Why is the Father-Son Conflict so pervasive in Family Businesses?

By Prof. Enrique Soriano

Why do founders, especially in family businesses, resist surrendering control or sharing authority with their own heirs? The word “ambivalence” precisely encapsulates one of the darkest secrets of many founders. This ambivalence often fuels behaviors that lead to countless unsuccessful successions. Take the case of a client that recently passed away, heartbroken. His deliberate delay in naming a successor resulted in dire consequences when death arrived unexpectedly. In his deathbed, he confided that he postponed succession planning to spare family members who wouldn’t be chosen as his successor. This reluctance to plan a proper succession fostered rivalry between himself and his children.

Psychologist Harry Levinson insightfully defined this rivalry as a “fundamental psychological conflict in family businesses compounded by feelings of guilt.” For the founder, the business is an extension of themselves, an integral part of their identity. Thus, relinquishing control over the business becomes an arduous task. They grapple with delegating authority and often resist retirement despite repeated promises to do so.

Levinson went further, stating, “This behavior has certain implications for father-son relationships. While he consciously wishes to pass his business on to his son and wants him to attain his place in the sun, unconsciously, the father feels that yielding the business would mean losing his masculinity. Simultaneously, and unconsciously, he needs to continue proving his competence. He believes that he alone is competent enough to make ‘his’ organization succeed.” The shoe fits many founders who procrastinate and, instead of taking necessary steps, maintain a façade of control.

The Pervasive Nature of Father-Son Conflict

So, why is father-son conflict such a pervasive issue in family businesses? This complex matter delves into the realms of psychology and the dynamics inherent in family-run enterprises. As Peter Davis discusses in his insightful article, “Three Types of Founders—And Their Dark Sides,” much of the difficulty in passing a business to a new generation arises from founders’ lack of awareness or reluctance to confront this darker, less constructive side of their personality. Children often bear the brunt of the same controlling behavior as other employees. To them, the father figure assumes an all-powerful, god-like aura. Sons are often expected to join the family business out of loyalty, with little room for choice.

Davis astutely remarks, “The children’s behavior is greatly influenced by the relationship between the father and mother. If the mother unquestioningly accepts the father’s behavior, the children are likely to avoid confrontation to survive; they may become passive and submissive. When they enter the business, they may keep their distance from the founder.”

This pervasive conflict, rooted in the reluctance to relinquish control, can lead to deeply ingrained family tensions that span generations. It’s not merely a business matter; it’s a profoundly personal and psychological struggle that plays out within the family unit. Consequently, it becomes a recurring theme in family businesses across the globe. This is the very essence why succession planning must start early, not when the founder is weak and dying. If it doesn’t, founders and business leaders have failed profoundly in fulfilling their mission, and their success will be riddled with disappointment and heartache. Decades of dedication to building their businesses will ultimately amount to nothing. It’s disheartening.

The declaration, “I am in full control of the business!” personifies many founders worldwide. They insist on being at the epicenter of all major decisions and often struggle to place trust in others. Unless a transition to a more professional structure occurs before the founder’s passing, such founder-centric enterprises tend to struggle for survival. Founders of businesses understood that succession planning is an inevitable step, yet many chose to postpone it. As Rev. Woodward aptly put it, “We are in desperate need of leaders who will pass the baton while they still have strength to cheer.”