by David Bork
Since 1987 I have lived in Aspen, Colorado, a very special place. While known for its natural beauty, it has become one of the most inviting ski resorts in the world. In World War II it was the training site for the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, a division of soldiers on skis. These soldiers played an important role in Allied victories in Europe.
At the end of the war, many of these men returned to Aspen to create the now famous ski resort. Walter Papke, a Chicago industrialist, and his wife, Elizabeth, had another idea: Aspen could become a center for rest and relaxation but it also could become a place of ideas. They organized a gathering of great men, Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer and others, to come to Aspen for conversations about important topics that impact the entire world. From that first conference evolved the Aspen Institute, a global “think tank” devoted to consideration of ideas that improve business, industry and government. As a result, many other conferences and gatherings are held in Aspen, including The Aspen Design Conference, The Aspen Ideas Conference and the Aspen Music Festival. It is a wonderful place for recreation – winter and summer, an extraordinarily beautiful place to live and a hotbed of ideas.
We live in a wonderful yet troubled world. Conflict abounds, even in family business. (More on that later.) Much of the conflict is grounded in groups, peoples and individuals failure to understand one another. Some of that conflict is religious based. I, along with other Aspen residents, engaged in thoughtful, spirited discussion of this challenge. From those exchanges we elected to host a conference titled the Responsibility of Religion in Time of Chaos.
We formed a committee, the members made up of Christians, Muslims and Jews, the three Abrahamic world religions. The planning began and we organized a conference with thought leaders representing each of these religious groups. Learned, well known and lesser-known scholars, lay leaders representing each religion, were invited for three days of discussions of great significance. Those discussions may or may not change the course of history but they had a profound impact on those who attended.
One of the organizers was Carolyn, a Polish Jew. More than 40 members of her immediate family were murdered in the Holocaust. The burden of this history has troubled Carolyn for her entire life. She has expended great effort to understand the atrocity and integrate that understanding into her view of life. As part of her journey she has developed courses about the Holocaust and teaches them in theological seminaries. At the conference she told of an experience that has relevance for the world and for family business.
In the 1980s she was teaching such a course at the Austin (Texas) Theological Seminary. One of her teaching colleagues informed her that a young male student from Germany wanted to meet with her. This request brought up all her deep-seated feelings of things past – anger, despair, disgust, fear, questions – all related to the experiences of her people. “Why should I meet with this man?” she asked, acutely aware of her hate and distrust for those who had caused such pain for her family. Finally, out of her duty as a faculty member, she agreed to meet with Dieter.
There was tension in the air when they met. Her opening question was, “What do you want from me?” Dieter, the young seminarian, replied, “I thought you and I might have a rapprochement.” It was a brave thing for both Dieter and Carolyn. That exchange was the beginning of a twenty plus, years long dialogue that has grown into a deep friendship. It happened because they were willing to slog through deeply held beliefs about who the other was as an individual, what the other represented, to explore the differences and to recognize that failure to bridge the gap of misunderstanding would doom them, and others to repeating egregious events of history.
When writing my first book about family business I suggested the title, “Patricide, Fratricide, Suicide and the Other Sides of Family Business.” The publisher discouraged me from using that title, even though it reflected my experiences with family business. It has been my experience that deeply held feelings of resentment; maltreatment and unfairness have driven individuals to acts of violence against themselves and against others.
In many situations individuals become so polarized that they are driven to take action that either harms themselves, others or the business that is the “playing field,” the crucible for their interaction. Examination of the details of each and every case revealed a fundamental unwillingness on the part of one or many of the players to engage one another in finding a “workable solution.”
Not once in 44 years of consulting with family business has a client asked for the theory behind a concept. They have ALWAYS been very pragmatic. The want to know what will work! Every solution begins with willingness. Persons who are stuck in unwillingness can make no positive progress.
When matters become polarized it becomes very difficult to let go of a long held view, a childhoodbased resentment, a perception of fundamental unfairness. Family members become fixed in their positions and refuse to consider the validity of views other than their own. “I’m right!” becomes their mantra and it finally reaches the point where they are driven to drastic action, sometimes violence but often destruction of the very business that binds them in the first place. When the business becomes the vehicle for resolution of the polarization, everyone loses – owners, employees, and customers – all the constituents of the business.
It all comes down to willingness on the part of individual players to find a workable solution. It is the absurdity of such unwillingness that has been the fundamental cause of the demise of many family owned empires.
Finding that workable solution is not always a smooth path. When Carolyn and Dieter began their discussions, there was much pain and discomfort. Here was a mature Jewish woman who held every German, past-present-future, accountable for the Holocaust, speaking with a young German seminarian seeking understanding, rapprochement and ultimately, forgiveness. Two persons could not have been further apart, yet both realized that through thoughtful discussion they could reach a satisfactory level of understanding and forgiveness. As two individuals living in this world, they both recognized that finding a common ground was in their individual and collective best interests. It all began with willingness. They found the way.
If you are in a family business and facing challenging times, I ask you this question: Are you willing to find a solution that serves the greater good of all? It is your call.
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