The Thickness of Blood in Family Business
Written by Jonathan MagIdovitch
In this essay I am creating a terminology by which to illuminate the inclusion of non-family persons in the family business. The terms included are blood, water, wine, miracle and blessing.
In family business we often stand at crossroads. In these moments we seek guidance which, broadly speaking, comes from realms of the spiritual and of the empirical. Here, we focus on the spiritual.
The spiritual is fraught with associations that both draw in and repel depending upon who we are. I ask the readers to approach the material openly.
The crux of this essay is examining the old saying, “blood is thicker than water.” To do so we look at three scriptural texts. In each text, one of a trio of fluids is turned into another of the trio. The water of the Nile turns into blood, the water at the wedding at Cana turns into wine, and the wine at The Last Supper turns into blood.
This essay’s goal is to open us up in the daily practice of our family business to the possibility of a similar turn in how we see non-family; that beyond our blood relations there are worthy people who we do well to bring into our family business.
Managing those relationships respectfully yields great dividends.
“Well, you know, blood is thicker than water.”
No arguing with that! Even on the physical level, blood has a much higher viscosity than water. (← NOTE) But, that was hardly the point being made when at a recent meeting of family business advisors one among the group put that old saw on the table.
And, hearing that said made my blood, if not thicker, a little bit hotter. It’s not that I argue against the preferential treatment of family members in family business. It’s that I have something personal on the line here, and also, I believe every old saw deserves being both well respected and also well inspected.
Every old saying deserves being both well respected and also well inspected.
My personal issue with the “blood is thicker than water” saying goes to a decision my parents made. Happy newlyweds decided to start a family. Years later, told that could not happen as planned, they decided to adopt. They were in post WWII Germany and found from two separate sources, a boy and a girl to be their children. As miracles go, they then were blessed with another son through the biological path. And, as miracles often lead to more miracles, these five people became a family as close and loving as a family can be. I cannot imagine my life having been better with another configuration of five souls. That, then, is my personal bias. And, in the terminology that I lay out in this essay, my family became an example of a particular miracle; turning water into blood.
In this essay I am creating a terminology by which to illuminate the inclusion of non-family persons in the family business. The terms are blood, water, wine, miracle and blessing.
- Blood is associated with the physical, genetic bonds among family. This has specificity and tribalism to it.
- Water, as is the gist of the saying “blood is thicker than water,” identifies those outside the family, not in the tribe. Water describes the universe of all people from among which blood lines divide us out into tribes and families.
- Wine is a physical agent that brings success, blessing, goodness. Wine is part of rituals including festive meals and weddings. Wine sipping is a physical act by which partakers show to themselves and others their acceptance of family rules and tribal norms. Of particular note around the use of wine is that at Jewish weddings, the sipping of wine activates the union of the couple. In this union, persons related at the water level become blood relatives both physically and spiritually.
- Miracles as used in this essay are natural events that “take our breath away,” so to speak. They are events that cause us to step out of the box, to see new possibilities in old circumstances.
- Blessing is both a ritualized act to bolster the good in a person or situation as well as the realization of that good over which we do not have direct control. For example, a parent might lay their hands on their child’s head and bless them that they will be as great as the matriarchs and patriarchs of the community. That child in fact becoming so great would be a blessing actualized in that person. Blessing is not magic but rather it is a process. In this case of parental blessing, the relatively brief moment of ritual blessing should be seen as the culmination of every prior interaction between that parent and child. If daily, the parent berated the child, no momentary ritual would undo all that. Instead, the ritual of blessing is confirmation of all that has been. Or, optimistically, the ritual of blessing might signal a new course in the child-parent relationship.
This spiritual terminology is part of a view as to where we get guidance in deciding what is the right thing to do. In family business we often stand at crossroads. We ask, “Who will be our new CEO?” Or, “How shall we grow our business?” Consciously or not, in these moments we seek guidance. Broadly speaking, this guidance comes from realms, the realms of the spiritual and of the empirical. I stand with a foot in both worlds and hope not to be split in two. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would say, “What science and religion should both be teaching us right now is humility and awe, knowing how small we are in the scheme of things, and how dangerous it is to destroy what it took almost infinite time and space to create..”(← NOTE)
It is with humility and awe that I bring to family business spiritual lessons that have enduring value. As I do this, I know the spiritual is fraught with associations that both draw in and repel depending upon who we are. I hope the readers are able to approach the material openly; and I hope so because of the value often expressed by those with whom I work. I have colleagues within my own consulting group who build their work in the empirical realm. We respect each other deeply. The realms, we find, have common ground. We share goals for our clients and we guide clients to their goals using the tools we handle best.
As for well inspecting any old saw, let’s delve into this, “blood is thicker than water.” To do so we will look at three scriptural texts. In each text, one of the trio of fluids is turned into another of the trio. The water of the Nile turns into blood, the water at the wedding at Cana turns into wine, and the wine at The Last Supper turns into blood.
Again, the particular point of this essay is looking at the choice of family vs. non-family persons for roles in the family business.
Family businesses do put family members in key positions for a few very good reasons. First among them is trust. Second is cost. The trust is very much in that we know each other forever and we know where each other lives. There is history and accountability. Cost is, given that we share so much, we are often willing to share some special risk. That risk includes taking less financial reward in exchange for greater job security. And, in a well run family business, that calculation can often reap rewards both in wealth and in security.
But, not always. There are situations where the family business needs a skill not present among the family members. As can happen in these situations, forced fits are tried. Unpleasantness ensues.
At this point, let’s take a biblical journey to provide context for looking at the thickness of blood and water. We here add another fluid so often found in these very same histories, that being wine. Each of these fluids has a role of its own. But our focus here will be on where ancient texts link these fluids; where one of these three fluids is turned into another of the trio.
Why did we learn in Sunday school that water can become blood and water can become wine and wine can become blood? Our teachers were not forcing nonsense on us. They were conveying the history of their faith to us. Often this conveyance came without any clear practical goal for us having this history. It seemed that keeping the history present in the consciousness of the next generation mattered more than if we understood what practical value these stories might hold for us. (NOTE – I use “history” rather than “story” as a sign of respect. Calling scriptural narratives “stories, myths or fables” can take us into party with scholarship that is dismissive of the value or veracity of these texts; and I do this aware that scripture does say of itself that it sometimes speaks in visions, dreams and parables, and that it does so because human nature requires that elements of knowledge are esoteric.)
I liken this to a child learning how to walk. The parents provide helping hands and joyous praise at each step we take. They do not predicate their help and joy on knowing that we will walk to this or that particular place. It is enough that we acquire the “walking skill.” We then will go where we need to go. For sure, they will guide where we do and do not go, “Don’t run into the street.” But, ultimately, the skill and the support for our attaining skills are separate from our particular uses of those skills. So it is with spiritual materials and with the skills to use those materials. Having the facility precedes their practical use.
When one of these fluids turns into another of these fluids, this is the stuff of miracles. These texts are miracle stories. And, as happens in this genre, the objects stand for people. Water is the universal human whereas blood is the tribal human. And, wine is the bringer of blessing that elevates us to a higher level. Miracle stories tell of some extraordinary human possibilities. Miracles create options for those extreme moments when the familiar ways are not working well enough. In family business, miracles are when the impasse is passed, graciously.
When asked about miracles, people almost always talk about the birth of their children.
When I’ve asked people about miracles, which is a thing I do, people almost always talk about the birth of their children. There could be nothing more “of this world,” material and amenable to science than baby making but that is where people go. This, even though miracles, by simple definition, are beyond the physical world. ( ← NOTE) We do get some help on this conundrum from the likes of Maimonides ( ← aka Rambam) and Aquinas who say “miracles are not contrary to nature.” They are natural events that direct our thoughts to deeper, spiritual truths. ( ← NOTE, NOTE)
Hebrew Scriptures. Exodus 7:20-21. “Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord had commanded. Moses raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed into blood.” ( ← NOTE)
The context for this fluid change from water to blood was punishment for Pharaoh. He had been asked to let his Hebrew slaves go to worship their God for a few days and then they would return. Pharaoh refused. Pharaoh, likely Ramses II, was at this point in the narrative making some of the worst business decisions possible. He was afraid of losing cheap labor so he made their labor more onerous and then ordered that labor killed off by commanding midwives to kill all males at birth. At best, Pharoah’s cruelty was counter-intuitive management.
Now, we give attributions to the fluids in this story and apply them to family business. Pharoah focused on the Hebrews. They were non-family; brought in to do work but not valued like family. They were lesser than Egyptians. In terms of the old saw with which we started this essay, the Hebrews were not Pharoah’s “blood;” they were “water.” Turning the water source Nile into blood was bluntly saying to Pharoah, we’re all in this together. We’re all blood now. As goes down outsider Hebrew, so goes down insider Egyptian.
That is the punchline for the miracle of fluid to fluid in this story. Water turns to blood to say that those we cast as outsiders can in a moment become of us. And, when that happens we share their fate.
The story further illustrates the errors Pharoah makes. Going back to my personal nuclear family story, Pharaoh also had adoption in his family. His own daughter, Batya, went against her father’s decree to kill newborn Hebrew males. Pharaoh’s daughter Batya found in the Nile, in a pitch-lined basket, a baby boy. The text tells us that she knew it was a baby of the Hebrews. Batya ordered her maid, who happened to be Moses’ biological sister, to take the infant to a wetnurse whose wages Batya would pay. And, the nurse chosen is Moses’ biological mother, Yoheved. Upon being weaned, Moses is brought back to Pharaoh’s palace where he is raised to adulthood.
If Pharoah did not know this was going on under his nose, then he was truly an incompetent leader. And, if Pharoah did know this was happening, then he was incompetent but in a different way. He either was blind or too weak to direct those around him to his ways. Or, he was unable to give them their due; to admit that they knew better than him the right thing to do. These elements are among the sparse details as the story is told in scripture.
For the purpose of this essay, these details speak to family business leadership. We certainly would not want to lead as did this Pharoah. He was an incapable commander and he made no use of the skills of those around him. This was to his and their detriment. Perhaps it was ego, perhaps stupidity, but no matter what, it was destructive to Egypt just as it would be to any family business we are running.
That which is different and of less value to you can instantly become you. Be broad enough of vision to see that the unconnected can connect.
This Pharaoh story captures a crucial lesson for those who manage family business. Be aware of all the talents around you and their possible connections to your mission. The entirety of this story’s message is concentrated into the miracle of water turning into blood. It is a highly compacted warning to see that what you treat as water can instantly become blood. That which is different and of less value to you can instantly become you. Beware. Be ready. Be broad enough of vision to see that the unconnected can connect. Pharaoh’s family, by birth and adoption, knew this. He needed to learn that lesson, and so do we, and this water-to-blood miracle story is scripture teaching us that crucial lesson.
New Testament. John 2: 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” So they filled them up to the brim. 8 And He said to them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” And they took it to him. 9 Now when the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the head waiter called the groom, 10 and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the guests are drunk, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.”
Let’s again give attributions to the fluids in this story and apply them to family business. In a Jewish wedding, which this wedding at Cana was, wine is sipped by the bride and groom as the functional ritual uniting the couple. At the meals following the wedding, and traditionally there are twenty-one meals over seven days, wine remains central to bringing blessing. Wine blessings are made at each meal and the blessing of the wine explicitly links wine to joy and to the line of authority running generation to generation from Adam and Eve to the present day. Running out of wine at a wedding is a very big problem.
At each wedding a new family is created. To this there are biological and spiritual elements. Husband and wife are spiritually bonded by sipping wine under the wedding canopy. They become blood relatives in their offspring. In this same way, two families that were water to each other become blood relatives. Wine affects this union. In this Cana history, the lack of wine is relieved by water becoming wine. This is no small thing. It is a miracle.
We now go back again to the old saw at this essay’s opening, blood (family) is thicker than water (non-family). There are times (at a wedding) that you need wine (blessing and joy) because you need to affect a miracle. Water needs to turn into blood. Non-family needs to become family.
I have been to many weddings. They are very complicated situations. It’s only a bit of a joke to describe weddings like this: “Two people who barely know each other surrounded by their family and friends, many of whom are questioning the likely success of the union they have come to witness; add wine.” And, so begins married life. A successful marriage truly is a miracle. Bless my wife for her outsized role in our ongoing miracle of now 35 years.
In this history from Cana that miracle is put at risk due to running out of the operative ritual ingredient; no more wine. This New Testament miracle story comes to say that ubiquitous water can become wine; that sometimes the extraordinary is called for to meet an urgent need. And, if it’s from water you get your wine, get it, drink it, enjoy it and celebrate your miracle with it.
In terms of family business, weddings can bring a muddying of waters. Often, marriage does not transform the one married-in to a family member.
In terms of family business, weddings often bring a muddying of waters. That phrase we started our essay with, blood is thicker than water, is plopped on the table to say that, in that speaker’s eyes, at that moment, marriage does not make the married-in a family member. At best they are an odd duck, not quite family and not quite not-family. Ignoring such a statement is done at everyone’s peril. There’s an instability in the family business structure being called out. Shoving it under the rug won’t stabilize anything. Actually, shoving under the rug never does anything except, if we’re lucky, buy us time to work out what needs to get worked out.
The miracle story at Cana is rich with guidance but it’s not for the couple. Note that we do not even know who the couple is. We do know they have some rather high power attendees, among them Jesus, Mary, the disciples and their entourage. This is a five star wedding. And, they’re running out of wine. And, the story is being told to us; we are the audience that matters.
Taking a step deeper, we see that, at this Cana wedding, it is Jesus’ mother who cues him to the wine having run out. Without saying the words, she asks him to do a miracle, to make wine from water. His response to her; “Mom, I don’t do that sort of thing, yet.” She, from her own wisdom, prepares the way for her son by telling the servants, “Do whatever he says.” It seems that she knows what’s coming. As quoted above, the water becomes wine. The wedding goes on. Importantly, the wedding goes on, not in a stinting way but with generosity of quantity and quality. There is now plenty of wine and the head waiter says of this bountiful supply of wine, “it’s not the cheap stuff people usually serve to the already drunk guests. It’s good wine.”
Remember that Scripture is spare writing. Ink and paper were precious. When a story includes a detail, it is there for an important reason.
Readers, remember that Scripture is spare writing. Ink and paper were precious. When a story includes a detail, it is there for an important reason. Oftentimes, however,the text is not clear what that reason is. This is where interpretation figures in understanding a text. For interpretation, we have traditional commentaries and we have modern commentaries. We have scholars and laypersons. The latter sort of commentary, I bring here.
At this Cana wedding, the central figure, Jesus, the CEO if you will, was not ready to go outside how he viewed his career path. It is not even clear that he knew there was an emerging problem. Another family member, Mary, spoke up. She saw the looming problem and respectfully prepared the way to solve it. To his credit, Jesus follows the path his mother laid. He steps out of his career path and brings forward what will become his methodology, making miracles, here turning water into wine.
In terms of family business there is a lot going on in the Wedding-at-Cana miracle history.
This story speaks to leadership. The role of Jesus, whom I characterize here as CEO, is to be respected. A lot is on the leader’s shoulder and suggestions by others, even other high level leaders are best given respectfully. This is not suggesting withholding ideas as if walking on eggshells nor flooding the leader with every idea that comes to mind.
Most well run family businesses have in place methods for conveying ideas and for evaluation and implementation. In this Cana story, Mary’s suggestion comes outside of such methods, if they even yet exist. I say “yet,” because the Church developed its management procedures over centuries, so family businesses develop their procedures over time. A key message this interpreter reads in the Cana history is that management suggestions are best delivered and received respectfully. The intelligence and good sense of both giver and receiver are taken as axioms.
This Cana story also speaks to vision and values. An important wedding is taking place, really, every wedding is important. Mary’s concern shows her vision and values vis a vis marriage. Give this miracle of union a generous welcome into being. Don’t stint. And, Jesus’ response shows alignment with those values, and more. He has not thought to do a miracle and yet he goes along and does a miracle. In effect, this is like the CEO of the family business going ahead and pulling resources into the present. This reads like someone who had heard, considered and therefore changed course. This is no small thing in a leader, and when done well as here, it benefits the morale of other leadership insofar as they have been heard respectfully. It is worth mentioning that being heard respectfully does not mean always doing as you’ve heard. Hearing respectfully is about taking suggestions seriously; without petulance or whims.
New projects, even in family businesses with many years behind them, each require generosity in resources at their beginning.
As for the vision of giving a generous start, here it is to a wedding couple. In family business we will from time to time start something new. These new starts, even in family businesses with many years behind them, each require generosity at their beginning; generosity in time and treasure, in thinking through the ideas and in checking the assumptions and in staffing and in supplying. We don’t want to run out of wine during start-up.
And, the elephant in the room, that this Cana history addresses: weddings are the beginning of something miraculous. Weddings deserve our generosity. Marriages, likewise, also deserve our generosity. It is our job to support them with generosity of thought, which is at a minimum, to refrain from striking division between the couple. If we were to say about a married-in member of our family business that they are water and not blood, we are being divisive. We may be, somehow right, but it’s not right enough. If we are feeling such a feeling about a married-in, we need to raise the issue in a productive way. And, that means each of us owns our piece of that reality. Have we let the person in? Have we understood why they may be holding back? Have we trained them how the family works? Have we allowed ourselves to learn from them?
In sum, this miracle history of the wedding at Cana does happen to be about a wedding. It is also about the generosity we offer both to married couples in our family business and, by extension, to any new start-up element of our business.
Furthermore, we note that this Cana history is also about how a powerful Canaanite family conducted its management. In a word, this family does speak within itself and it does so respectfully. They hear. They consider. They do. And, in this process, miracles happen. Water turns to wine. The most generic turns to blessing. That is exactly what respectful management does. It turns humble material into the most valuable material. Good management takes the simplest of stuff and makes of it good products, wealth, legacy and joy. It’s what we are about when we are at our best.
And, for that, a nod of thanks to Sunday school teachers for maintaining our access to this valuable history.
New Testament. This miracle of blood to wine is told in several Gospels. From Matthew 26: “28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
And, here, let us give attributions to the fluids in this story and apply them to family business. Holding up the chalice of wine, Jesus says this is my blood. This Last Supper is the annual Passover meal, the Seder. At this meal, each year we recite God’s promise of redemption. The chalice is lifted five times and sipped from four times, only four because redemption is still in our future and we’ll have that last sip then. As we say, Elijah’s cup is waiting on the table. He’ll come tell us when to pick it up.
At the seder meal, it is incumbent upon the participants to invite and share fully with strangers, with non-family. At The Last Supper, there was only non-family. But, something happened among this group. They shared ideas that made them into a family.
Scripture explicitly speaks to that transformation. When told his mother and brothers were waiting for him, Jesus responded, Matthew 48 “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” His mother was still his mother, but as this group shared ideas and wine it made them new family members, real family members. Wine becomes blood. Through sharing ideas and the blessing of wine, we create family.
This is not magical but it can feel magical. I hope that, like me, you have at least a time or two shared a meal where you got up from the table holding a new relationship with your co-diners, deeper and more joyous than when you sat down with them.
In our Aspen group, we are conscious of how important it is to share a meal with each other. We are a small group and we live very far from each other; USA, Turkey, & Israel. We travel great distances to meet up. And, as much time and energy as we give to sharing ideas, we also cook and eat together. And, may he rest in peace, our partner Bill Roberts brought really nice wine.
Things can turn into other things. People can become family. And, when those miracles happen, the good that flows feels boundless.
This we offer as a potential also in our advice to family businesses. Sure, blood is thicker than water. But, as we’ve touched upon in this essay, miracles do happen. Water becomes blood. Water becomes wine. Wine becomes blood.
When we say miracles happen, we are saying something of this world, something real and often even measurable.
When we say miracles happen, we are saying something of this world, something real and often even measurable. When we foster these miracles through respectful management, the results are profitable materially and spiritually.
WHAT THIS ESSAY IS AND IS NOT:
This essay is neither to debase the message of the Great Faiths by equating God’s will with a family business’ mission. Neither is this essay to elevate our family business’ mission to a divine universal.
This essay’s goal is to open us up in the daily practice of our family business to the possibility that beyond our blood relations there are worthy people who we do well to bring into our family business. Managing those relationships respectfully yields great dividends.
The old saw, blood is thicker than water, has value. But, if we let ourselves be locked into it, we face the potential of allowing an old orthodoxy to make us reject a new potential. And, we’ve been shown better than that going back thousands of years.
This blog is part of a larger project. In family business consulting, a key to solving issues is the process of re-contextualizing presenting issues in a family business in order to give both the consultant and client a set of tools for tackling these issues. Put simply, the old views have not worked so we have to see the issue differently in order to tackle it.
Likewise, family business happens in a cultural context. The same increasing polarity in our culture is reflected within our family business. Fortunately, the tools for decreasing polarity, i.e. increasing common ground, that work in a cultural context also work in a family business context. Why? Because no matter the scale or setting, we’re building bridges among people.
Broadly, these are the key current polarizing cultural issues. (1) Wealth gaps as measured by the gini index are increasing. (2) The number of people living under democratic rule vs non-democratic rule is declining as measured by The Economist Freedom index. We are currently in a dramatic phase of this issue. And, (3) identity politics. (see Besley, Pearson, 2021 for relevant consideration of IP). Moves in these indices trend with social division and political instability.
Of these three gap wideners, the gini index, The Economist Freedom index and identity politics the third, identity politics, has a particular face in family business. This is, whether a person is family or non-family. Consultants hear the old saw, “Blood is thicker than water.” While arguably valid, this attitude leads to inefficient use of resources in the family business. I believe that every old saw deserves being both well respected and well inspected. In this blog, we introduced a method for that inspection; scripture from the Old (OT) and New (NT) Testaments.
Story is a powerful organizer. A re-storying process activates change. The client shares their story (presenting issue/s). The consultant then uses an ancient illustrative story that parallels their story. Using ancient stories depressurizes (depersonalizes) the work setting, allowing for a considered change process.
Family Businesses are each composed of, as if, an anthology of stories. When change is called for, a re-storying process, demonstrated in our upcoming work, activates needed change. The process builds upon a diagnostic phase already common in most consultants’ work. In that phase, the client shares their story (presenting issue/s). The consultant then uses an illustrative story that parallels their story in key ways. Here the stories come from the Old (OT) or New (NT) Testament. These stories contain perspectives that have endured across the sweep of history that includes economies typified as agricultural, industrial, and informational. These stories still have much to say now.
These are religious texts that have sacred or ritual meaning. In this process, their power comes substantially from their literary quality, their durability over centuries, their broad recognition, and crucially, their alignment to the key issues in family business.
Like myths and fables of all kinds, these stories provide a way to understand the presenting issue; to contextualize it beyond the emotion of a particular family business; to see examples of what can be done and with what results. Again, this depressurizes the work setting and allows for a considered change process.
To you, our readers; our consultant colleagues and family business leaders, please join in our work with your thoughts and questions. Here is our contact email. Thank you for your attention and participation.
Jonathan advises family businesses in both the US and Israel. He consults with families in business on goal setting, role development, governance, communication, transition, leadership and culture building. ( view bio )