Leaving a Legacy of Leadership | Part 2
Part 1 of this blog entry involved a single-case observation of family leadership transfer and an attempt to derive general principles from that case. To test my observations, I sent the piece to my friend David W. Barnett, whose parents “discipled” him in business leadership and inspired him to pursue a PhD dissertation in leadership at Benedictine University. His dissertation explores the intergenerational transfer of business leadership within families. I knew that David would know what the scholarly literature on this topic has to say, and he made some very valuable observations. The following represents my “interview” with him.
Castleberry: What did you think of this single-case study?
Barnett: It’s great stuff! I like your notion of challenging the American value of “freedom” in thinking about how the next generation chooses a life path. I think you could address the values issue a little more directly. You allude to several family values (learning by failure, education, and gender equality) as a key to passing on legacy. You might want to specifically consider the transmission of virtues/values, which is just as integral to successful succession as is the transmission of specific knowledge, skills, and resources. And, to some extent, this transmission of values offers great opportunity for family continuity regardless of whether it involves a business. When you write of “universal principles,” you’re talking about the virtue constants and applied values that get passed down intergenerationally in the family.
Castleberry: That’s a great corrective to my piece, David. I failed to consider the question of the family’s larger set of values, partially because I only know one member of the family and I was working primarily from published interviews. It would be fascinating to do more serious research and interview multiple members of that family—including the very few who are not as involved in business—to explore their values further. Maybe I’ll get to do that in the future.
Barnett: You mentioned the ability to learn by failure in your blog piece. That dynamic is a key component of the “community of practice” (CoP) construct proposed by Etienne Wenger (https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/handle/1794/11736). Families are the ancient, original CoP. Part and parcel with the construct of CoP is the construct of “psychological safety” proposed by Amy Edmondson (https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091305). It’s the idea that we learn best and most quickly when we have a safe place to try and fail. A family is such an environment. The eyas may fall, but it will never face the tragedy of striking the ground, so it is safe to try again and again until it learns and succeeds.
Castleberry: We should all be so lucky as to have that kind of mentoring, where real things are at risk in our opportunities, but total failure is not an option! In their classic study on this topic, The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job, McCall, Lombardo & Morrison (https://www.amazon.com/Lessons-Experience-Successful-Executives-Develop/dp/0669180955) call special attention to the importance of learning experiences that are “on line”—an old way of saying that something real is on the line, at stake. The “eyas method” exposes mentees to real loss, but not ultimate failure.
Barnett: Regarding a quality education, I’ve been doing a lot of work lately on the relative importance of formal pedagogy. The Center for Creative Leadership published research in the 1980’s that proposed a 70-20-10 ratio of learning leadership: 70 percent experiential, 20 percent mentorship, 10 percent formal pedagogy. Recent research validates both the concept and to a large extent the ratios. In addition, research shows that you need all three, but mentorship (or leader/follower relationship in general) is the key that really unlocks the value of the other two. Stellar pedagogy is important, but it has the most impact when it is paired with quality mentoring relationships. The intergenerational relationship of the family serves that mentorship role.
Castleberry: That totally squares with my experience. I often comment about how pastors (and other professionals such as engineers, lawyers, and doctors) need the classroom for learning basic facts, but the real formation of professionals must occur in the field. In the context of family leadership transfer, the formation often happens before, as well as after formal learning experiences. The whole discussion lately about how small colleges are better for some students than Ivy League universities fits in here. Higher education is important, but it is never the most important factor in leadership success.
Barnett: Some really good (and rapidly growing) research has emerged about gender equality in family enterprises. Societally, families lead the way in that area. I’ve done a lot of literature review and writing on that subject. A very recent piece from Ernst and Young’s Family Business Center for Excellence gives a great overview (https://www.ey.com/en_us/growth/how-family-businesses-are-embracing-women-in-leadership).
Castleberry: Thanks for dragging me deeper into the literature and into your expertise on this topic, David. The two approaches—a striking case study followed by established theory and literature review—offered a view of leadership transition that really taught me a lot. I hope our readers will profit equally from it.