A family business advisor shares his personal story
- Achieving a sense of gratitude is not difficult but requires conscious attention.
- Expressing gratitude strengthens esprit de corps in a business family and can be instrumental in overcoming intergenerational friction.
- Lack of gratitude is the single biggest obstacle to succession planning.
'The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings." - Eric Hoffer (1903-1983)
"Gratitude," according to former Fortune 500 CEO turned author and poet James Autry, "doesn't come naturally. We have to learn it." We are not born grateful. Before it can grow beyond the polite expression "Thank you," I believe each of us must make our own journey to gratitude. That destination is the emotional result of a spiritual, not simply a social, process, according to Autry. Achieving a sense of gratitude is not difficult but requires conscious attention.
Why is it so important to learn gratitude, not just voice it? Because at that level it is a business asset. In my experience, the single most troubling obstacle in family-owned businesses is that appreciation, recognition and love are so rarely expressed. I consider it the No. 1 obstacle to succession planning (see my "Ten Obstacles to Succession Planning
").Don't take anyone for granted
All generations share in this lack of appreciation and recognition. Adult children in a business family love their parents but take them for granted. They fail to express thankfulness for what their parents have done to help them be successful. Parents also take their adult children for granted by failing to express any appreciation for their commitment to the business. They have not realized that living in gratitude is a choice and what Alexis de Tocqueville might call habits of the heart. Living in gratitude becomes a way of life, as it became for me.
Before I reached my 40s, I was far more absorbed by what I did not have than what I did have. I saw myself as average and seldom considered my blessings or personal gifts. I was fairly accomplished professionally. I was a successful family therapist, a founding director of the Gestalt Institute of the Twin Cities and a recognized Bush Leadership Fellow, and I was initiating my family business consultancy. Yet I was focused on the private losses in my life. My boyhood with two alcoholic parents. The loss of our two sons at birth. A fire that gutted our home in 1979. All this negative pressure led me to participate in the program Adult Children of Alcoholics, where I began to embrace and emotionally own the experiences of loss that made me who I am today.
I began to realize the blessings of those difficult experiences and could start focusing on their positive influences and appreciate the two lovely children my wife and I adopted. I attended seminars, wrote an autobiographical paper, shared the losses in my life, began meditating (difficult for the extrovert that I am), and decided to write a poem or two. All of this, over many years, helped me understand and be grateful for the blessings in my life.
This poem, "Coming to Life Through the Blessings of Loss" (1998), now represents to me that door opening when I "came to life" to celebrate, own my gifts and move on.
Oh, Loss, Loss, Loss.
Oh, how I lamented the loss those many years.
My childhood, my innocence, my children, my house, my voice.
The inner bitterness swept over my life, like a pall squelching the
spirit of my life.
It is the most unusual awakening the day that I accepted the
gifts of my life.
Let me give voice to my
Let me celebrate and take unto myself all the fruits of my life.
It expresses what is so well stated by Matthew Henry (1662-1714): "Thanksgiving is good, but thanks-living is better."Benefits of gratitude
So you may be asking yourself, "Okay. I get it. Gratitude is important and I should be thankful and say so. Is that so hard?" In a word, I would say, "Yes."
The benefits of gratitude are obvious but unfortunately are seldom achieved because the benefits of gratitude are seldom achieved because gratitude is so infrequently expressed. "Please" and "Thank you" taught from childhood become expressions but not appreciation. They are given and taken to be polite. When was the last time you looked someone in the eye, grabbed their shoulder or hand, and took an extra second when you said, "Thank you"? Almost feels embarrassing, right? Too much? Awkward?
Why? Perhaps because we agree with the need to appreciate others, we have not learned how to express gratitude authentically. We assume it rather than state it. We diminish rather than acknowledge it. We shower it on a newborn and never mature it as a person grows up.Conclusion
Yet timely expressions of gratitude, however brief, can do wonders for any family or family business relationship, or for any business, for that matter. Expressing gratitude strengthens esprit de corps in a business family. It draws generations together and builds devotion among siblings and their parents because they show respect and appreciation for each other's gifts. When consciously done, expressing gratitude is one of the easiest and simplest ways to build the equity of the company. And it also does wonders for building character. We will further explore these benefits in Part Two of this series.