Conflict between fathers and sons relates to traditional male roles. Once men understand the underlying issues, they can work to transcend their competitive instincts.
“No matter what advice I give you, you reject it,” says a father to his son. “You think you’re so damn smart just because you have a BSc Agric. Well, you’re in the real world now.”
“Why did you insist I spent half my life studying at university,” the son replies, “and then refuse to let me put in practice what I know will work?”
“You’re 26 years old,” the father retorts. “I’ve worked in this business for more years than you’ve been alive. I know what works and what doesn’t. Don’t waste my time.”
It seems that these family members, for whatever reason, simply don’t know how to talk to each other. If they find the problem intolerable, they may visit a consultant, who may lay out a step-by-step plan for appropriate behaviour to ensure no such scenes will occur in the future. It’s a very male approach to life: Tell me the apparent problem and I’ll give you a solution. A harmonious relationship can be achieved by following a few easy steps.
The underpinnings of the problem are complex, but ultimately make sense. The father and son don’t want to disrespect each other, but something keeps preventing them from pulling together, and instead they pull apart.
Both father and son must understand the origins of their conflict in order to change their perspectives. If they can understand why they fight, the situation won’t seem so overwhelming, and resolution will be possible. Nothing is more destructive in a family agribusiness than the statement, “I don’t know why, but we’ll never get along.” Such a sense of hopelessness will ultimately cause the demise of the agribusiness.
“Family agribusiness” connotes an idealised image of kin happily working side by side in an atmosphere of mutual support, love, and common purpose. Classically, at the helm of this noble enterprise is the wise and generous father. His chief goal is to prepare and nurture his offspring so they may one day take over the family farm.
The children are empowered to mould the agribusiness to reflect their generation’s passions and skills while maintaining its established legacy. At a mutually agreed-upon time, the father gladly relinquishes his control over the farm and moves into retirement, content that he has successfully completed his work. As the direct result of his expert mentoring, his children assume the task of lovingly passing on their father’s vision, and their own, to future generations.
This scenario is a reality for a select and fortunate few. In most family agribusinesses, each day brings another noble struggle fuelled by family members’ frequently opposing visions, developmental needs, abilities, expectations, and goals.
The male perspective
Without question, the creation of a family business is an act of hope and love. To maintain the business, the family must ingeniously balance what’s best for each family member and for the business. But men, who continue to head most family agribusinesses, typically lack the skills of balance and integration. Particularly when a male child is appointed to succeed his father, the outcome frequently is conflict.
In separate discussions with father and son, it is common to hear each one assert that their family agribusiness has achieved its success primarily as a result of his efforts. Each nod to the well-meaning of, somewhat competent, work of the other. But, with great sincerity, each pride himself of rescuing the business from the catastrophe that certainly would have occurred under the other’s leadership. Interspersed in this description are genuine assurances of love. Yet there remains great concern that the son is simply not ready for immediate succession or that the father, however brilliant his original work, has now grown hopelessly out of touch.
They sound narcissistic and condescending. But each man is simply doing what he was raised to do — compete. Both fathers and sons are primed to be victorious. They’re too often confused about how to win without destroying the one they love in the process. Notions of mediation are contrary to their assigned life purpose to win.
In a culture where the primary value of any man still rests in his ability to produce and conquer, how is cooperation anything but a loss of power? Conflict is simply seen as the price one pays in the pursuit of victory. Ask a man about his philosophy of conflict resolution — he is likely to respond that he is all for it, as long as it doesn’t mean he loses.
However, when a father and son truly love each other and work together as a single unit, there is little to compare with the strength of their connection. The singularity of their focus, their shared intuition, their unwavering mutual trust, and their combined efforts can be overwhelming to their competition. But when they cannot come together as a unit, the battle can be fierce.
Yet, it is too simplistic to describe most relationships between fathers and sons as either loving or combative. Usually, both love and competition are present. To be a father or son is to unconditionally love the other. But to be a man means fighting for your position and power without concern for the enemy.
In addition, to be an entrepreneur means enveloping oneself in the role of the lone cowboy: fiercely independent, confident, without vulnerabilities or doubt. It is the role of the unflinching decision-maker who doesn’t sweat. It is also the role of the leader who rules either benevolently or as a despot, but must rule alone. Where in this characterisation is there room for mentoring and sharing power with a beloved son? It is a dilemma most fathers face in family agribusinesses.
The business a father creates, or the multigenerational family farm he successfully stewards, becomes his identity. It is not only his identity within his family or community, but also his identity as a man. What more loving a gesture is there than to offer his farm to his son? But internal conflict ensues upon the realisation that a son who succeeds in the family farm will ultimately share, steal, or usurp the father’s own identity. Paternal pride thus is mixed with grief and a fear of loss of power or self.
Certainly, there are fathers who “eat their young”. But for most loving fathers in family businesses, the phenomena described here are almost undetectable. The conflict manifests itself in the form of small gestures, in a father’s simultaneous promotion and subtle sabotage of the son’s efforts. The project he hands his son and then critically micromanages is explained away as mentoring. The son resentfully describes the experience as diminishing. Yet, how can the father truly mentor? His own father was likely a poor role model.
How can the son accept appropriate mentoring if he has been raised to become a totally self-reliant male? He is expected to somehow spring forth with knowledge and expertise that only experience can bring. For the most part, he is play-acting at being his father.
Daughters, by contrast, don’t directly threaten their fathers the way sons do. Many can share their father’s identity without stealing it. Often, they can challenge their fathers in ways inconceivable to their brothers. Of course, daughters in family agribusinesses have issues of their own. Many of them complain they continue to be viewed as “Daddy’s little girl” and, despite their expertise, are often not taken seriously as businesswomen. Where sons often get dismissed because their power threatens that of their fathers, daughters often get dismissed because their power is not taken seriously in the first place.
Conflict between fathers and daughters exist, but it usually has a different flavour. Unlike the often-unending fight for control between fathers and sons, in many families conflict between fathers and daughters is more fleeting and cooperation comes more easily. Perhaps this is because women traditionally have gained power in cooperation and have learned to advance without threatening men. More and more fathers are leaving their businesses to daughters, who have managed to challenge them successfully, thus gaining respect and authority.
Both fathers and sons take their family company personally. The son’s boss is not just a symbolic paternal authority figure – he is literally the father. He is not just the person who directs the son’s professional life; he is the one person who holds the key to the son’s sense of himself as a man. The son is not merely an employee whose job performance will enhance or hinder the performance of the company – he is literally the son. He is the natural extension of the father; someone who can partially guarantee his immortality or render his life’s work and identity all but worthless. The power of this connection must be acknowledged.
The contradictory dynamic of unconditional love and competition must be addressed. How can father and son work together, love each other, state their needs, be heard, and actually learn to negotiate their differences? How can each retain a sense of his individuality and purpose while forging a working relationship?
Resolution takes courage
The path to resolution of these issues is clear-cut and simply understood:
Talk to each other. The problem is that it takes an enormous amount of courage for men to actually talk about their feelings. Plus, men don’t often exactly know what they are feeling or how to put words to it. Any negotiation demands knowing your position, stating it and then being willing to compromise. Recognizing, much less proclaiming, one’s vulnerability is often simply too overwhelming for men.
The father and son for example could continue to debate about the value of an BSc Agric versus the “school of hard knocks”, or they could bravely take a stab at revealing what each is really experiencing. The father could say: “Son, it is hard to hear what you have to tell me about the business because it seems as though you think all that I’ve done is worthless. It hurts me to think you no longer look up to me.” The son could share: “I’ve worked hard for you to be proud of me, and the more I’ve accomplished the more defensive you’ve become. That hurts and confuses me.” That is when they should start a long and heartfelt conversation that would inevitably result in resolution.
Three things are essential for this type of conversation to occur:
- Trust that each won’t be diminished in the other’s eyes,
- a belief that it is beneficial to risk showing one’s emotional hand, and
- the initiation of such a courageous interchange by the father.
The father must step up to the plate and begin mentoring his son; that is, he must act like a father. He must serve as a model of the wise and generous elder wo believes a man must be able to reveal both his strengths and his struggles. He must want to not only impart knowledge, but also help develop essential qualities in his successor. He is there to help his son grow into his own person and not a clone of himself. He must believe that to prepare his son for succession will establish his legacy and not his demise.
The son must open himself to being mentored. He must value his father’s courageous attempts to be honest with his feelings. He must meet the challenge of showing his own vulnerabilities. He must admit he can actually earn something and believe that it doesn’t reduce him as a man. He must relinquish some control and challenge the myth that he should know things he cannot yet know. He must trust that his father sincerely can make room for him personally and professionally in the family business. He must honour his father while finding his own way.
Resolution can best be achieved when father and son understand the origins of the conflict. A change in their belief systems can lead to a change in behaviour. Fathers and sons working together can then begin to transcend their basic instincts to compete and conquer. They can begin a conversation and hopefully come to understand, as many women do, that true power is gained in cooperation.
Trevor Dickinson is the CEO of Family Legacies, a family business consulting company. For more information, visit www.family-legacies.com.