Pressure felt by the next generation

Help your kids seek happiness on their terms

Camp Hometown Heroes brings together children who have lost loved ones serving in the U.S. military.

Usually, this column expounds upon the dos and don’ts of family businesses.

Our divergence today is to share a personal and poignant conversation had between three generations on Mother’s Day in my own family. Mother’s Day is usually a very emotional day as decades ago, when I was a small child, I came home from church to find my grandfather had died. The connection with the day and family has been singed in our consciousness ever since. It is a bittersweet day, celebrating Mom but remembering the past, always keeping the emotions fresh and sometimes raw.

My eldest, who likes to stir the pot, surprised us by sharing his struggle with living up to the family expectations. These were never stated expectations, but were picked up through the years of living with us. Faith, college, lifestyle….all assumed without a word.

During the conversation, he shared that he has been working so hard so he can catch my father and me in terms of achievement. This was a stunning revelation to me. First, it sounded like we were in some sort of silent competition that I had no idea I was participating in. Secondly, it saddened me that this unstated bar of achievement was having deleterious effects on him, his health and his relationships – especially with me. Lastly, it made me wonder about all the unspoken cues we give our children – I gave my child – without knowing it.

Family business owners must be aware of the family dynamics involved in these relationships. To a youngster growing up in the shadow of the family enterprise, the parent and possibly grandparent take on mythical stature. They appear to have achieved it, whatever “it” is. The company becomes a manifestation of that success. Each success the company has, be it financial or otherwise, becomes a huge mountain for an heir apparent to overcome.

Perhaps this is why the failure rate of next generations is so startlingly high. Who can succeed when each day feels like following Lombardi?

At the risk of sounding sexist, I think this phenomenon is especially burdensome for a son following in his father’s footsteps. Men more than women affix their self-esteem to what they do and derive purpose from that work. Growing up, I so wanted to please my father. I went into accounting because that is what Dad said I should do. When I realized I would make a lousy accountant, I figured out what I liked and went for it, but always with an eye looking over my shoulder at Dad.

He never said it, but when I went into academics, I knew he wasn’t happy. He wanted me in business – it was what he knew – but it wasn’t what my skillset was directing me to do. Yet, there was always that little voice in my head telling me the direction was not according to my father’s plan. So, there it is. I understood what my son was saying when he shared that my shadow was looming large in the picture that was never taken.

I took time to tell my son that I was proud of him for what he had achieved and that it wasn’t me who was setting the standard for him to live by, but himself. He needed to be happy with his goals and direction in his career and life.

It took this teaching moment to share that for me, it wasn’t about money or power or prestige, but about happiness. I hope all of you reading this learn from my mistake. Your children learn not from what you tell them, but from what you show them.

This caused me to reflect on my own life and values, and it made me realize that I sought a different path than that of my father so I could be successful in my own right without his shadow. Perhaps I went into education in spite of him, or to spite him and his direction.

Whatever the reason, I remain content in my decision. This is what I hope for my son and what I hope for all our next of kin.

-David Borst, Ed.D., is executive director and chief operating officer of the Family Business Legacy Institute, a regional resource hub for family business. He can be reached at davidb@fbli-usa.com.

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Dr. Borst is the retired Dean of Business at Concordia University. He started up five businesses under borstthebrand.com and is COO of the Family Business Legacy Institute. He can be heard every Saturday morning as Dr. Dave at 6:20am on WTMJ radio with the FBLI show- "All Business". Dr. Borst is an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and blogger of a variety of topics from religion to politics or any of the topics you are not supposed to discuss.

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