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The flip side of leadership: reflections on the 14th FBN world conference

Barbara Murray is executive director of the Family Business Network.

What can the members of business-owning families learn from Agincourt, from a contemporary Paris orchestra, from the sometimes bewildering world of parenting adolescents and from a septuagenarian's scholarly wisdom based on more than half a century spent working with and studying leaders and leadership? From these sources and many more, family businesses from over 20 countries met at the 14th Annual World Conference of the Family Business Network to hear about the flip side of leadership: that is, the support that leaders in family business systems need in order to remain in the top slots.

What is leadership 'support'? If you're involved in a family enterprise, you have to count on the family members' ongoing emotional, relational and financial support, otherwise you face an uphill struggle followed by personal and psychological burnout. You just can't stay at the top for very long without the support of the right people. And you have to earn their support – simply being related to each other by birth or marriage is not a guarantee of unconditional love, personal support and the continuity of their financial investment. So the conference title 'Exercising and Supporting Leadership in Family Enterprises' created lots of scope for investigating what leaders must do and what supporters must do to ensure the right people have the top jobs, and that they are doing the right things for the business and ultimately for the family. There has been an intense focus on leadership in many arenas in the last 50-75 years, and although the field of family business study and practice has emerged over the last 20 years or so, there has not yet been a serious look at the phenomenon of leadership and its flip side – support – in family enterprise systems.

What is leadership?
Everyone has their own personalised concept of what leadership is. It is the product of how we were parented and educated, and of our experiences in teams or groups. Our concept is also shaped by our contact with institutions like the military or the church, with politics and with literature, drama and other influences. Members of business-owning families can also add the family home and the family business workplace and boardroom to the list of factors shaping their personal concept of leadership. They have grown up seeing leadership styles first hand, and feeling the consequences of the actions of business founders, leaders and directors. They have shared the fruits of success when dreams and visions are finally realised, and they have lived through the fall-out when there have been differences amongst family members about leadership visions.

Using the medium of music and the job of the conductor as a metaphor for leading a family or a business, the Bernard Thomas orchestra of Paris gave an unforgettable display of how a leader garners support from those upon whom he depends to create the product people pay to see and hear: a live interpretation of a musical score. When you can't build an inventory of product (these people want the 'live' version) and when you have to get a big group of creative, artistic, sometimes strong-minded people to believe in your interpretation and not to question your orders when going live, you had better be a credible leader. One solution for guaranteeing 'it'll be all right on the night' is to make sure there is time for discussion, practice, rehearsal and exchanges of views. Bernard Thomas and his orchestra gave an inspiring and unforgettable performance of support and leadership in perfect synergy. When you go live, you have to trust that everyone will be in perfect alignment with the plan, that everyone has the capacity to do a first rate piece of work, and that there will be no insurrections. You can't force it – 'support' therefore is the product of sharing, of giving and taking and enjoying/commiserating together when the results come in.

The big picture
In his review of this section of the conference, faculty presenter Kelin Gersick wrote: "The opening session with the orchestra illustrated with angelic tones the core themes of leadership, perhaps better than words could convey. We have all attended musical performances before, where we witness the 'whole' of the experience. For an hour in this session, we were invited inside the orchestra to see the delicate negotiations among leadership and performers that become the symphony we hear. We saw the conductor guide, explain, demand, and coordinate. We also saw the individual musicians exercise their own authority, and the constituent subgroups play a role in the shaping of the final product. The point – that sublime performance is a dynamic relationship among different roles, each essential, each contributing to leadership and 'followership' in its appropriate way – was the perfect introduction to the conference."

Staying with the arts, another creative perspective on the importance of support came out of Ivan Lansberg's analysis of the leadership/support dynamic in Henry V, Shakespeare's historical account of the rise of the rogue prince Henry to leadership at the battle of Agincourt. In a departure from the fixation of many over recent years on getting seniors to 'let go', Lansberg instead focuses on what aspiring leaders can learn from Henry about 'taking charge'. Henry V is presented as archetypal tale illustrating the process by which new leaders consolidate (or undermine) their authority. Lansberg illustrated how, in this powerful family saga, Shakespeare describes Henry at the start of the story as a greenhorn prince known mostly for his unruly adolescence – then, he charts the gradual emergence of Henry as a powerful trustworthy leader who earns and enjoys the support of the army he needs to win the battle. Shakespeare contrasts Henry's successful rise to power with that of the French prince – the Dauphin – who ultimately fails to attain the credibility and confidence of his subjects.

Weaving a story
How does he do it? According to Lansberg's analysis, successful leaders are able to weave a coherent story – a narrative – in the minds of their followers. This narrative, which emerges gradually through a process of testing, ultimately explains to the 'followers' who the leader is and where he or she intends to take the group (whether this is an army/a business/a family) in the future. Lansberg used extracts from the film to demonstrate that Henry was able to construct a narrative which, in the minds of his supporters explains his approach to life and leadership. Extrapolating this to the leadership and support needed in family enterprises, Lansberg concluded that effective narratives grow out of both how the aspiring leader communicates to his or her supporters (being proactive about creating, building and telling their story to the supporters) and what he or she communicates; it is also down to how the supporters interpret for themselves the story of the leader's own life: What choices he or she has made? What values does he or she endorse? How effective has he or she been in handling adversity? The ongoing testing by supporters of an aspiring leader therefore creates the narrative and, if the testing is successful, it is the way through which constituents of supporters gain reassurance that they are, in fact, in good hands.

Parents who are at their wits' end regarding what to do with their adolescent next generation family members have probably had all the evidence they need to create a narrative on adolescence often reinforced at dinner parties: "they're uncommunicative, rebellious, unpredictable and surly! What can we do?" Next generation adolescents do of course grow up to become the future owners, leaders and supporters of the family enterprise, so it was with a great deal of interest that delegates listened to Professor Randel Carlock's presentation on how to use ideas from management leadership/support theories to get through this stage, and at the same time, to sow the educational seeds in young adults about the concept of leadership and support in the family and in the business. In addition to a framework for thinking and action on how to support kids through this stage, Carlock provided a perspective useful for anyone involved in the leadership/support process. This is best summarised in a quotation he used form Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet: "Your children are not your children/They are the sons and daughters of/Life's longing for itself/They come through you but not from you/And though they are with you/Yet they belong not to you." Leaders can learn from this that supporters have a mind of their own, and earning their support requires a journey whose direction is best determined through collaboration.

Contingency leadership
It is a human failing that we tend not to pay enough attention to the lessons that others have learnt before us – the people who have been there and done that, and who can help us make some smarter moves in life if we would only listen to their experience. Professor Victor Vroom is a senior professor at Yale University and the world's 'wise man' on management leadership research. He showed three main theories emerging: The first, termed the Heroic Theory, assumes that leadership is a personal trait varying across persons and that this trait applies regardless of the situation or institutional context. The second, termed the Situational Theory, argues that leadership is largely an illusion – it's a state of mind created in supporters by their anxiety and/or by their own observations of organisational success. The third theory, termed the Contingency Theory, argues that it is neither the leader alone nor the situation alone which is responsible for effective organisational performance but rather the effective juxtaposition of the two. Leader traits and actions must always be calibrated to the demands of the situation. Vroom developed the third theory by analysing leadership style – the extent to which the leader involves the members of his or her team in decision-making.

Why was the emphasis placed in this conference on the flip side of leadership: giving importance and much emphasis on the role of the supporters? In the world of family business, the support which leaders need to do their job in the family and business systems is usually embedded in the hearts and minds of 'the invisible ones' – those who are not directly involved in the business itself – meaning the non-working shareholders, the non-working family members, the in-laws, the young and the retired. Mostly, these people do not have a voice in setting the direction or governing the processes by which action takes place in the business. The intention of the 2003 conference faculty was to get the leaders and their ­supporters to each challenge their assum­­­ptions about the other. Supporters were asked to gain a deeper understanding about the leaders' task of creating and sustaining the narrative of who the leader is, how they got there, and how confident you can be that you are safe in his or her hands. Leaders were asked to think about their roles and behaviours – what it takes to be credible in the eyes of the supporters and to retain their support throughout your tenure. In short – to see leadership and support as mutually beneficial aspects of that human trait upon which family enterprises fail or thrive: respect.

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