I grew up up as the middle child of three and the oldest daughter. I instinctively took on the “middle child” role of negotiator/peacemaker but also the “oldest daughter” role as organizer/director. My capacity to adapt was more fully developed as our family navigated a rare disease that left my brother paralyzed at the age of 12.

I learned early on that life is full of paradox and complexity. To thrive means to support and to challenge, to consider different perspectives, to weigh a wide range of options. I am thankful for the strength my family system built in me and for teaching me compassion and flexibility in the face of life’s mysteries.

My consciousness of those mysteries and complexities has only grown through the years. Last weekend, my husband and I watched 12 Years a Slave. It was horrific to witness the pain humans impose on fellow humans, to absorb the paradox of a free man kidnapped and forced into slavery in Georgia. So it was with renewed interest that I read John Engels’s Living and Leading with Paradoxes.

Engels begins by noting the paradox of Thomas Jefferson owning 600 slaves during his lifetime while also proclaiming slavery to be an “abominable crime.” Engels goes on to describe the important role context plays. Each situation provides an opportunity to look with different eyes. Life constantly reminds us that “life and leadership are not tidy and neat. Indeed, life is rather complex processes involving endless human variations and often, unpredictable conditions.”

Embracing Paradoxes in the Family Business

In my experience of guiding multi-generational business families through transitions, the successful families are the ones who have developed the competencies to resolve paradoxes. John Ward describes this skill in his article, Ten Hidden Arts of Successful Business Families. He explains that families must learn to balance:

  1. business interests with family needs
  2. individual freedom and interests with shared values and commitments
  3. both tradition and change
  4. celebrating the past and planning for the future

In fact, successful families embrace these paradoxes by crafting compromises, but also seeking authentic win-win solutions. They know that individuals thrive when nurtured from a foundation of shared values, and understanding the past is an excellent preparation for crafting a vision for the future.

As leaders, we will continue to face complex, perplexing situations. But as Engels reminds us, these demands can also “smuggle humility into our lives…and prove more valuable than a hundred simplistic solutions.”

Sally Derstine

Sally Derstine

Managing Partner, Senior Family Business Advisor

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