In these unprecedented times during a global pandemic, many of us are struggling with a polarity: doing right by employees by closing the office and practicing social distancing, or doing right by the business by maintaining operations for the sake of customers and financial viability.

Similarly, the most vexing leadership challenges in a family business is navigating all the polarities, also called paradoxes, dualities, or simply, wicked problems. Examples abound:

  • Should we include or exclude people who marry into the family?
  • Should I invest or harvest company profits?
  • Should I reveal or conceal my estate plans from my children?
  • Should I pay my children equally or equitably?

These questions evoke strong emotions from family members, and for good reason. They are false dichotomies. Polarities aren’t technical problems with easy right answers. They are adaptive challenges; ongoing tensions that need to managed, not solved.

First, a bit about polarities. Polarities have a few important properties:

  • The poles define each other.
  • Any pole used to excess causes problems.
  • We have pole preferences.

The poles define each other.
Consider the act of breathing. Can you define inhale without defining exhale? Or vice versa? Long-term & Short-term. Spend & Save. Structure & Flexibility. Emotional & Rational. These are all interdependent pairs. Each pole defines the opposite. Apples & Oranges are not polarities. Beach & Mountains? Not a polarity. Tradition & Innovation? Yep. A polarity. See how they work?

Any pole used to excess causes problems.
Spend & Save. If you spend without saving while planning for retirement, your third third of life may result in a significantly reduced quality of living. Conversely, if you save without spending while planning for retirement, your second third of life may be unnecessarily constrained.

Tradition & Innovation. If your business always make what you’ve always made for your customers, you may find yourself the owner of a defunct buggy whip company. If you reinvent yourself and your services every year, you may run out of cash before an idea catches on.

We have pole preferences.
Of course we do. We are human. What’s interesting is that our pole preferences are usually born from an aversion to the downsides of the opposite pole.

Candor & Diplomacy. A preference for Candor may come from an aversion to an overuse of Diplomacy, which appears untrusting and over-polished. A preference for Diplomacy may come from an aversion to the overuse of Candor, which appears blunt and uncaring.

Support & Challenge. A preference for Support may come from an aversion to an overuse of Challenge, which appears harsh and confrontational. A preference for Challenge may come from an aversion to the overuse of Support, which appears indulgent and unproductive. This one shows up in both leadership and parenting!

Here’s where families get stuck.
Different members of the family have different pole preferences, and each side tends to argue the upsides of its preferred pole and the downside of the opposite. They submit force against force and get stuck, or the side with more power wins. These families are using problem solving skills to solve a polarity that needs to be managed, not solved.

How do family business leaders manage these tensions? Change the questions!
Instead of asking either/or questions, ask when, where & how questions, allowing the family to capture the upsides of both poles, and minimize the downsides of either one.

Structure & Flexibility. When and where should the family employee policy be cast in stone, and when and how should the policy allow for exceptions?

Mission & Margin. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a family business has invented an environmental disinfection system, superior to others and very expensive to manufacture. China has urgently requested ten, with a verbal commitment to pay later. The company’s mission is to advocate for the safety of patients. Where and how do the leaders fulfill its mission by sending the equipment, knowing payment is uncertain, and when and how do the leaders ensure their economic viability in the long run to serve more patients in the future?

Me & Us. We all know a family business in which the rising generation is ready to step into senior leadership, and the senior generation isn’t ready to step down. What’s right for me and what’s right for us aren’t always the same. So, when and how does a leader do what’s right for her, and when and how does a leader do what’s right for her family?

Every family business grapples with polarities, and every family business must manage these tensions differently, based on the circumstances of the family at the time. In the short run during this pandemic, every business is managing the tension between “doing right by employees” and “doing right by the business” differently, based on multiple factors, not the least of which is whether the product or service is considered “essential.” Families aren’t static. Businesses aren’t either. In the long run, strategies to manage these polarities will change over time, and over generations, as the family needs shift. The family businesses that manage these tensions most effectively are the ones that tend to thrive the longest.

Is there a polarity causing wicked conflict or stress in your business? What steps can you take to recognize your pole preferences and shift your approach?


Cathy Carroll

Cathy Carroll

Cathy Carroll is a Leadership Coach and President of Legacy Onward, Inc. whose mission is to help family business leaders thrive. She marries 20-years of corporate leadership with her experiences as a G3 member of her grandfather’s family and a G2 leader of her father’s business, which is where she discovered the challenges of managing family business and leadership polarities.

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