- When fathers reach their 60s and 70s, they start to ponder this issue: Has my life made a difference? It can be a challenging and gut-wrenching question.
- Remind family-business clients that demonstrations of their lives, accumulated over time, become the legacy by which their children and grandchildren remember them.
- Fathers should ask their adult children for the validation they need and deserve. At the same time, fathers should share stories, experiences and values with their families - it's an investment in the next generation and will pay big dividends.
I hope you enjoyed your Father's Day weekend. As we discussed in Part One, a family-business legacy is built by example. Here we'll discuss the importance of building and reinforcing that legacy consistently through the generations.
As many of your successful family-business clients have demonstrated, fathers will spend 30 to 40 years "representing" their legacies. I say representing because it is most often unconscious or subconscious. A father's legacy arises from HOW he did what he did - how he lived his life. Viewed across time, creating a legacy seems like a daunting task. It can produce both positive and negative responses. But a legacy accumulates over the years through the pattern of an individual's life. And, by living a life of respect, intention, joy and forgiveness, those values are passed on to be mirrored by the children.
One of my favorite reflections on legacy comes from the 1957 film, Bridge Over the River Kwai. It's World War II. British prisoners of war are forced by their Japanese captors to build a bridge in the Burmese jungle. When the bridge is completed the British commander reflects on his life and long military career.
"I've been thinking. Tomorrow it will be 28 years to the day that I've been in the service. Twenty-eight years in peace and war. I don't suppose I've been at home more than ten months in all that time. Still, it's been a good life. I loved India. I wouldn't have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Hardly made any difference at all, really, particularly in comparison with other men's careers. I don't know whether that kind of thinking's very healthy; but I must admit I've had some thoughts on those lines from time to time."
When fathers reach their 60s and 70s, they start to ponder this issue: Has my life made a difference? It is not just a challenging question, but possibly a gut-wrenching one.
In those moments, fathers wonder if their families have appreciated their hard work and dedication. It may sound stereotypical, but I see many fathers who cannot talk with (or ask) their families about this. They avoid the question by assuming that if their family loves them, they would tell them. Then they assume that if their adult children don't tell them, their legacy is in jeopardy; they have not done well. They presume something negative in the silence, when the truth is that adult children love their parents but take them for granted. They don't think to share the gratitude they feel for Dad and Mom. This is tragic because most fathers are uncomfortable asking for the validation they need from their adult children. The same is true for sons and daughters - they do not ask for validation from their parents. Every human being wants to feel valued and appreciated, but I think this need is particularly strong among families who have a business.
And that marks a second key point regarding legacy. A father's legacy is verified by the appreciation of his children. Without verbal appreciation, a father may question his value to the family.
Real-world case study
My current clients - father Bill and son Matt - are caught up in this misunderstanding. Bill is a successful, 70-year-old businessman. He is active in his community as a philanthropist and strongly desires to continue his contributions. Bill wants Matt to recognize him for what he has accomplished. Matt feels it's unnecessary and awkward, yet I know that even though Matt is reluctant to validate his father, he wants the same from his father. Each is playing an emotional "game of chicken," waiting for the other to make the first move. Waiting for the other to blink may sound childish, but I find it often in my practice. It is a behavior that can be deeply ingrained.
I am working toward having Bill and Matt gain the courage to ask each other for what they want. For that to happen, they first need to forgive each other. Then they can start fresh in their father-son relationship. No small task when Dad is 70 and the son is 45. Attitudes may be cemented, a point of false pride; a standoff becomes more important than a resolution. I have found that the members of the younger generation must usually take the initiative and reach out to their parents.
As I get older I also realize that I'm nearer to the end than the beginning of my life. My priorities have changed, and I'm much more aware of the legacy I will leave to my adult children and grandchildren. Having an education has always been important to me, so I enrolled all eight of my grandchildren in a children's book club. All of them read above their own grade level as they progressed through school. Also, I offer "share checks" to my grandchildren, which help them learn the value of sharing with others, saving and spending wisely. When my oldest granddaughter, Kailey, was in second grade, she called to tell me she was participating in the Heart Association Jump-A-Thon and needed a donation. I asked her if $10 was enough and she exclaimed that was great, that she had raised $100 for the event. It was amazing and heartwarming to realize that my second-grade granddaughter was raising money for charity, expressing gratitude and creating positive money memories. Powerful stuff for a seven-year-old!
As part of my legacy, I created three CDs that recollect my early years as I talk about home, my neighborhood and my church. The CDs contain a collection of family photographs, beginning with my great-grandparents. The collection also touches on my work experiences with families and businesses. I shared these with my children and grandchildren so that they, too, understand my experiences and values.
And this brings me to a final key point that draws from the other two and ends this article: The demonstrations of your life, accumulated over time, become the legacy by which your children and grandchildren remember you.
Fathers must be willing to ask their adult children for the validation they need and deserve. At the same time, they should share their stories, experiences and values with their families. This sharing is the investment in the next generation. It becomes your legacy, which likely pays dividends for generations to come and serves as a fitting thought for Father's Day.