In the movie version of Fences, playwright August Wilson comments on what is considered a common dynamic between fathers and sons: tension and competition. The film examines the story of Troy Maxson, who grew up playing baseball in the Negro Leagues and who is a victim of racism in many aspects of his life. He’s become bitter and resentful. He’s at war with the racism that has boxed him in his whole life. To offset his experiences of racism, Troy builds a fence in his backyard to protect his son and keep the racism from affecting his family. Troy’s son, Cory, has a future that rests on getting a football scholarship. Troy’s pride and jealousy and his concern for the white man’s effect on his son prompts him to meddle in Cory’s future. He does not get the scholarship. Cory is angry with his father, stops speaking to him, and in reaction, enters the armed services.
Did this famous playwright promote a stereotype? A stereotype is defined as a widely held but fixed or oversimplified idea of a type of person or thing. My dictionary includes the pejorative description “to make hackneyed.”
The stereotypical father runs the business, puts bread on the table and is both the family and company CEO. Continuing this business family stereotype, Mom is also the CEO: Chief Emotional Officer. Maybe that’s hackneyed and outdated, but in my experience, that is generally true of family-run businesses.
I have realized over years of consulting just how vital dads are in the emotional development of their adult sons and daughters. Fathers who take the time to participate in their children’s lives recognize the powerful bond that is created. The fathers’ investment of time and energy reaps tremendous rewards in the relationships they enjoy with their sons and daughters.
Sons who are the beneficiaries of their fathers’ attention are generally much more successful. Similarly, when fathers pay attention to their daughters, the girls tend to do better in school, particularly in math, science and business.
Troubled father/son or father/daughter business relationships that make the news are often directly related to what has or has not happened in the parent-child relationship. Tension in the business relationship often results from the emotional deficit that accrued in the family between the father and the kids.
Fathers are crucial for the emotional development of their sons and daughters. That is likely no surprise. But even when deficits in emotional involvement have occurred, it is never too late in the family business to make an adjustment. Dads must get involved now with their adult children and their grandchildren. It is mutually rewarding, heals past hurts and prevents future business/leadership tensions.
Although it may seem trite, some of the simplest ways to connect are the most effective. I respectfully suggest that the father and sons or daughters go to lunch and get out of the office. Spend time with each other just connecting and sharing your lives. A natural for many fathers and sons is playing golf together or attending a sporting event. I also suggest things like a father-daughter trip to build emotional equity in their relationship.
There are so many opportunities to share your values with your grandkids and help the younger generation understand what is important to you and what motivates you to do what you do.
Use these shared times to explore your relationships and your expectations of each other. As Neil Chethik mentions in his book FatherLoss, it takes time to share the words you always wanted to hear: “I love you. I appreciate you, and I admire the life you are leading.”
In the same way, adult children can take the initiative and act on their expectations. A friend of mine recently commented that his relationship with his dad was not affectionate enough. When his dad was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease he realized that he had to change the relationship. Now whenever he greets his dad, it’s his father who initiates the hug.
In Fences, the father dies while his son is away serving in the military. When Cory returns home at the time of his father’s death and refuses to attend the funeral, his mom says to him, “Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t, and at the same time make you into everything he was.”
Reach out to your family members, break down your emotional fences and offer a hug or a kiss, and get involved in each other’s emotional lives. It makes good sense and your actions will go right to the bottom line.
Tom Hubler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Hubler for Business Families, a family business consulting firm.