this timeless conflict.

Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world and learns first by imitation.

What you have inherited, you must earn to possess.

Having been raised in a family business and married into another, I am deeply impressed by Ivan Lansberg’s pioneering study, Succeeding Generations: Realizing the Dream of Families in Business. If the two family businesses I observed from within the family perspective had spent time working through the process described by Lansberg, they might still be in business today. Unfortunately they both fell victim to the sad statistics that Craig Aronoff observes may not be so bleak when viewed from an “evolutionary” perspective. “30% of family businesses make it to the second generation, 10-15% make it to the third generation and 3-5% make it to the fourth generation” (Aronoff, 1999, p. 1). The bleak aspect is not the statistics per se, but the all too predictable human behavior that generates these statistics. As my father told me after I had married into another family business, “It looks like everything is pretty much the same . . . only the names have changed.”

Family business failure is not only statistically predictable, but also culturally universal. In his global family business consulting practice, James Hughes discovered that the American “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” has its foreign counterparts (Hughes, 1997, p. 5). The Chinese have a similar proverb, “rice paddy to rice paddy in three generations.” And the Irish proverb, “clogs to clogs in three generations,” makes the same dire forecast. Hughes learned from his father that the cause of this intergenerational wealth meltdown was rarely due to poor financial practices. Instead, family businesses “most often fail because of poor long-term succession planning” (Hughes, 1997, p. 3). Several other studies come to the same conclusion (cf. studies cited by Ibrahim, Soufani & Lam, 2001, p. 246).

The purpose of this paper is to analyze, from a psychological perspective, why so many family businesses fail at succession and to suggest remedies. I do this first, by introducing a provocative theory of family rivalry (as articulated by Rene Girard) that may be unfamiliar to family business researchers and practitioners working from within a social science methodology. Second, I suggest that mentoring (as articulated by Ivan Lansberg) is an invaluable and often overlooked tool in the succession planning process. While Lansberg’s masterly analysis more than justifies his “optimistic perspective on [succession] planning” in the face of grim family business statistics, his theory of mentoring can be strengthened by the work of French anthropologist and literary critic, Rene Girard (Lansberg, 1999; Girard, 1977). This two-fold purpose will be articulated in four steps: (1) an introduction to Girard’s theory of rivalry, (2) the examination of Girard’s theory in light of triangulation theory, (3) the articulation of the double bind at the heart of family business succession planning, and (4) the proposal of Lansberg’s mentoring theory as a solution to that double bind.

Rene Girard’s Theory of Borrowed Desire

Girard finds clues to human rivalry through the examination of ancient and modern texts in much that same way that archaeologists find clues to human origins in the study of ancient and modern artifacts. While his methodology focuses on the textual analysis popular in the humanities, his conclusions have enormous practical applications in the social sciences. His reputation has rivaled that of Sartre in France and his thought is gaining popularity in the United States where he has spent his life teaching, first at John Hopkins University and then at Stanford University (Girard, 1996).

For Girard, ancient texts reveal a wealth of information about family rivalry. Family business conflicts pale in comparison to the intergenerational strife described in the classic Greek tragedies. In Aeschylus’ Agememnon, Agememnon sacrifices his own daughter in order to gain favor from the gods during the Trojan war, with the ultimate goal of rescuing his brother’s wife, Helen. His jealous wife, upset about both Helen and her daughter, murders Agememnon in the family bathtub upon his return from the war. In Sophocles’ famous Oedipus Rex, Oedipus unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, leading to further violence within the family. And in Euripides’ Medea, Medea’s jealous rage against her faithless husband leads her to punish her husband in the most hideous way she can imagine – by murdering their children. No one can deny that the ancient Greeks took their family rivalries seriously.

Another ancient text, the book of Genesis, provides a virtual running commentary on sibling rivalry and poor succession planning. Cain and Abel are rivals because Cain is jealous of Abel’s favored status in the eyes of God. Consequently, Cain murders Abel. Jacob and Esau are rivals because Jacob is the favorite of their father, Isaac. With the help of his mother, Jacob steals Isaac’s blessing (the equivalent of 51% of voting shares in those days). Joseph and his eleven brothers are at odds because Joseph is their father, Jacob’s, favorite. A lucky sibling, Joseph narrowly escapes the murderous plots of his older brothers and later becomes their “boss.” For Girard, these texts disclose the fundamental role of jealousy in human relations.

Jealousy is inevitable because human desire is inherently imitative. Students of Girard compare his analysis of imitation (mimesis) in the social sciences to Newton's discovery of gravity in the physical sciences.

Taking as a model the theory of universal gravitation in physics, let us propose the hypothesis that there is a single principle at the foundation of all the human sciences: universal mimesis. In both psychology and sociology, the most basic and elementary manifestation of this principle is the force of attraction that draws people together and determines their interest in one another. Should the science of psychology wish to pursue this analogy to physics, it could be said that the mimesis between two individuals is the force of attraction that each simultaneously exerts on the other and submits to. This force is proportional to the mass, as it were, of each and inversely proportional to the distance between them (Oughourlian, 1991, p. 3).

Girard refers to this phenomenon by many names -- metaphysical desire, mimetic desire, triangular desire, borrowed desire, second-hand desire. To show its affinity to the business world, I prefer the financial metaphor of borrowed desire (Grote & McGeeney, 1997).

The central fact about borrowed desire is its triangular structure, the classic example being adultery. In Dostoyevsky’s short story, The Eternal Husband, the tormented protagonist is a man fascinated (i.e. attracted and repelled) by his wife's lovers. The fact that other men desire his wife makes the wife more desirable in the husband's eyes. The desire of the lovers validates the desire of the husband; he borrows the desire of other men to reaffirm that he made the right choice in marriage. At the same time, he obviously resents them (Girard, 1997).

Another simple example of borrowed desire is from the nursery. Place a certain number of identical toys in a room with the same number of children and odds are that the toys will not be distributed without quarrels. If you observe small children with their older siblings, it becomes readily apparent that these little creatures are mimetic machines. Imitation is the soul of early childhood development. Through imitation children learn to react, relate, speak, play, etc. When adults fail to find their niche in life or their Dream, they remain like children imitating the actions of the adults that surround them. Lansberg, following Levinson (Levinson, 1978, pp. 90ff. & 245ff.), defines the Dream as “a vision of the kind of life an individual wishes to lead that shapes his or her goals” (Lansberg, 1999, p. 77).

To the extent that people are unsure what will make them happy, they tend to

experiment with their desire by focusing (often unconsciously) on objects that other people

already desire. Desire is contagious; people catch it like a cold. The erotic Gucci advertisements for Envy perfume portray this contagion of desire in pictures worth a thousand words. In fact, the entire advertising industry is founded on the exploitation of borrowed desire. According to advertising guru, Jerry Thomas:

Advertising can create a model people wish to identify with and imitate. The modeling instinct is one of the most powerful impulses in the psyche. Children model after their parents. Employees model after their bosses. We all imitate people we admire. Advertising can create images that trigger the modeling instinct. The Marlboro Man is a classic example of a psychological archetype people have chosen to identify with in cigarette brand choice (Thomas, 1996, p. 29).

Advertising works because the structure of human desire is mimetic. How else could one

account for the old “pet rock” craze? A pet rock has value solely because others desire it.

Bond trader turned financial columnist, Michael Lewis, cleverly describes this phenomenon in his account of the 1980s world of Wall Street investment banking, Liar’s Poker. Lewis' apprenticeship in securing a job at Salomon Brothers is a casebook study of borrowed desire.

A managing director grew interested [in a trainee] only if he be­lieved you were widely desired. Then there was a lot in you for him. A managing director won points when he spirited away a popular trainee from other managing directors. The approach of many a trainee, therefore, was to create the illusion of desirabil­ity. Then bosses wanted him, not for any sound reason, but sim­ply because other bosses wanted him. The end result was a sort of chain-letter scheme of personal popularity that had its paral­lels in the markets. A few weeks into the training program I made a friend on the trading floor, though not in the area in which I wanted to work. That friend pressed me to join his de­partment. I let other trainees know that I was pursued. They told their friends on the trading floor, who in turn became curious. Eventually, the man I wanted to work for overheard others talk­ing about me and asked me to breakfast (Lewis, 1989, p. 43).

Since desire is contagious, it naturally generates other triangles. This is literally how "markets" are formed, how objects that were previously not desired become desired. The menage a trois is the perfect image of the market.
The Family Systems Theory of Triangulation

For those not enamored of Girard’s literary or textual approach, more empirical studies exist regarding the overwhelming influence of imitation and triangulation in human behavior. Regarding imitation, two studies from a business perspective are particularly enlightening. In Managing Imitation Strategies: How Later Entrants Seize Markets from Pioneers (1994), marketing professor Steven Schnaars analyzes dozens of cases in product development where imitators like Sunbeam, Samsung, Pepsi and Budweiser beat out innovators like Cuisinart (food processors), Tappan (microwave ovens), Royal Crown (diet drinks) and Rheingold’s Gablinger’s (lite beer). The reason? Imitation is cheaper than innovation. In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), Malcolm Gladwell analyzes the “contagious behavior” endemic to consumer impulses (from buying Hush Puppies to cigarettes, and even suicide). From a more scientific perspective, in The Imitation Factor: Evolution Beyond the Gene (2000), biologist Lee Alan Dugatkin shows how the imitation of one individual by another (in any species) is a fundamental natural force that explains the evolution of animal and human societies. And, Paisley Livingston translates Girard’s imitation theory into the language of cognitive psychology in Models of Desire: Rene Girard and the Psychology of Mimesis (1992).

Regarding triangulation, Girard’s theory of desire is complemented by studies in the area of family systems research. After referencing several of these studies, Lansberg describes triangulation as the tendency for a “two-person emotional system under stress to form a three-person system” (Lansberg, 1999, p. 348). A third person is “triangled in” to alleviate the tension between the original pair. The Family Firm Institute’s case study, “What Can Nigel Do?” describes this process. The study focuses on the stress of a general manager, Nigel, who found himself “triangled” into the stormy relationship of two married co-owners of a gourmet foods catering service. As their relationship deteriorated Sara and Jeff began to communicate to each other solely through Nigel (Family Firm Institute, 2002a).

O ne comprehensive study of triangulation is Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve, which devotes an entire chapter to “Emotional Triangles” (Friedman, 1999, pp. 261-283). Friedman builds on the work of his teacher, Murray Bowen, who originally developed the value-neutral concept of triangulation (cf. Bowen, 1978). According to Friedman, it is possible that there is no such thing as a two-person relationship. Two people only connect through the mediation of an unseen third person, relationship or issue. Like Girard’s description of the eternal husband, Friedman finds adultery to be the archetypal form of triangulation. The married partner who is “triangled out” wields enormous power over the stability of the extra-marital relationship simply by his or her own reaction to that relationship. The jilted spouse can stabilize the extra-marital relationship by playing the victim or destabilize it by playing the mediator.

However archetypal adultery may be, Friedman observes, “it is in the family business that the concept of interlocking triangles may be both most enlightening and most helpful” (Friedman, 1999, p. 275). One of the major jobs of family business consultants is to dilute such classic triangles as the “CEO/V.P./V.P.” triangle or the “manager/subordinate/superior” triangle or the “manager/job/family” triangle. As will be described in the final section of this paper, mentoring by nonfamily members is an important tool in diluting triangles formed by anxiety over succession.

Friedman’s description of triangle formation is both similar to and different from Girard’s. According to Friedman, triangles form because of the inherent instability of two-person relationships, particularly when one of three factors is present: (1) a lack of differentiation of the partners, (2) the degree of chronic anxiety in the surrounding emotional atmospheres and (3) the absence of well-defined leadership in the system (Friedman, 1999, p. 265). All three factors appear clearly in the Nigel case study. Girard likewise observes that a lack of differentiation among individuals in any group leads to a social crisis (Girard, 1977, pp. 49-51). However, in family systems theory, the third party stabilizes (or destabilizes) the relationship of the original two parties. But, in Girardian theory, the two other parties generate the desire of the third party. Girard contributes a new dimension to family systems theory. In family systems theory, triangles are coping strategies for a relationship under stress. In Girard’s theory, triangles are foundational to the construction of a self under stress.

Girard’s theory connects the phenomena of imitation and triangulation. Simply put, by borrowing someone else's desire, people obtain a self-sufficiency that they lack. The phrase "get a life" aptly describes the mimetic process. One sure way to get a life is to borrow someone else's. The structure of borrowed desire involves a triangle of:

1. the object of desire,

2. the self or subject who desires the object, and

3. the model who elicits the subject's desire for the object of desire in the first place.

The structure of desire looks like this:

object of desire
model subject

Within this structure, whenever people borrow desire, they remain in debt to the model of that desire. The desiring subject is the debtor and the model is the creditor. The subject "owes" his or her desire to the model for it is the model that attracts the interest of the subject in the first place. And, like all creditors, the model cannot resist the urge to charge "interest" on this desire. Like deficit spending, borrowed desire produces instant results, but more somber long-range consequences.

One such consequence is the phenomenon of scapegoating, which can be described as a kind of reverse triangle (Grote & McGeeney, 1997, p. 55). While the conflict of the model and subject cannot be resolved by sharing the same object of desire (which is the source of the conflict), it may be resolved or at least mitigated by sharing the same object of revulsion – the scapegoat. Hence the following triangle:

Model Subject


In an unconscious act of transference, the frustrated desire of the model and subject find an outlet in an expendable victim who can be blamed for some extraneous problem, thus temporarily eclipsing the inexplicable conflict between model and subject. This same scapegoat function within emotional triangles is explicitly recognized in the family systems literature.

Double Bind Theory and Succession Planning

This strange movement from imitative desire to accusatory desire is best explained by the theory of the double bind. According to Girard, since desire is mediated by the desire of another, conflict is built into the structure of desire. The model's attitude toward the subject is highly ambivalent. Although flattered by the imitation, the model is protective of his or her desire. What if the subject's desire is stronger than the model's desire, and the subject ends up with the coveted object of the model's desire? While the "eternal husband" is flattered by other men's attentions to his wife, what happens when his wife is equally flattered? Similarly, the subject’s attitude toward the model is ambivalent. The subject both admires and resents the model’s prestige.

Borrowed desire breeds rivalry between model and subject to the extent that they become co-dependent on each other’s desire. As Girard says:

Rivalry does not arise because of the fortuitous convergence of two desires on a single object; rather, the subject desires the ob­ject because the rival [model] desires it. In desiring an object the rival [model] alerts the subject to the desirability of the object (Girard, 1977, p. 145).

The dynamics of borrowed desire are ultimately self-defeating. In a family business the sibling’s desire to be “like Dad” (or Mom) is unachievable for two reasons. One, several siblings share the same desire. And two, the parent is both a model and an obstacle to the strivings of the siblings. Regarding the second issue, borrowed desire creates a conflict that the psychiatrist Gregory Bateson refers to as the "double bind" (Bateson, 1972). The double bind is a "contradictory double imperative" that the model imposes on the imitator. Embedded in the bind are two commands: (a) "Imitate me! Desire what I desire!" and (b) "Don't imitate me! Don't appropriate my object!" (Girard, 1977, p. 147). In the adulterous triangle of the Eternal Husband, the husband both encourages and repels the attentions of his wife's lovers. He is trapped because he cannot find his wife desirable unless other men find her desirable.

Freud's famous Oedipus Complex reflects the same double bind. The Oedipal triangle consists of mother, son, and father. Anthropologists have questioned the universality of Freud's Oedipus Complex for decades. But, whereas Freud emphasizes the content of the Oedipus Complex (the mother as sexual object), Girard em­phasizes the mimetic process (on the content/process distinction, cf. Hilburt-Davis, 1995). The son's natural identification with his father puts him in a "double bind." He must imitate his father in order to mature, and he must not imitate his father in order to mature. The son's super-ego tells him: "You ought to be like this (like your father)." The son's super-ego also tells him: "You may not be like this (like your father) -- that is, you may not do all that he does; some things are his prerogative" (Freud, 1961, p. 34). Like gravity, mimesis is both a force of attraction and repulsion, hence the double bind. Imitation begins in innocent apprenticeship, progresses to obsession, and graduates to conflict.

The double bind also forms the heart of employer-employee relations. Like the Oedipus Complex, what might be termed the Management Complex describes the human ambivalence towards authority figures (Grote & McGeeney, 1997). Consider the triangle of the Management Complex:

Boss Employee

The boss is both the ticket to the top and the major obstacle to the employee's promotion or success. Similarly, a productive employee helps the boss climb the ladder, whereas an unproductive employee reflects poorly on the boss. The relationship between boss and employee contains as much ambivalence as the relationship of parent and offspring. And in a family business, the parties must endure both complexes. No wonder Friedman finds the family business to be the ideal laboratory for the study of triangulation.

As in the relationship of parent and child in the Oedipus Complex, the employee must imitate the boss in order to succeed, and the employee must not imitate the boss in order to succeed. Like the parent to the child, the boss is constantly sending out double-messages to the employee: "Be assertive. Don't be assertive." "Take initiative. Don't make a mistake." "Make me look good. Don't upstage me." "Take risks. Follow the rules."

Lansberg acknowledges the powerful effect the double bind can have in families and in family businesses. “In some families, the clash of powerful and contradictory messages from parents can entrap children in a double bind – a paradoxical form of communication that is relatively common in families and, in extreme cases, is associated with serious family dysfunction” (Lansberg, 1999, p. 161). Girard argues that the double bind, far from being limited to severe pathological cases, is an extremely common phenomenon. “If fact, it is so common that it might be said to form the basis of all human relationships” (Girard, 1977, p. 147).

To the parent-boss not secure in his or her own Dream (his or her own desire), the double bind is particularly intense. As Lansberg/Levinson describe it (Lansberg, 1999, p. 166; Levinson, 1978, p. 255):

If he [the parent-boss] feels he has lost or betrayed his own Dream, he may find it hard to give

wholehearted support and blessing to the Dreams of young adults. When his offspring show signs of failure or confusion in pursuing their adult goals, he is afraid that their lives will turn out as badly as his own. Yet when they do well, he may resent their success.

Elsewhere, Lansberg (1999, p. 202) notes, “many seniors [parent-bosses] are reluctant to empower members of the next generation because doing so implies they eventually must move out of the way and turn over control to them.”

These double messages make succession planning particularly difficult. It should be emphasized that the problem in “passing the baton” is always a two-way street. “Most studies attribute the lack of succession planning to factors related to the founder, whereas few studies focus on the offspring and factors related to their competence and involvement in the family business” (Ibrahim, Soufani & Lam, 2001, p. 246). However, to the extent that parent and child (or boss and employee) reinforce each other’s desire, they are both responsible for the conflict. The child usually complains that the parent encourages him or her to take charge but won’t let go control. However, the parent can legitimately complain that the kids want all the glory without the headaches. Furthermore, the parent in transition toward retirement may want to let go control, but has a reasonable concern to remain useful.

The double bind is not only a threat to the family side of family businesses (i.e. the successful transfer of power from one generation to the next), but also to the business side of family businesses (i.e. economic productivity). The double bind of the Management Complex bears close resemblance to the popular conundrum known as the Peter Principle. "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his (her) level of incompetence" (Peter & Hull, 1969, p. 26). Employees approach their level of incompetence by struggling to become "like their boss." Like the employee, the boss is also insecure in his or her desire. One of the ways the boss finds reassurance is in the envy of the employees. "I must be on the right track . . . everyone wants to be like me." Even though the desire to be the boss threatens the boss, the lack of this desire is equally threatening. It is an insult to the boss's status if an employee does not aspire to that same status -- or at least appear to. The authors of The Peter Principle emphasize the "paramount importance of concealing the fact that you want to avoid promotion" (Peter & Hull, 1969, p. 153). Indifference to the boss's status is just as dangerous as the craving for the boss's status.

This unproductive behavior of imitating the boss contradicts the simple economic law of the "division of labor." To the extent that everyone in a hierarchy struggles to be the same (to be "like the boss"), the specialization that boosts productivity will suffer. Productive bosses encourage diversity and resist the universal temptation to hire people that are like them. Productive employees may be very different from their bosses and not necessarily equipped to step into their shoes. Lee Iacocca (1984, pp. 141-142) makes a similar observation regarding management ability.

I've never gone along with the idea that all business skills are interchangeable, that the president of Ford could be running any other large corporation just as well. To me, it's like the guy who plays saxophone in a band. One day the conductor says to him: "You're a good musician. Why don't you switch over to the piano?" He says: "Wait a minute. I've been playing the sax for twenty years! I don't know beans about the piano."

The complexity of the double bind does not stop with the frustrations caused by double messages. The conflict itself gradually becomes a focal point for both model and subject. Competitors become obsessed with each other rather than with the "things" they are competing for. In fact, their very rivalry establishes the value of the things they desire. “The ever-increasing price that the buyer is willing to pay is determined by the imaginary desire which he attributes to his rival” (Girard, 1965, p. 6). The degree of struggle encountered in acquiring things is directly proportionate to their value. The heart of capitalism is not materialism, but borrowed desire. As a creative force, competition produces conflict as well as value.

Ivan Lansberg’s Theory of Mentoring

So how is the Management Complex resolved? Often, as mentioned earlier, tension can be mitigated by the scapegoating of expendable employees or weaker family members. But, how can parent-child conflicts and sibling conflicts be channeled into productive paths? If the child resolves the Oedipus Complex by eventually leaving home and successfully establishing a home of his/her own, does this mean that all children raised in family businesses must leave their business-of-origin and start a new business? This is certainly one possibility that Lansberg discusses at length. Families may initiate Venture Capital Funds to encourage this very process. But this still does not solve the problem of business succession; it merely solves the vocational problem of certain family members.

One simple resolution of the problem is to separate family ownership from business management. The classic case study here is that of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and his son. According to James Hughes, “An unrecognized part of the Rockefellers’ success in long-term wealth preservation is the extraordinary act by John Davison Rockefeller, Sr. of not compelling his son to enter the family business. Here is America’s wealthiest man, with only one son, agreeing that the son was not obliged to follow the father’s dreams” (Hughes, 1997, p. 45). John D. Rockefeller, Jr. set up a family office (and instituted the concept of family meetings) in order to serve the wealth management needs of each family member, and then devoted his life to his true interest – philanthropy.

Another profitable business succession strategy is mentoring. Here a comparison of Girard’s thought and Lansberg’s thought is most useful. For Girard, the degree of conflict generated by triangular desire is dependent upon the degree of closeness between the model (i.e. parent or boss) and subject (i.e. child or employee). As was stated at the beginning of this paper, the force of borrowed desire is proportional to the status of each participant and inversely proportional to the distance between them. The closer the relationship, the more bitter the conflict.

Speaking metaphorically, a stable triangle resembles an equilateral triangle where all three sides are of equal distance. The triangle of desire resembles an isosceles triangle where only two sides are equal (Girard, 1965, p. 83). In an isosceles triangle, the conflict between the model and subject increases as the distance between them decreases. As the distance decreases (due to similarity in age or blood relationship, etc.), the “threat” the model feels from the subject’s imitation is increased. For example, a 60 year old parent-boss will feel less pressure from a competent 35 year old child-subordinate than from a competent 55 year old child-subordinate. A sibling-boss will feel less pressure from a much younger sibling than from one closer in age. Or the head of a family business will feel less pressure from a nonfamily vice-president than from a family vice-president – the threat of replacement is less immediate.

According to Girard, this pressure of “closeness” is born out in the pervasive literary theme of “enemy brothers.” As Girard (1977, p. 61) says: “We instinctively tend to regard the fraternal relationship as an affectionate one; yet the mythological, historical, and literary examples that spring to mind tell a different story: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Eteocles and Polyneices, Romulus and Remus, Richard the Lion-Hearted and John Lackland.” Even more threatening than the closeness of fraternal relations is the extreme closeness of twins, especially identical twins. “In some primitive societies twins inspire a particular terror. It is not unusual for one of the twins, and often both, to be put to death. The origin of this terror has long puzzled ethnologists” (Girard, 1977, p. 56). Twins suffer from an extreme lack of differentiation.

Another case study by the Family Firm Institute, “Brawling Brothers,” describes this mythical rivalry in detail. In this case, equal owners (note the lack of differentiation) of a small manufacturing company, Carl (age 64) and Frank (age 59), approach retirement age (succession anxiety). They become openly hostile, to the point of fistfights in front of employees. Furthermore, they triangle Frank’s son into the drama. Interestingly enough, the status of Frank’s son as successor is not spelled out and may well prove to be the primary source of the conflict (Family Firm Institute, 2002b).

A conscious, systematic program of mentoring in a family business goes a long way towards resolving the conflicts generated by unconscious modeling between parents and children, bosses and employees, and siblings. Like Girard, Lansberg (1999, p. 180) observes that people in earlier times were perhaps more perceptive on this issue than we are.

While mentors often play a quasi-parental role vis-à-vis their mentees, the fact that mentors are typically not a parent is assumed to be one of the inherent advantages of the relationship. For instance, under the master-apprentice system in the Middle Ages, many families sent their sons to learn the trade under the tutelage of a master to whom they were not related. Many of the guilds prohibited children from becoming apprentices to their own parents.

Furthermore, Lansberg acknowledges the limitations of “modeling” as opposed to “mentoring.” If a protégé merely imitates the behavior of his mentor, he will never attain the independence needed for true leadership. He will remain a follower, not a leader. And if a protégé slavishly imitates the mentor, he will never know how to lead the business of the future, only the business of the past.

Mentoring works most effectively when there is ample distance between mentors and protégés. It may work best when the mentors are nonfamily members who undertake the training of the younger family members. Or it may work best when the mentors are family members who are “old enough and secure enough in their positions not to regard the young family members as immediate rivals” (Lansberg, 1999, p. 188). Older mentors have hopefully reached the stage of life where “generative” concerns have become important. If they are secure in their success, they want to help others succeed as part of their own personal development (Levinson, 1978, pp. 97ff. & 251 ff.).

A recent study in the Family Business Review laments the dearth of literature on mentoring in family businesses. However, the article finds that the anecdotal literature available does recommend the use of nonfamily managers as mentors (Boyd, Upton & Wircenski, 1999, p. 299). Furthermore, respondents to this particular study, “the first empirical study of mentoring in family businesses” (p. 306) came to a similar conclusion. While twice as many respondents recommended nonfamily mentors over family mentors, they were very sensitive to each individual mentor/protégé situation. For example, the protégé’s role as future successor (in a nonfamily relationship), the closeness of the family relationship (in a family relationship) and the actual chemistry between mentor and protégé (in either a nonfamily or family relationship) were all seen as extenuating factors in deciding between a nonfamily and a family mentor.


In conclusion, Cain and Abel is not just an old story, but a living archetype of the “enemy brother” theme that is ritually reenacted in family businesses over and over again. How are these Girardian themes useful to professionals working with family firms or to family members themselves? First, the mere awareness of mimetic behavior and conflict can reduce the anxiety and energy invested in dealing with family conflicts for all parties involved. One consultant I interviewed emphasized that just being able to name the conflict provides family members with at least a modest level of detachment from the conflict. However, another consultant commented that detachment is not a productive goal. The family business consultant needs to help families manage their feelings, not detach from them. The Girardian paradigm can help the consultant realize his or her own role as potential mentor (or scapegoat) within family triangles and manage those situations accordingly.

Second, an understanding of imitative behavior (even though it is a rather unflattering theory of human nature), challenges family members to discover their own Dreams and not just rely on the Dreams of other family members. Lansberg assumes that the key issue for family members in business is not so much “What is my Dream?” but “How can I make my Dream a reality?” (Lansberg, 1999, p. 201). Girard’s theory of imitative desire suggests that the key issue may well be “What is my Dream?” Establishing an identity (Dream) may prove to be even more difficult than making that Dream a reality for family members trapped in a complex web of vertical generational triangles (parents above and children below) and horizontal triangles (siblings and nonfamily members).

Third, an awareness of mimetic conflict reinforces the role of the nonfamily professional consulting with the family firm or nonfamily management members within the firm. “Outsiders” (Lansberg’s mentors) are crucial to the harmonious functioning of the family enterprise precisely because they are less likely to become unconscious models (of desire or resentment) for family members. For example, using outside staff members to introduce sensitive business proposals can lessen the amount of subjective reaction to such proposals and increase the objective intellectual analysis among family members. “The nonfamily management team can play an important role, as they often bring objectivity to emotional family issues, including succession. Furthermore, they could provide mediation and help diffuse tension between family members” (Ibrahim, Soufani & Lam, 2001, p. 256).

To sum up, family businesses cannot resolve succession issues without an honest appraisal of family rivalries. While further empirical work needs to be done on his theory, Girard’s work provides a provocative perspective on family succession failure. Economic productivity is ultimately rooted in competition. However, when internal family competition becomes an end in itself, the productive edge of the business is lost. The focus on rivalry distracts management from a productive focus on the company’s customers, the company’s product, and the company’s future vision. Girard’s analysis can complement Lansberg’s analysis in helping families move from an inward focus of imitation and desire to an external focus of producing and selling a product. The combined insights of each surely break new ground in the burgeoning field of family business studies.


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Jim Grote is a development officer and freelance business writer in Louisville, Kentucky.
The author would like to acknowledge the helpful comments of Marty Carter, Jane Hilburt-Davis, Bruce Maza and John McGeeney.

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